Using an Editor

Editors make the text flow well, we chop out inconsistencies. When you hand a manuscript to an editor, the process can seem like a bit of a black box: Words go in, slightly smoothed-over words come out. When you send a manuscript to a freelance editor, it may seem like you’re throwing your book into the void.

The reality is a bit dull. We sit there and read the words. We think about them, and make suggestions. We do this for hours and hours and hours until we’re immersed in the world of your book. The rest is just details. Do we read the book once through slowly, or make multiple passes on the text? Do we want the book in one giant Word file, or a bunch of little ones?

One of the first things I do with any new client is to explain what I’ll do, when I’ll do it, and why. In this post, I’d like to demystify my process a bit. The examples in this article are slightly fictionalized, and aren’t about any specific clients.

Files and file formats

For better or worse, the industry-standard is Microsoft Word files in standard manuscript format. Love it or hate it, it’s what you’ve got to use. We can all open and edit Word files, and, to Microsoft’s credit, the program does have some amazing text tracking and notating features.

I’ve received novels in a giant single Word document, and in an ideal world, I’d do all my work in that one file. But we don’t live in a perfect world–and, more importantly, Microsoft Word is far from perfect. File corruption happens, and when it does I’m glad I back up every day. And when files get longer, opening and saving starts taking a long time. I’ll sometimes split a longer book into a few files.

It’s not uncommon to receive a book in dozens of files, each chapter in its own file. There’s an urban legend among editors of a writer who would save each page in its own file. Keep in mind that, the more files your book is in, the easier it is to lose a file or mistype a filename.

But let’s talk about text formatting. Publishers know all of this, but first-time self-published writers sometimes don’t:

If you’re self-publishing, you may think that you can work in any font or spacing you like, but Amazon or Smashwords are gonna need your words in a standard format anyway. Please keep things professional and simple: 12-point Times or Courier, double-spaced, with one-inch margins.


I’ve written about how to use Word’s track changes feature elsewhere, so I won’t rehash all of that here. What I will say is that track changes is a huge timesaver: I don’t have to re-read every word of a manuscript when I get it back for the second time, and neither do you.

All of this lets you see not only what changes were made, but when they were made. (For example, if you look at documents I’ve edited, you’ll discover that my most productive time is the early afternoon.)

Another feature that gets less attention than track changes is the “compare documents” feature. It’s a little more clunky and less obvious, but this feature will compare two versions of the same document and give you a report.

Many editors (myself included) will turn off track changes when changing formatting to keep it consistent, or stripping out multiple spaces; otherwise, you’d get a file with red notations everywhere! I’ll include a note indicating what these un-tracked changes are, but sometimes it’s nice to see it all.

The entire book

The absolute best-case scenario is receiving an entire book all at once and working on the entire book before sending any files back to the author/publisher. But in the real world of Microsoft Word and deadlines, this isn’t always possible. As the editor, I do whatever is necessary to get the book edited on time.

But the ideal situation for me is to get a completed project and work on it all at once, over the course of a few weeks. This allows me to go back to the beginning and change editing decisions I made before sending that book back out: Maybe that bit of text I struck out is needed, although I couldn’t see that at the time. Working on the entire book at once is my favorite way to work.

Just passing through

Every editor has a particular style. Some editors will make several passes through a book, some only one. We all do what works best for us. When you’re trying to decide on a freelance editor, you can ask about their working style as a way of getting to know them. I prefer to read the book, think about it for a while, then finish things up.

I read through the manuscript once, making very rough, blunt changes. This is my first, rough “editing” pass. I’ll then make a second, detail-oriented pass, where I clean up what I did the first time. Then, I’ll have a much better understanding of the book as a whole and what the author’s trying to accomplish. On that second pass, I’ll usually undo some of the edits I made in the beginning that now seem too harsh. That bit of extraneous information? Leave it, it was a setup for later on! This editing style seems to draw me towards books that are slightly thoughtful, with room for subtext and a bit of dramatic foreshadowing.

What it all means

In the end, all of these things are just preferences. Word isn’t the only way to edit: I’ve worked in OpenOffice, on paper, and with raw text files. For me, freelancing is exciting because every client is different. So if you hire me or another freelance editor, tell us how you prefer to work. We’d love to hear anything that will make experience better for everyone.

Thanks to Kathleen Ronan for editing help.

Neil Fein is a freelance editor who specializes in novels. If you’ve written a manuscript or are getting close to finishing, you can get in touch with him here. He rides his bicycle as much as he can, and he paints when he damn well feels like it. He’s also a musician who plays in a Celtic fusion band.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s