How to Edit and Proofread a Manuscript
Copyright 2009 by Morris Rosenthal
All Rights Reserved
Costs and Editing Checklist for Books
Most writers do a poor job editing themselves, even if they are excellent editors when working on other authors' books. Some of us are so bad that we can actually pay attention to the grammar warnings the word processor gives! Never try to cut corners on basic editing costs - poor proofreading and layout beats poor editing any day. People refer to edits with a mix of terminology, which I'm going to reduce to three basic categories: copy edits, hard edits, and tech edits. All manuscript editing should be done on double spaced paper, with a red pen, even if the editor will be entering those changes into a manuscript using a track changes option.
A copy edit is basically one step up from proofreading. Where the scope of the proofreader is generally limited to spotting typographical errors, misspellings and really gross errors in presentation, the copy editor adds grammar to the mix. One of my own special sins is using split infinitives, and when the copy editor catches them, I often change them back. Copy editors generally follow a set of hard and fast rules about how to use punctuation and terminology, and they don't pay a lot of attention to the overall structure of your composition or even the meaning of a sentence. You can give a copy editor a page of text written by a college English professor and get it back with three or four changes on every line! In other words, copy editors find their niche in bringing manuscripts in line with big publisher guidelines. Copy editors for large trades typically enforce gender neutral, politically-correct agendas, with maybe some cookie-cutter style guidelines thrown in. Due to the unfortunate fact that copy editors, particularly in the word processor age, often introduce errors, inexperienced publishers are probably better off skipping the copy edit and getting multiple proofreaders for the money.
A hard edit is when the editor is asked how to improve the manuscript. This isn't cheating on the author's part, it's an honest admission that it's impossible to read your own work through somebody else's eyes. While a copy editor or a proofreader can do their work one sentence at a time, a hard editor should read the whole book through once before trying to edit it. Among the vague guidelines I gave my editor on how to edit the first book I hired her for, I asked her to make sure I didn't repeat myself. Her feedback, after reading the book, was "You don't repeat yourself enough!" The hard edit can result in suggestions to combine or eliminate major threads in the book, to add more explanatory text in some places, and to return to college and take an English course. Wholesale rework of paragraph structure is also common, and a hard edit often ends up including most of the benefits of a copy edit in one shot. I don't think I'd trust an editor who charges by the page, our editor costs us $25/hour, and it's a good deal. Manuscript editing isn't a substitute for proofreading on a finished, typeset, proof copy. It's just too easy to introduce mistakes when actually rewriting text or moving words around.
A technical edit is somewhat akin to "fact checking" and, depending on the manuscript, can end up being exactly the same thing. Some technical edits go far beyond simply reading a text with an expert eye and picking out flaws in logic or out-and-out mistakes. Technical editors of computer books, for example, are required to verify computer code in the book and on any accompanying CD. Technical editors, (like myself, for example) will often chip in with, "You're explaining it all wrong" or "That's a really dumb thing to be telling people." Technical editors on poorly written books often turn into de-facto unpaid co-authors. Not all non-fiction requires a technical edit and technical editing is not limited to "technical" subjects. For example, a cookbook editor who spots a recipe calling for a half cup of salt instead of a half-cup of sugar, or cooking a turkey two minutes for each pound, is essentially performing a technical edit. Technical editors must be experts in their field, not in English grammar. Technical editors are traditionally paid by the book for large books and by the page ($2 or $3) for short books, which lowers publisher costs.
Proofreading should be performed by a number of good readers, the more who fit your production schedule, the merrier. The manuscript should be given to proofreaders in the final, typeset, form. Aside from the possibility of errors being introduced by whomever does the typesetting, it's just easier for most people to pick out errors in a text that looks like a real book instead of double-spaced paper. Proofreading the text of the book is the primary job of the proofreaders; most won't see the book cover until the book is produced. Most publishers no longer insist that proofreaders use the special proofreading marks, which is fine, since I never learned them. Proofreaders should really restrain themselves from commenting on iffy grammar and stick to mistakes. I tend to hire college students (English majors) for proofreading, along with volunteers, and this proofreading costs $10/hour (you can pay less if you're cheap).
Book Checklist before Printing
Once your manuscript is finalized and your book design is completed, you send the electronic files off to an offset or print-on-demand printer. They'll either give you the option to pay a few bucks extra for a "proof" or "galley" print for final inspection, or send one for free as part of their process. TAKE THE TIME TO READ IT. I don't think I've made every mistake you can possibly make publishing books, but I'll probably get there eventually. I incurred a couple thousand dollars in "skipped inspection" costs in my self-publishing career, so the following book preparation checklist is based on experience.