The Evolution of a Book, Part 6: Editing the Manuscript

(The rest of this series is available at the following links: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4, and Part 5.)

I’ll address the official copy-editing process in a later post. Today’s topic is the editing that takes place before submission to your acquisitions editor.

There are two types of editing while you’re writing. The first is your own, and like the writing process itself, this is a personal choice. Some like to edit each day, and some after a chapter is completed. There may even be those who wait until most of the manuscript is finished before editing.

My own personal preference is to edit once a chapter is completed. That stopping point gives me the chance to consider the cohesiveness of the chapter, its flow with the previous chapter, and its tie-in to the main arguments of the entire book. That’s not to say that I don’t edit grammar, sentence structure, etc., as I go along. I’m not a “throw-it-all-on-paper” writer. I like to write in complete sentences and paragraphs instead of sentence fragments and outlines that I fill in later. Footnotes are a bit different. I include author(s), short title, and page numbers while writing and fill in the complete bibliographical information later, usually at the end of the chapter.

The second type of editing is, hopefully, the kind you’ll get from colleagues who read part or all of your manuscript. This step seems like an obvious one, but I can’t stress it enough: Someone besides you needs to read the entire manuscript before it gets to your press editor. You can satisfy part of this recommendation through conference papers, but you need to go beyond that stage.

Finding colleagues to read your manuscript can be intimidating. What if they decline? What if they accept and tell you that your manuscript is off-base and needs a complete overhaul? What if, what if, what if . . . you can’t let that question stop you. Ask colleagues whose advice you trust and who you think will give you a fair and honest assessment. It is much better to have them point out egregious mistakes or wrong-headed arguments than to have an outside reader for the press or, once the book  is published, a reviewer do so. Remember that readers will attribute all of the book’s errors to the author.

For the Jackson biography, I asked John Marszalek, John Belohlavek, and Marsha Mullin to read the entire manuscript. Marszalek was my dissertation advisor, and I completely trust his advice about writing. Belohlavek has written extensively in the Jacksonian field. Both Johns have also written biographies, which proved helpful. Mullin was my go-to person for the nitty-gritty Jackson details, such as genealogy. All three did more than I had in mind for them, of course. They complemented one another well and had suggestions about content and argumentation that overlapped, which helped me identify the manuscript’s major problems. If three people make the same recommendation, then they are probably on to something!

If it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a community to write a book.

Part 7 is here.


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