Janey Burton


Editor & Contracts Negotiator

Now you’ve made the decision to hire a professional editor, you may wonder how to prepare a manuscript for editing. Here are the things you can do to prepare for editing so you get the most out of it.

Prepare a manuscript for editing by self-editing

First, get your manuscript into the best shape you possibly can.

Read the manuscript as though you were coming to it for the first time: do you enjoy it? Do you find the writing effective? Do the characters come across the way you intended? Can you see any plot holes or inconsistencies in the text?

I’ve written elsewhere about how to self-edit your work, and it’s important that you do everything you want to do before sending it for editing – don’t send a new version after the editor begins work!

Be sure the manuscript is the right length for its category. If your manuscript is too long, cut it down before sending it for editing. If the book needs to be 20,000 words shorter, there’s no point having those 20,000 words edited. If it’s too short, it may be that you haven’t gone into enough detail, or that the material is too thin for a full-length book and more needs to be created. Either way, the length should be right before editing takes place.

Try to be honest with yourself and constructively critical of your writing – you shouldn’t be insulted by the suggestion that you are unlikely to have written a masterpiece on the first draft. Delete the boring bits, the overwriting and the repetition. Make sure every scene or section serves a clear purpose. Flesh out the characters so they seem real.

Don’t rush or skimp on this stage – the more work your editor has to do, the more it will cost. You also don’t want your editor spending all her time on dealing with easily prevented mistakes, because that will make it harder for her to see the other issues.

Which type of editing do you need?

Know what type of editing you need and communicate clearly with your editor about what you want to be done to your book. Do you want a manuscript assessment, a structural edit, a line and/or copy edit, or proofreading?

Make sure you know what the type of edit you’re asking for includes. If you ask for a copy edit, the editor will not be dealing much with the overall content – that’s structural editing.

Don’t rush ahead. You will not be ready for a proofread until shortly before the book is to be published, and after all other editing has been done. Proofreading is a final polish, while copy editing is more like a deep clean. Neither should be done until you are very confident the content is exactly where it should be.

Your style preferences

You may think you don’t really have any style preferences, but actually you have almost certainly shown some preferences in your work without even thinking about it.

I’m not just talking about general items like whether you’re using US or British English and -ize or -ise endings. Do you avoid certain punctuation marks, such as semi-colons? Do you prefer a character’s thoughts to appear in italics? Do you use double quotation marks or single ones? Do you use a serial (Oxford) comma, or not?

Most editors will ask you to let them know about any preferences before they start work, and they will follow your style decisions as far as possible, so tell them about anything you feel strongly about.

If you aren’t sure, then let the editor make those decisions.

Your individual habits

You may have been told in previous rounds of feedback that you take a long time to warm up (this is known as ‘throat-clearing’), or you tend to switch tenses, or the point of view is inconsistent (‘head-hopping’), or you unnecessarily narrate every movement, or use too much or too little description, or overuse certain words or phrases, or any number of other things.

These are all issues you should work on during your self-edit, but you should also let your editor know to look out for these things.

Know thyself. When the author knows their own distracting habits, the editor can be ruthless about eliminating them from the text. Your editor does not want to upset you by interfering with habits that you consider to be part of your voice – that makes for an unhappy author, who then undoes the work they’ve paid for.

Try to prepare yourself for feedback, some of which you may not like. Instead of being defensive, remember that no one is perfect, that the editor is trying to improve your work, and that they’re on your side.

The style sheet

A style sheet is a very useful document. At a basic level, it records all the style decisions that have been made so they can be implemented consistently across the manuscript or series of books. But it is also much more: something like a companion to the manuscript, where you can find all the details you and your editor need to refer to without combing through the pages.

It can include a timeline of your story, and a list of the places you describe and where they are in relation to each other. It can include a list of the characters, including their principal features, actions, and relationships.

It can include a glossary of words you’ve made up, slang you use and your preferred spellings.

The style sheet is also where the editor will create a list of queries for you about such things as style decisions that need your input, or inconsistencies that need resolving.

If a previous editor – say, a structural editor – created a style sheet (or any other document that works as a companion to the manuscript), then give it to the next editor. They will add to it so that this document gets built up into a bible for the book or series.

Even better, create a style sheet yourself when you’re writing, and share it with every editor you work with – it’s the single best way to cut down on inconsistencies in your story and characters. If you want a template, I can provide one for you to partially fill in before I start work.

Clean up your manuscript

Give your editor as clean a copy of the manuscript as you can, in the format they’ve asked for (usually Microsoft Word).

Try to reduce mess in the text: use the same font and size throughout – 12-point Times New Roman is standard – and indicate new chapters, subheadings, and section breaks in more or less the same way each time they appear.

Delete any comments and accept any tracked changes. If you need to tell your editor about the material in any of the comments, do so in a covering email (or your style sheet if you have one).

It’s really worth considering how to prepare a manuscript for editing. Your editor will be grateful for the cleanest, most professionally presented manuscript you can provide. That way, she will be able to concentrate on the text, and on polishing it up to the highest possible standard.

This article was first posted on 29th August 2021.