The Three Finish Lines

In the last two postings, in the backward vs. forward debate, I laid out a few of the things that a business book editor does to help authors prepare their manuscript. To reiterate, an editor will help with tone and style, contents, book structure/architecture, wording and placement of subheads, and more. All of this is to help an author to reach the first finish line. I say first because there are actually several finish lines that must be crossed before a manuscript can be deemed “acceptable” and ready to go into production.  

The first finish line is producing a first draft of the manuscript, an important achievement for any writer (and one that happens much faster for forward writers than backward ones).

As you might imagine, authors produce manuscripts that vary wildly in quality.  Some arrive in great shape, well written, nicely organized and well executed. Others are in decent shape, but need some real work in one area or another: the writing may not be up to snuff, it might be too long or too short, or the book may not quite live up to the title and subtitle of the book. Obviously, the more effective the editor, the better the first draft of the book, since he or she will be working with that author throughout the development of the book. 

Inevitably a manuscript hits our desk that can be characterized a disaster. But even most disasters can be fixed, as long as we have an open-minded author with a fire-in-the-belly, willing to put in the many dozens—more likely hundreds—of hours necessary to fix the book.

If the first finish line is the first draft of the book, you may be wondering about the second finish line.  That line is reached after an editor edits the book and the author responds effectively to all of the edits and queries posed by the editor. If you haven’t written a book, you may be unfamiliar with what an editor really does to turn a draft manuscript into a polished one. Yes, an editor rewrites portions of the manuscript, adds subheads, etc. However, it may surprise you that perhaps the most important task an editor does is ask the author questions (or queries). Since most editors I know edit electronically (on-line), those queries are added in the Microsoft edit program specifically designed for this purpose. They  appear right in the margin next to the queried text. What kind of questions do editors ask? Here are some actual samples:

* Awkward sentence: please fix as I am not sure what you are trying to say here. 

Mega-run-on sentence: I can’t untangle. Please clarify by turning this into 2-3 sentences.

* This entire section seems out of place here. Can you put it nearer to the beginning of the chapter?

* Way too much  detail here. You will lose the reader with this section. Suggest removing. 

As you can tell, these are many issues that must be worked out by the author and the editor working together. For example, in the last query above, an editor should not remove a big chunk of manuscript without getting buy-in from the author. How many queries might an editor pose in say, a 250-page book? The numbers vary quite a bit, but in some manuscripts that number approaches 100 or more.

So, the second finish line is reached when an author gets back the “edited” manuscript, goes through it carefully checking edits, but more important, addresses all of those queries by doing what the editor has asked (Unless the author disagrees with something—then he writes back his response to that query) . This part of the process can take weeks, but when that happens, the books’ entire schedule may be jeopardized. But first and foremost, the book has to be right. The schedule must take a backseat to the book’s development, for it is better to publish the right book late than the wrong book on time. Don’t get me wrong, late books raise all sorts of serious problems, with customers, booksellers, foreign publishers who have licensed the book, etc. However, since the book is a reflection of the publisher, the book’s imprint, the author, editor, etc, there is simply no excuse for a publisher to knowingly publish a bad book.             

After the author goes over the book as outlined above, he or she returns the book to the editor. Then the editor (or perhaps another member of the editorial team) goes through the manuscript to review the author’s responses to all the edits and queries.  Most authors do a very fine job here, when they see their editor has done so much to enhance the quality of the book. Still, there is often one more back and forth between the author and editor. When the author completes that second and [usually] final round of edits, she has crossed the third finish line. 

Believe it or not, once the book goes into production, there are several new finish lines for the author. But we will save those for another day.

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