In a traditional publishing house, content editing happens between the acquisition editor (or a designate) and the author. This happens before the book goes to a copy editor. You should follow this pattern. If you think you're manuscript needs work on the substance, I have these suggestions:
- Ask yourself these fundamental questions: Who is my core reader? (Identify a specific individual, couple, or family.) What is my fundamental message to my core reader? How will my book change his or her life? If you cannot answer these questions, you might indeed have a problem. If you can answer these questions. write them down.
- If you feel the need, give your manuscript to one or more content readers--but make sure they have your written answers to the above questions.
- If you get substantive feedback from your readers, judge it against your answers to the above questions. Do not automatically act on their suggestions. This is your book, not theirs, and you should follow your own instincts. This is especially important if you are confident in your answers to the above questions.
Ideally, copy editing should happen only after you are comfortable with the substance of your manuscript. In the traditional publishing house where I spent much of my career, copy editing happened in the production department after the acquisitions department was satisfied with the substance of the manuscript. When I take on a copy editing project, I identify my primary dictionary (Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary) and my primary style guide (The Chicago Manual of Style). I also provide a sample edit, intended to generate feedback from the author, and develop a "supplemental" style guide that includes a word guide, a name guide, and variances from the main style guide. I have these suggestions:
- Work with your copy editor to develop the supplemental style guide. As the publisher, you have the right to set your own style. For the most part, you should follow The Chicago Manual of Style or another credible style guide. However, you will likely have some special words or practices that should be written into the supplemental style guide.
- Do not have more than one copy editor. Because the job of a copy editor is to establish consistent practices--of capitalization, punctuation, grammar--bringing more than one copy editor into the project creates confusion. Exactly the opposite of what you want. The reason your copy editor does a sample edit is to get your feedback before he goes ahead and copy edits the rest of the book. If you read the sample edit and do not think he can edit the book the way you would like--or you want a different copy editor for unrelated reasons--this is the time to make a change. Once he starts editing the whole book, you should stick with him. If you remain nervous, which is quite reasonable for first-time authors, turn your energy to the task of getting better proofreading.
Proofreading is an enormous problem for self-publishers. First, it is difficult to do well. The rule of thumb I heard years ago seems to be true: Good proofreaders miss 50 percent of all errors. Second, because it is difficult, it is costly--too costly for the average self-publisher. An excellent practice is to have two proof cycles, with two different proofreaders for each cycle. As good as this practice is, the math says that you can expect to catch only 93.75 percent of all errors. Even so, this practice is too expensive even for some traditional publishers (which is why you see so many boo-boos in books these days). If you were to hire four professional proofreaders for your project, it would cost you more than you would pay me to copy edit your manuscript, design your cover and interior, makeup all the pages, and get clean files to your printer. The cost-benefit does not work. My suggestion:
- That excessively anal friend you wanted to hire as a second copy editor? Ask her to proofread your book. Make sure she has a copy of your supplemental style guide and explicit instructions to note only typos, misspellings, style violations, design hiccups, text-flow problems, or other errors and to avoid "copy editing" your book (or, for heaven's sake, critiquing the substance). Good proofreading instructions, especially when accompanied by an impressive supplemental style guide, will make the task look sufficiently important. If you have more than one proofreader per cycle, good for you, but remember that you will need to be the arbitrator, deciding which changes to make and which to let stand.