Is your book editor doing these things?
If you’re lucky to have gotten a book deal from a publishing house, this blog will seem pretty irrelevant to you, but since the era of self-publishing, working with traditional publishers is less common (unless you’re an academic, influencer, or celebrity). Anyone can now become an author, but that doesn’t mean that you can skip all the steps an author with a deal would take (which is what I did when I launched my first book). Working with a book editor is one of those important steps!
I made a lot of mistakes when I self-published my book, but after taking a few courses in book editing and having some experience with copyediting four books, I’ve made this checklist for those who plan to self-publish, to ensure they’re working with someone who’s qualified.
1. Book editors check for errors
While it isn’t the primary responsibility for a copyeditor to spot or fix errors, the self-publishing author doesn’t have the luxury of having BOTH a proofreader (who usually doesn’t work directly with the author) AND a copyeditor. That means freelance copyeditors like me do double duty. Besides good ol’ spell check, I use ProWritingAid to fix glaring errors quickly. This tool will also make suggestions to change words or phrases, but I wouldn’t use it for that purpose because I’d want to preserve the author’s voice as much as possible.
I also like to read aloud, which usually identifies awkward phrases and sentences that are too long and should be broken up with punctuation marks.
Good writers will have a mostly error-free manuscript before it gets delivered to a copyeditor, but for someone whose first language isn’t English or is a better speaker than typist (and who may have used a voice transcription app), there may be more errors than usual. Speaking of non-English languages, foreign words or phrases are another one of those things that could require italicizing, translation, or double-checking of spelling.
From experience, I want to say that even if you are a bonafide writer, hiring a copyeditor is still beneficial. I recently read a colleague’s self-published book on copywriting and came across what I believe is the highest number of errors in any book I’ve read in my entire life. Although I hired someone to edit my first book, that person wasn’t a book copyeditor by trade, which resulted in a few errors slipping through the cracks. If I ever publish an updated version, you can bet I’ll change them!
2. Book editors clarify and check facts
In the same way you might chat with a friend who’s telling a story and glosses over what seems to be a really important detail, sometimes there are stories within stories! Good editors “tease out” an idea that might be worth exploring more, or demands clarity around phrasing or something that requires more explanation.
Non-fiction is my jam, and that means fact-checking is even more important than it would be in a fictional book. Common knowledge facts don’t need references, but media, other texts, or quotes should be cited to avoid copyright infringement. Editors aren’t liable for any damages that might result from plagiarism, but they can help point out where a reference is needed, double-check the reference, or point out sections of a manuscript that might look like they weren’t written by the author.
Being a blog writer for corporate clients, I know that information can be easily pulled from various online sources that may not be entirely accurate, so it’s important to ensure the author IS an expert in what they’re talking about, or at least sources where they got the information. “Better safe than sorry” is a good adage here!
3. Book editors point out inconsistencies
Names, birthdates, occupations, places, and items of importance need to be consistent throughout a nonfiction book. Especially if the book isn’t necessarily in chronological order (like a Quentin Tarantino movie), a good book editor will take note of these things to ensure consistency over time. After all, nobody’s memory is perfect!
A copyeditor is also responsible for editing chapter or part titles and making they’re consistent with the table of contents.
4. Book editors know proper referencing
This is my least favourite part of the job, but whether we’re using footnotes, endnotes, or just a reference list of sources, referencing is important. While I was editing my uncle’s series, some of his references were vague and I had to ask whether they were books, documents, or something else. Some of the online references no longer exist. And do you know or remember what microfiche is? A lot of the old newspapers are in microfiche form at the library, which is similar to camera film that you load into a projector machine. It can be fun, but also dizzying when you’re scrolling through a lot of pages to find the right date.
Pre-internet sources will be in the form of books, newspapers, magazines, and so on which aren’t easily accessible anymore, and everything (even online sources) is referenced differently. The course I took was on the Chicago Manual of Style which is the industry standard for nonfiction in the USA. I’ve read Canadian books that reference differently, so if I was working with a Canadian author who was with a publisher and required a specific style, I’d have to learn it to reference properly. (It’s rare a publisher will hire a freelance copyeditor, but they might if a celebrity asked to work specifically with an editor of their choice.)
On my book page, I’ve provided the proper citations for my book, in case anyone needs or wants to reference it as a source in their book!
Dr. Masaru Emoto’s The Hidden Messages in Water is a great example of an easy-to-read scientific book that touches on spirituality.
5. Book editors should have subject matter expertise
While a well-written book should entice any reader, it’s important to find an editor who’s a subject matter expert if the book contains technical language for readers in a specific industry (medicine, science, computer programming, etc.) and/or terms that the average reader won’t know. A medical or scientific book will benefit from an editor who has worked in the field, in the same way someone might want to work with me if they’re writing a book on marketing.
The books I prefer to ghostwrite or edit are memoirs related to spiritual (note: not religious) experiences or veganism. This doesn’t include theology, an academic book on spirituality, or vegan cookbooks. Never say never, but mostly I want to edit books by regular people who have incredible stories. If it’s a spiritual or vegan-related nonfiction book with a scientific angle, it’s important that we bring the language down to an easily understandable human level, similar to Dr. Masaru Emoto’s The Hidden Messages in Water.
The difference between copyediting and structural editing
I want to elaborate that the steps here are specifically for copyeditors. There is a different type of book editor called a Structural, Substantive, or Developmental Editor, which would be hugely beneficial to fiction writers. Structural editors are responsible for the structure of books as a whole. They will move around paragraphs, sections of chapters, or entire chapters. For example, for a memoir, an editor might decide that chronological order may not be the best way to go in terms of storytelling, so they might switch up the chapters.
I do not do structural editing, but I have made structural suggestions to previous author clients, and it is up to them to make final decisions. Structural editing should be done before copyediting.
When it comes to indexes, a copyeditor CAN handle them, but it’s not a required part of the job. I know that Microsoft Word has some sort of indexing function, but I’m not sure if you do it during the copyediting process, or after. Clearly, I don’t know enough about this skill to be an expert at it, but since I can format books too, I’d take a stab at it for short books! Holler at me if you know of any good courses online that teach this.
Do you have any other questions about book editing I haven’t answered here? Comment below so everyone can read your question and the answer. I’m open to blogging about other relevant book publishing topics you’re dying to learn about too!