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How Much Editing Does a Contracted Book Need?


I'm in the process editing The Doctor’s Lady (releasing in September). Technically, it’s the fifth edit. Here’s a brief over-view of the editing process I’ve gone through with this book:

Edit #1: I self-edited the book (Using the three stages of self-editing).

Edit #2: I sent the book to two different talented writers for critiques. I evaluated their response and made changes accordingly.

Edit #3: I turned in the book to my publisher. They had a committee of editors read the book. Based on their collaborative feedback, they required me to do a major overhaul on several key points within the book (involving character arc’s and major plot threads).

Edit #4: My two in-house editors read the book again. This time they had 8 pages of “smaller” requested changes (things like clarifying setting, fleshing out a couple of minor characters, tightening some pacing, etc).

Edit #5: After getting the input of additional readers (professional editors and my agent), my editors felt like the book was “almost ready.” But they gave me a few more suggestions (approximately 2 pages) based on input from the readers.

Once I turn in the book, it'll be out of my hands. First it will go on to line-editing. One of my in-house editors will consult me as she combs through the manuscript. She’ll look for word flow issues, repetitions, historical accuracy of details, etc.

Then the book will go to copy-editing where a different editor will check for minute details (commas, periods, spelling, etc.). Lastly, I’ll get my galleys. That will be the final time I can make any minor changes.

But what does all that editing really mean? I’ll attempt to answer a few questions.

1. Wow, you might be saying. That’s a LOT of editing. Does every book need so much?

No. Not every book or every publisher will require the same amount of editing. It varies from publisher to publisher and book to book.

On the other hand, yes, every book going down the traditional publication pipeline gets edited. Most publishers will ask the author to do at least one substantial edit, and then go on to give the book a line and copy edit.

2. If a book needs extensive editing, why do publishers agree to publish it? Especially with so many other books out there that might not need as much work?

First, publishers (like agents) can spot when an author’s writing skills and story-telling ability are of publishable quality. And they can also spot novels that fit the needs of their target readers, even if there are some parts of it that may need adjusting to give it broader appeal.

Second, no writer anywhere is perfect. Published or not, we can’t produce a perfect first draft. We’ll never be too good for objective feedback. We’ll always be too enmeshed in our stories to see the bigger picture. Thus, even well-told stories and talented authors undergo editing, sometimes even extensive editing.

Finally, most publishers want to invest in authors and not just a book. Each additional book has the potential to expand the author’s readership. Therefore publishers are willing to stick with their authors and work with them.

3. Is it hard to let go of your story and bend it to the will of others?

Yes and no. Yes, it’s never easy to plan a character arc or plot line and then have someone tell you “your readers won’t like this,” and then have to go back through the entire book and weave in something else. It’s downright hard and painful.

But, I’m also realizing I can trust my publisher’s judgment. They know what their fans like. They have an intimate pulse on what sells. They eat, sleep, and breathe the historical romance genre. And really, in the end, they only want my book to succeed as much as I do.

With traditional publication, writers have to be willing to shape their stories so that they’re commercially viable. If a writer won’t make changes to her story (for whatever reason), then a small press may be a better publication option.

4. How much “say” do you have in the process?

I’ve had an incredible amount of dialog back and forth with my editors. I’ve also conversed with my agent since she read my latest draft. While I haven’t felt the need to challenge my publisher on any of the requested changes, if I ever did, I know I’d have an advocate in my agent.

What do you think? Did you realize the collaborative effort that goes into editing a contracted book? How much of your story are you willing to change—is it hard for you to let go? And how much “say” do you need in the process?

*Photo from flickr.

54 comments:

  1. I'm both terrified and excited for this stage!

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  2. Hi Jody,
    I wrote reading assessment passages for educational publishers, and the editing process is pretty much the same. But the first time (my first story) my editor sent my passage back with changes, I was about to explain why I had written it that way. Then I realized I was the one getting paid to write, not the other way around. So I gladly made the changes. But it was always my goal to write something that she wouldn't send back. Of the 50 or so stories I wrote for her, I think only about 3 made it through without change requests. As you have said, no writer is perfect, no matter how hard we try.

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  3. It's always a little scary for me, but at the end of the day it's putting things in perspective. Whether it's revisions from my agent or editor, they've been in this business a lot longer than I have, they know a lot more than I do, and I have to trust their judgement. So far I've never come up against any suggested changes that make me want to pitch a fit, so so far so good!!

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  4. Great insights in this post, as always, Jody, thanks!
    I'm about to go through this process myself for the first time, having just signed with a publisher. Fortunately I have every confidence my editors are wonderful, so I'm really looking forward to seeing how they can strengthen my novel.

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  5. I did realize this process. What a wonderful opportunity to grow as a writer and apply that to the next book. I'd welcome the feedback.

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  6. These are great descriptions, Jody. I'm currently on the galleys stage of my book. Almost there!

    Throughout the edits with the publisher, the editors told me what they wanted changed, but they didn't tell me how to change it. For example, they had some issues with my heroine, but it was up to me how to fix them. This helped me feel like it was still my story even though they had requested changes. I appreciated that.

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  7. Very useful post - and a delightful pun in the title!

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  8. Good Morning Jody and fellow bloggers,
    It seems like with my first book the editing never ended. It went on forever! Was it worth it? Yes, very much so, but lots of work. And I was never ready for how that would impede the progress of the second book in my series. I think this will take awhile in our careers to figure out how to managae and balance. Great post as always Jody.

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  9. Actually, when you think of the number of pages in the book, this is a very reasonable amount of editing. In fact, even more would still be reasonable.

    When I write an article which has 500-800 words, it goes through about 8-10 edits after I have done my best draft. And that's only a page or two.

    Polishing makes our prose shine. As Katdish said on Twitter recently, editors are unsung heroes.

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  10. I welcome the ideas and suggestions of a good editor. I worked with several while writing my memoir and each draft improved significantly.
    Jody, I read the first chapter of "The Preacher's Bride." You are an amazing writer. You created a character I have instant empathy for, a setting that is intriguing, the dialogue is at once interesting and believable, and you've made me want to turn the page to the next chapter. Just thought you should know....
    Hugs,
    Karen

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  11. Changing the character arc would be frightening and lots of work. It sounds like it’s worth it. As far as then editing goes every set of eyes just makes it better.

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  12. Sounds about right. Both of my books have required a LOT of editing. I like to write suspense novels despite having zero knowledge of crime & legal procedure, but fortunately my copy editor is an attorney who can help me make the necessary changes. Good luck with the final edits!

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  13. This post is fantastic! I love having lists specifying the stages. I think currently I'm at stage three. Thank you for this.

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  14. Quite an extensive process. I imagine it must be daunting to think about eight pages of changes, however, as you noted, the publisher knows what sells.

    As long as I understand what the publisher is trying to achieve and how their suggestions make the project better, then I have no problems making adjustments.

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  15. This is a really helpful post. I confess: when I first got back round 1 of edits on my book, I was terrified. It felt like SO much. But, my editor told me that it was actually a small amount of edits (who knew that 6 pages was small?). I did give some push-back and they did listen on some of my points. From there, I had 4 rounds of additional minor edits. In the end, it was a great process that really helped me to enjoy my book.

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  16. Thanks for the insight on editing during the publishing process. Revisions are probably the part of the writing process I fear the most, along with extensive research (why oh WHY did I choose a historical time period?!?). But it's good to know that agents and editors will invest in authors who still need some spit polish shine on them.

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  17. way cool info!!! It's got to be exciting to see the story develop and deepen through all the edits!

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  18. I confess I quite enjoy editing, but that's probably because my first novel has been so very long in reaching its published state. I remember my agent saying to me when she first read it, 'it's like a bare tree with branches but no leaves'. That was hard to hear, but needless to say, the book underwent a substantial rewrite and ended up being almost twice as long. It's had two more significant rewrites since then. The hardest part for me has been stopping editing and letting it go. I am almost scared to read it in its published form because I just know I'll find stuff I want to change

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  19. Sounds like you've been super busy with all these edits. You definitely have a tenacity to keep going. :O)

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  20. Publishing has always been collaborative to one extent or other. Jane Austen started off self-publishing, but when a publisher paid her, the publisher made all kinds of editing changes in her books. The cool thing is, scholars have posted these edited drafts online, and you can see that nothing's really changed.

    I do have a (kind of rhetorical) question. Why is 19th C America so popular with historical romance writers/readers? I would probably read more of your books if you stuck with 17th C England, or another interesting time and place. There's such a saturation on the market of 19th C/American bonnet books.

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  21. Great post.

    I feel like I've never learned so much about writing has I have through the editing process. It's really a gift, especially when I remember there are others committed to my best work.

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  22. It's true what they say about the writing being the easy part. It's the edits/revisions, waiting, promoting, etc. etc. ETC. that'll kill ya. :)

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  23. Jill asked: "Why is 19th C America so popular with historical romance writers/readers? I would probably read more of your books if you stuck with 17th C England, or another interesting time and place. There's such a saturation on the market of 19th C/American bonnet books."

    My Answer: Aw, Jill, does that mean you're not going to read my next book now? :-) You mostly answered your own question--publishers give the masses what they like. I've had readers tell me that they normally aren't attracted to 17th century books set in England, but they read mine anyway. What it shows me is that most readers like the tried and true settings and time periods. But occasionally they're willing to take a chance on something else.

    And publishers can't afford to take too many risks. I have a shelf full of book ideas (and even one completed book that my publisher didn't buy) that are set in earlier time periods and non-American locations. But I don't know if I'll ever get to do anything with them. Publishers have to publish what their loyal readers most want to buy.

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  24. The whole editing process seems so overwhelming, but you have helped by explaining the stages. I hope whenever I get to this point I will feel confident in my publisheer and agent as you do.

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  25. Jill and Jody, very interesting exchange about the preference for 19th century America! I write books set in that period, and I love it. At the same time, I also wish we had more variety in settings and periods. Like you, Jody, I don't fault publishers for meeting demand from readers. Jill, if you're looking for reasons why lots of readers gravitate toward that time and location, here's my take. American readers tend to like what they know, and nineteenth-century America is just about the closest you can get to a contemporary setting and still call a novel historical. Look at the dearth of international news on television. That's not because news networks decided arbitrarily not to show any international news. It's because viewers wanted news about America, so that's what the networks provided. Unless we make a big effort to seek out news about other countries, we only hear about their catastrophes and revolutions.

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  26. Seeing the process set out in list form emphasizes how many more steps there are to publishing a book than just writing it. I also know of agents who suggest edits before beginning to shop a ms (my DD's agent requested two rounds of them).

    I think it's reassuring to know there's that much help available to fine tune our stories before they face public scrutiny.

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  27. I'm so glad to hear this! I actually never feel like my books are done (hence my post today). I am so grateful I have a whole 'nother journey to settle all of these feelings. I think having other people involved at the editing level will increase my confidence.

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  28. Because of very informative posts like this and others that are similar, I think I was fairly aware that there are several stages of editing. My question, though, is after all those edits, is it hard for you implement changes on certain parts because you're so familiar with the story or you've gone over it so many times that you can't see it objectively?

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  29. Wow! What a process! I had no idea that so many editors were involved...Wondering if the process is as intense for non-fiction. Looking forward to finding out! Until then, pressing forward toward contract! Have a blessed day!

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  30. I'm beginning to understand this process more and more. I truly appreciate knowing the editors would want to make our stories as publishable as possible. They do know what readers want, so by giving in to their suggestions helps you to grow as a writer who gains a reputation of having a teachable spirit. Great post, Jody!

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  31. Informative article. I'm glad you shared it with us.

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  32. I love these "behind the scenes" peeks into the publishing world. Many writers wear rose-colored glasses. You don't mind yanking them off! Thank you much for a dose of realism.

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  33. Cindy Wilson asked: "After all those edits, is it hard for you implement changes on certain parts because you're so familiar with the story or you've gone over it so many times that you can't see it objectively?"

    My Answer: It is VERY hard! I don't know what I'd do without Microsoft Review Inserted Comments. Like with this last edit, I inserted comment boxes (with an idea) in almost all of the places that I thought I needed to add something as I did my initial read-through. Then I went back through and decided where I really needed to add. Then I'm able to flip from one revised section to the next fairly easily.

    But, even so. After a while you do begin to lose perspective. This latest revision comes after a couple months away from the story. So that's good. It's given me a little distance so that I can go back into it with a fresher pair of eyes.

    And quite honestly, my editors sent my book out to additional readers for this last edit just so that they could get a fresh, objective view (because my editors have read my book numerous times now too!)

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  34. Jody, this is a fascinating glimpse into the publishing process. Thanks for sharing with us!

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  35. Oh my goodness. What a process! But it is so encouraging to know that you have such good support from so many to help you through it.

    Editing on my own is difficult, but since I've joined the main ACFW crit group, it is easier to see what changes need to be made. Other eyes see what I don't.

    What kind of changes have been the most difficult to make? Changing the character's arc? Deepening other characters? It's hard to imagine, as thorough and competent as you, that you might have areas where you struggle.

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  36. You wrote an excellent summary. Editing can be a scary and hurtful process. Certainly writing is not an innate talent, and those green-lighted for a contract deserve kudos. They are outstanding.

    The process you describe holds true in educational publishing, where I am an editor. We have the additional challenge of satisfying two additional masters: ministries of education, and highly graphic layouts.

    Sometimes I have excellent writers, but I always have excellent teacher-authors. They are not the same thing. Often, editing in this field means ghost writing.

    When I write, I am always edited. It always saves me from embarrassment. A writer is simply too close to her "message" to see the gaps and gaffes. Rest assured that when I recently revised one previously published "guide to editing", it needed editing. All writing needs a fresh set of eyes. (Wish I could have them for this comment.)

    Readers may find insight in reading the Editors' Association of Canada's definitions of editorial skills. There are at least 6 distinct stages.

    Congratulations on yet another author credit.

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  37. From the point of view of those of us who have yet to hit this point in our writing careers, thank you for walking us through your process. I found it fascinating.

    But a question did come to mind. I know that my agent is reading the manuscript very carefully and has given some great feedback. You went from self-editing to your critique group, but then went right to your publisher. Do you mind if I ask why Rachelle wasn't a step in between there?

    I've been really appreciative of Nicole's views on the novel and all of her suggestions have been solid, in my opinion. She always makes it clear that as the author I retain autonomy over my own work, and I agree with that, but in my opinion, it's making the finished product the best that it can be that counts. And sometimes we need someone with a fresh point of view and a sharp outside eye for that. Granted, it may be easier for me because I already work with a partner and compromise is already the name of the game.

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  38. What a daunting editing process but I'd like to think it results in a polished and "perfect" book. As an avid reader though, I'm amazed at how many books I've read, from well know publishing houses, that have typos, incorrect grammar,and poor spelling. Is it too much to expect that editing can always catch everything?

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  39. Right now I am finished with my fifth round of editing my first novel. Am now going through the process of reading the full novel aloud to myself, then I hear all the awkward language in a different way and get to remove or replace it with something better :)

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  40. Sherrinda asked: "What kind of changes have been the most difficult to make? Changing the character's arc? Deepening other characters?"

    My Answer: Hi Sherrinda! For me, the hardest changes are the ones that require something to be threaded through the whole novel. For example, I had to change the character arcs of both my MC's in The Doctor's Lady. And because of that I had to do a LOT of work on my first rewrite.

    The easiest kinds of changes for me are the tightening kinds, where you have to cut things from scenes. I'm usually not too attached to my words and don't have a problem chopping.

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  41. Jen Danna asked: "You went from self-editing to your critique group, but then went right to your publisher. Do you mind if I ask why Rachelle wasn't a step in between there?"

    My Answer: Jen, that's a great question. Because I have a three book contract, when I finished writing book 2 (The Doctor's Lady), I sent it directly to my editors. There was really no reason for my agent to be my middle man in this case. I have a good working-relationship with my editors, they were waiting on the manuscript, and my agent probably wouldn't have read it at that point anyway.

    I'm not sure that we as writers can expect our agents to read each of our books and provide a critique (especially if we have a multiple book contract). Even though my agent used to be an editor, I don't know that editing her clients' manuscripts before we turn them in to our publishers is something she needs to do or even has the time to do. While it would be nice to have her read through every manuscript and provide feedback, that essentially would turn her into a freelance editor.

    My agent got involved in the last read-thru simply because she was talking with my editor and he mentioned that they were going to have additional editors offer a fresh perspective on my book. She offered to be one of those readers. And I'm grateful she did. She had some good insights for this last set of revisions.

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  42. Jeannettethewriter asked: "As an avid reader though, I'm amazed at how many books I've read, from well know publishing houses, that have typos, incorrect grammar,and poor spelling. Is it too much to expect that editing can always catch everything?"

    My Answer: Jeannette, you'd hope that after so many eyes have combed through a manuscript, that the book would be perfect when it hits shelves. But I was still catching mistakes in the galleys of my last book. You can imagine now, why it's SO critical to those who are self-publishing to consider having multiple edits on their books!

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  43. Jody, thanks for the explanation! Your answer totally makes sense. I guess I'm just so focused personally on the first book of the deal that I didn't think about how it would go for subsequent books in a multi-book deal. Since we're trying to sell a three book deal, this information is VERY useful. Thank you!

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  44. Wow, that's a lot of editing. Thanks for the information, it is good to see the process of what you have to go through after the novel is committed. What is the hardest thing for you to cut? I know you say you aren't attached to your words, but is there something you have been asked to cut that was difficult?

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  45. Gilliad asked: "What is the hardest thing for you to cut? I know you say you aren't attached to your words, but is there something you have been asked to cut that was difficult?"

    My Answer: To be honest, it's always tricky to cut anything. I consider myself a tight writer to begin with and I try not to include things unless it's moving the plot along. So, when I'm trying to shorten a scene, I have to be careful that my story still makes sense.

    On a personal level, the hardest parts for me to trim are my romantic scenes. Sometimes I write a bit to "hot" for my publisher's taste (and their average readers). Therefore, I've had to learn to write "sweeter." My editor and I often need to dialog back and forth on those scenes until we're both satisfied.

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  46. I'm a self-confessed editing freak - it makes writing better! And I'm always up for that. It does get to the point though when you'r'e thinking - when will this be EXCELLENT?? :o)

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  47. This is fascinating! I just skimmed through the comments, so I hope I don't ask a repeat question, but do you ever panic after a major revise and wonder if you forgot to fix an issue? How do you keep track of your changes?

    Thank you for sharing all of this!

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  48. I'm all for all the edits. I've recently read a number of self-published books and oh my... they need some series editing. It's a shame too because their stories were great. Editor make us look good as writers :)

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  49. Jill Kemerer asked: "Do you ever panic after a major revise and wonder if you forgot to fix an issue? How do you keep track of your changes?"

    My Answer: Jill, thankfully, my editors are very thorough with their notes, so I basically go thru their notes like a checklist, making sure I mark everything off as I make the changes. If I ever get stuck and am not sure how to make a change, I shoot my editor a quick email and get her input. She's incredibly helpful. I also use the highlighter and insert comment function on Word to keep track of things. And I print out a hard copy of each draft that I mark up a LOT. So between everything, I've done okay. That's not to say I don't have room for improvement! Got any tips!? :-)

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  51. Having that many edits makes me feel safer. I only go through three major edits with my editor but I would be okay with more.

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