Ask the Expert- Editor Lisa J. Jackson

Jessie: In New Hampshire feeling amazed that the temperatures are above freezing!

I meet Lisa several years ago at the New England Crime Bake. Julie introduced us and we have been friends ever since. We check in with each other weekly to catch up on goals, accomplishments and life in general. She has an unerring eye for detail and a a deep-seated ability to untangle messes while keeping a cool head. I am delighted to have her visit us here on the Wickeds today to give us her perspective on working with an independent editor!

Editing: It’s More than Accepting Suggestions from a Spelling and Grammar Checker

I’ve been a fan of puzzles since a young age, (thank you Dell Magazines) and mysteries (thank you Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys). Professional editing came along from doing book reviews of ARCs (advanced review copies) of novels. Editing, for me, is fun – I get to read a lot of different writers, help solve mysteries (if there are issues in a manuscript), and help writers present their best work to the world.

Today I’m sharing a few tips and tidbits about how to get the best editing for your manuscript.

As a novelist, you know your story inside and out. You’ve been living with it for months, even years. You know the characters, you know the details, you know their stories as well as your own family’s.

However, because you are so intimate with your characters, and even though you’ve re-read your manuscript several times, you have blind spots. These blind spots come to light when an editor reads your story and asks, “What did you mean here?” and your reaction is, “What do you mean? It says right there.” You search for the details, and… don’t find them. You remember the exact day and minute you wrote a particular paragraph, yet it’s not there. Or you recall one particular line of dialogue… yet it isn’t on the page. But you knowthe details; they do exist!

Where did these details go? It doesn’t matter where they went. They may never have ended up flowing through your fingertips onto the screen at all. Or you may have sliced them in an earlier revision. It doesn’t matter what happened to them. It only matters that an editor has pointed out that they are missing (or inconsistent), and you have a chance to add them (back) in before submitting for publication.

An editor offers a fresh set of eyes to focus on every aspect of your manuscript. Fresh professional eyes that can notice issues that you (the author) cannot; that family and friends won’t mention for fear of hurting your feelings; or that critique group members who are unfamiliar with your genre simply overlook. 

There is a way for you to catch some issues: self-editing.

A few great self-editing actions to practice:

  • Once your draft is complete, put the novel away for 4-6 weeks and turn to a new project; come back to your manuscript with a fresh perspective
  • Use a spelling and grammar checker; accepting or rejecting suggestions as you see fit – no tool is perfect
  • Pay attention to words popping up everywhere that can be deleted – words such as: that, just, really, suddenly
  • Watch for redundant words and phrases and clean them up, such as “stand up” vs “stand”; “sit down” vs “sit”; “shrugged her shoulders” vs “shrugged”; “nodded his head” vs “nodded”
  • Learn the difference between its and it’swho’s and whosetherethey’re, and their, etc. – search out those terms in your manuscript (yes, there will be a lot vs alot, and that’s all right vs alright), but make sure the usage is correct
  • Minimize fancy dialogue tags. Clear writing makes it unnecessary to describe how the character said something – “he said” and “she said” are more than sufficient 99% of the time.
  • Read it out loud – you’ll be amazed what you can discover by hearing the words
  • Make a checklist of items you find in your own manuscripts, so you know what to look for automatically in the next manuscript
  • Do a global search and replace for double spaces to single spaces

Self-editing is akin to simple proofreading help: it can aid you in fixing typos, spelling, and missing punctuation. 

A next step is to have an unbiased reader, or editor, read the manuscript and offer feedback. Critique groups can be helpful, but everyone has an opinion, so you need to be cautious there. A line editor can help you polish the novel to make sure every line expresses exactly what is intended.

A comprehensive content editor does it all, and then some: she proofreads, line edits, and copy edits, as well as questions inconsistencies, plot holes, verifies details, and makes suggestions for improvement. A content editor doesn’t rewrite sentences or paragraphs; but offers suggestions for making the writing better. It’s important that the story remain in your voice – it’s your story – so anyone rewriting your work would change that voice.

Hiring an independent editor can help you fine-tune your novel before submitting to a publisher, or self-publishing. How do you find the right independent or freelance editor? Ask fellow authors. Look in the Acknowledgements sections of novels you’ve enjoyed to see if the writer thanked his/her editor. Ask book reviewers for recommendations. Do a search on writers’ blogs such as this one for ‘editor’ or ‘editing.’ 

When contacting an independent editor, expect to be asked for some sample pages of your manuscript for her to read and do a sample edit on. When submitting to an editor, make sure the document is in the standard format: single space between sentences, double space between sentences; 1” margins all around; 12 point Times New Roman or Courier font. It’s important that you receive the feedback you are seeking (and paying for), so you want to see what she offers. Microsoft Word is a common tool to work in – if you aren’t familiar with the Track Changes feature, mention that to the editor at the start.

Then, when your novel is a polished as possible and you are submitting to a publisher, follow this one golden rule: Always follow the publisher’s guidelines. Always. Do not give a publisher an overt reason to reject your submission.

Lisa J. Jackson has been helping writers in all genres polish their manuscripts for over 30 years. You can connect with her on LinkedIn , Facebook , Alignable , Instagram , and Twitter. She’s also a fiction writer, author interviewer, member and Programs director for Sisters in Crime – New England, and book reviewer using the pseudonym Lisa Haselton, but those are stories for another time.

Readers and writers, what questions do you have about editing in general, or about seeking out an independent editor?

17 Thoughts

  1. Hey, Lisa! I’ve been privileged to work with a couple great independent editors over the years. They have saved my butt any number of times with things I just can’t see because I’m so close to the story.

    1. That’s perfect, Liz. Even I need an editor for my writing — as writers we’re just too close to it — and it’s crazy how often we can swear the words are on the page, when they aren’t. 🙂

  2. Lisa was the membership chair of Sisters in Crime New England when I was president and the registrar of New England Crime Bake when I was co-chair. We bonded in those trenches. I can attest to her amazing work ethic, responsiveness, problem-solving skills, and attention to detail–all critical qualities for an independent editor.

    1. Oh, thank you, Barb! Now I’m blushing. 🙂 I do have an eye for details — and sometimes can be referred to as “too literal” — but I’d rather point out questions I have in a manuscript so the author can fix (if she or he wants to) rather than have a reader stop reading to figure out what’s really being said.

      1. “Too literal” is good. Also it helps if you have the anticipate EVERY possible way that a reader might construe something. I was editing a romance where the (female) protagonist felt attracted to the guy “in every crevice of her being,” and I wrote in the margin “GAH! let’s not talk about her CREVICES here!”

        (Cue the discussion here, or the worst gaffes you’ve edited from your own, or someone else’s, manuscript….)

    1. Hi Sherry – great question. I think red flags include a set fee regardless of length of manuscript and without asking for a sample of your work, first; an editor that won’t do a sample edit for you (you really want to know they don’t rewrite your story); and rapid turnarounds. I actually read manuscripts at least 3 times when I edit them — 1st time for the story (and to mark things if I notice them), 2nd time for the actual edit, and 3rd time to make sure I didn’t miss anything (and while I write up the summary of comments and suggestions). 🙂

  3. My hat is off to good editors. I know they help my favorite writers make their books better.

    But I’m curious what you meant by “single space between sentences, double space between sentences.” Especially since I’ve read arguements from people on both sides of the debate who are completely certain they are correct.

    1. Hi Mark — Back in the day of the typewriter and manual printing presses, we used to double space between sentences. But there isn’t any need to do that any more, and if you submit a manuscript with double spaces between sentences, someone will have to do the extra step of removing those spaces before publication — and you don’t want to have anyone do any extra work, especially if it’s related to standard formatting. If you’re self-publishing, there’s no reason for double spacing between sentences either.

      Double spacing between lines in a paragraph is still a standard across the board.

  4. Beautiful post! I second the “reading aloud” suggestion, especially with the future audiobook in mind. I’ve suggested to authors that they may want to change a phrase such as “she kept a CACHE of money for emergencies” (because it’s gonna sound like CASH). Or “he CRUISED into the parking lot” (when the character’s name is CRUZ).

    Repetitive words and phrases are particularly glaring in audio as well. One author told me she uses the “Read Aloud” function in Word(and probably others), which reads your text in a robotic voice. It’s a WEIRD way to spot clunky phrasing, and places where you had a particular inflection in mind (sarcastic, etc) that might be missed by a reader.

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