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THE EDITING PROCESSBy former Del Rey editor Ellen Key Harris
Editing a book is a multi-leveled process, and so one of the skills good editors develop is the ability to think on more than one level at once. The three main levels in the editing of a book are developmental editing, line editing, and copyediting. In the best of all possible worlds, these go on at three different stages:
Developmental editing: the editor reads through the book, noting weak scenes, boring parts, plot inconsistencies, structural problems (like too-lengthy chapters), or repeated stylistic pitfalls (like using the same metaphors over and over--"X read [emotion goes here] in Y's eyes"). Then the editor writes a letter to the author, addressing each problem and perhaps suggesting a solution: "Chapter 10 is 53 pages long, but most of your other chapters are 20-25 pages long. Is there anywhere you can split up Chapter 10 to make it two chapters, or is it extra-long for a reason I didn't catch?" The author then revises the manuscript to solve the problems he or she agrees with the editor on; if they disagree, negotiation and persuasion from both sides is in order. At Del Rey, our editorial logic is usually based on the fact that we, too, are readers, and things that confuse us, bore us, or don't ring true will have that effect on the book's audience as well. But final decisions are almost always up to the author, whose book it is, after all.
Line editing: the editor reads the book carefully, pen in hand, making changes in wording, word order, and sentence construction, and smoothing out things like awkward or unnecessary dialog tags ("he said," etc.), repetition of uncommon words (like "scampering"), and confusing sentences. This is also the point at which the editor should notice that a character has red hair on page 49 and brown hair on page 72, or that a character inexplicably knows something he or she can't possibly know. Depending on how extensive the first revision letter was, the editor may find larger weaknesses for the author to fix as well. This go-round almost always leads to a second revision letter, which I call the "picky questions" letter since it is usually composed of minor problems. Again, the author makes the corrections that feel right and negotiates about the criticisms that don't seem valid. Then the editor adds in the author's changes--which can be as small as one word and as long as a handful of insert pages--and the manuscript is ready for copyediting. Some authors see the edited manuscript along with the "picky questions" letter; at Del Rey, authors usually don't, but we consider all editorial changes to be more suggestions than final wording, and authors are free to make small changes in the galley stage at no cost to them. A good editor, though, picks up the style and diction of the book as he or she reads and will use that style when making any changes that are necessary; our authors are usually haPy with almost all the line editing done on their books.
Copyediting: the copyeditor, who at Del Rey is a freelance person, not an in-house employee, goes through the book very carefully, correcting grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors and conforming the book to house style. (We follow The Chicago Manual of Style and Webster's 9th.) Names are checked for consistency of spelling, references to real people, places, and trademarked products are checked for correct spelling, and any discrepancies or continuity problems the editor missed (like changing age or hair color) are noted for the editor or author to fix.
That's the clean-cut, simple version. The working truth is that sometimes, depending on schedules, the editor skips the first read-through and deals with everything in one revision letter. Sometimes, if an author is a very clean writer, the second read-through is skiPed and what little line-editing needs doing is left to the copyeditor. Often a book will be sent to the copyeditor before the revisions come back from the author, and the editor will read and deal with the copyeditor's queries at the same time as putting in the author's corrections. There are almost as many quirks to the editing process as there are books--or it seems that way on more frustrating days, anyway. But editing is probably the most challenging and most skilled part of an editor's job. There are lots of people who know a good book when they read it, and many who can reject bad ones. But knowing how to help an author turn a good book into a great book is a rarer talent.