How to select and work with a book editor

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Book Editor. It’s a simple enough title, but what exactly does a book editor do, and what kind of editing? Substantive, factual, copy editing, or proofing? How much leeway does a book editor have, and when do they need to consult with an author about changes? And how do you select a book editor?

Book editor Patrick Farrell

Book editor Patrick Farrell

Book editor Patrick Farrell answers these questions and more. Based in Toronto, he has worked on many books, including The Brain’s Way of Healing by Norman Doidge, Prairie Fairies: A History of Queer Communities and People in Western Canada by Valerie J. Korinek, and, most recently, Psychedelic Prophets: The Letters of Aldous Huxley and Humphry Osmond.

The role of the book editor

What is the role of a book editor? What kind of editing?

When it comes to book publishing, there are quite a range of jobs that fall under the term “editor”. Perhaps most simply, it’s a catch-all term for anyone helping an author prepare a book for publication. Publishing houses employ people with titles like “acquisition editor” and “managing editor”, which refer to different responsibilities that can overlap depending on the size of the publisher.

As mainly a freelance nonfiction editor, I’ve done everything from copy editing, which ensures consistency, accuracy and good grammar, to substantive editing, where I help with structure, tone and flow, as well as extra-editorial work such as providing annotations and building indexes. I’m most often hired at the manuscript stage. Basically my job is to help authors produce their most coherent, informative, persuasive, and (at least occasionally) beautiful writing possible.

A good book editor responds to a writer’s needs

What are some of the main things you look for and resolve when you edit a manuscript?

For every book launch gala, there are months and even years of solitary typing at the keyboard.

My task depends on the needs of the author. Sometimes, they’re at a point where they need someone to carefully read what they’ve produced so far and merely want to know what works and what doesn’t. At the manuscript stage I’m trying to pay attention to how the ideas are being presented, whether they are effective as written or could be reorganized or revised in a way that makes more and better sense.

Does your work vary, depending on client requirements?

It varies a great deal. Many authors have editor-like personalities themselves, which can result in a very clean and well-structured manuscript before I even see it. Nevertheless, a second pair of eyes (and third, and fourth…) always makes a difference.

I have worked on books where many capable editors have found problems and errors, the more the merrier. In instances where the author spends less time perfecting their writing, the editing process can involve everything from restructuring, to fact checking, to identifying places in the manuscript where more work is necessary. Time is always in issue in publishing, deadlines always loom large, but the aim is to help as much as possible.

Adding strength and clarity

Some manuscripts must be harder to edit than others. What makes a manuscript particularly challenging or even a struggle?

Most of my experiences have involved experienced writers acquainted with the editing process. They hire me expressly because they want someone to carefully work through their writing and identify problems or passages that might be improved. Sometimes I find an aspect of an argument underwhelming or insufficient to support the conclusions that are drawn, and try to assist the writer to make them stronger.

That said, I’ve had a few jobs where the author’s vision carried them through an initial draft and not much further. In these instances, incoherence and repetition—of words, phrases, themes and even content—require a potentially alarming amount of revision, especially if a deadline is approaching. When I work with an author, I view us as a unified front trying to produce the best work we can.

A perceptive book editor learns from authors

And describe the type of manuscript that makes book editing straightforward or even a pleasure?

Anyone taking the time to write a book cares deeply about their work. It is their care and effort that motivates me to try and assist them in making it even better.

I’ve learned so much from the authors I’ve worked with; each book has its difficulties and rewards, and if we manage to achieve something we’re both happy with that’s always encouraging. As with anyone involved in producing literature, it’s the writing itself—the sharing of stories and ideas—which first drew me into this job. I find even a single sentence of beauty or insight worth a page of dross.

Pitfalls of not using a book editor

More people are writing books and a lot of them are self-publishing, with some even skipping the book editing stage. Is this a mistake and, ultimately, what’s missing from the book that hasn’t been professionally edited?

Our digital age of rapid and abundant content has upset the book publishing industry as much as any other. When I trained as an editor more than a decade ago, the field was abuzz with breathless predictions about the full-scale transition from print to online. Some of those predictions proved correct, and the old status of print media continues to gradually diminish.

Efforts to digitize all literary activity and the perennial spectre of automation have drastically reduced the capital assigned to support traditional editorial work.

Most of the authors I work with pay for my services out of their own pockets—publishers do not give them a dime, penny or byte. The indexes I build are always paid by the author, even though in the nonfiction world a book without an index is a dead letter.

I don’t feel myself to be in a position to comment with confidence on the broader issue of publishing economics.

However, from the perspective of producing quality books, the less effort, care, and money that goes into ensuring high-quality books, the less reason we have to expect them.

Youtube videos and podcasts are increasingly depended on as authoritative sources of knowledge; it’s always a brave new world.

Is your manuscript ready to be edited?

When an a writer is ready to send you a chapter or manuscript, what kind of shape should it be in, and what format?

In terms of the shape of a manuscript, I’m willing to look at most anything a writer sends me. Occasionally I’ve declined working on a book when I considered it too far from a readable text. Very occasionally, excited and hopeful authors mistake their notes for readable prose! At the publishing level, contemporary book publishing is rooted in Bill Gates’ pocket. Every publisher I’ve worked with, including those in North America and Europe, expect manuscripts in Microsoft Word.

How to select a book editor

What kind of qualifications and attributes should an author look for in a good book editor?

I’m a bookish person. I have degrees in philosophy and history. These subjects are sources of meaning for me and have helped me develop my editorial abilities. An author seeking an editor should look for an open, intelligent person looking to help.

Editors are kind of like therapists; they care deeply about the work but are not, strictly speaking, the author’s friend. Which isn’t to say that editors and authors can’t be or aren’t friends, but that editing requires focusing on the text with a highly critical eye, with the explicit aim of improving it.

At the same time, I’d avoid working with an editor if they were all critique and no assistance. Writers often put their deepest thoughts and feelings in their writing, and it’s important for an editor to interact respectfully and productively. There are legendary editors famous for their scorched-earth decisiveness, but for us ordinary mortals a humane bedside-manner is often helpful in a productive working relationship. An editor should want to support an author’s motivation to tell their story, not deflate or discourage them.

Book editor Patrick Farrell

Book editor Patrick Farrell is based in Toronto. He has been editing books for more than eight years, and involved in books and publishing for more than 15 years. He works in the higher education and publishing industry. Patrick is skilled in copy and substantive editing, writing, proofreading, and fact checking. Patrick has a Master of Arts (MA) focused in the history of science and technology from the University of Alberta, Edmonton, and a BA in philosophy. Find Patrick on LinkedIn.

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