The Art of Editing a Book

Meru Gokhale
19th Jul 2023

At the age of twenty-four, I found myself a calling. I loved the written word, but my understanding of what it meant to be an editor was hazy at best. Somehow, I found myself knocking on the door of Ravi Singh of Penguin India.

Ravi, a man of few words, allowed me to try my hand at the craft even though I had no experience. It felt sacred to be in the company of an actual printed manuscript. I was not merely reading now; I was being drawn into a silent conversation, a communion of thoughts and ideas with an invisible presence, and it felt right.

My first attempt at shaping this manuscript into a polished story, however, was nothing short of a disaster. Still, Ravi offered me kindness instead of criticism. He told me what I had got wrong and also what I got right. My education as an editor was borne out of countless errors, nurtured by the benevolence and generosity of more experienced editors. They helped me fine-tune an intrinsic skill I had unknowingly possessed - being a good reader. That, I was taught, was at the heart of being a great editor.

The path to becoming an editor has traditionally been one of apprenticeship. I observed and sat shoulder-to-shoulder with seasoned editors, absorbing their knowledge. Watching them interact with authors, finesse their collaboration with cover designers and production colleagues, and deliver delicate criticism. These were valuable lessons.

However, the very landscape of the art and craft of editing is changing. The unbroken chain of shared wisdom, the long-held tradition of learning from experienced editors, was abruptly severed when the world paused in 2020, held hostage by a pandemic. The fallout? Editors retreated to their homes, cut off from their mentors and the camaraderie of a team of editors.

The way editors work and learn has been irrevocably altered. This new world requires a new way to pass on the torch, a new way for the next generation of editors to learn and grow. As we adapt to this shift, I find comfort in the lessons of the past, in the wisdom shared by my mentors, and in the enduring truth that the essence of a good editor is, and will always be, to be a good reader.

What do editors do?

Editors are the true lifeblood of any publishing house. Their distinctive tastes, perspectives, and worldviews are crucial in shaping the variety of books a publishing house puts out at any given moment. As such, an editor's influence can often be observed in the themes, genres, and styles of the books that a publishing house tends to prioritise. It's a role that requires not just a love for literature, but also a keen understanding of current trends, reader interests, and cultural shifts.

In addition to this critical role in curating what gets published, editors wear many other hats within a publishing house. For instance, some will focus on acquiring new works for the house to publish - these individuals are often referred to as 'acquisitions editors' or 'commissioning editors.' Their responsibilities typically involve sourcing new talent, reviewing book proposals, and selecting those that have the potential to be successful in the market. They play a vital role in identifying new voices and bringing fresh perspectives to readers.

But the work doesn't stop there. Once a book or proposal has been selected, the editor then has the task of transforming it from an initial concept or draft into a finished book. This involves collaborating closely with the author, refining the text, and ensuring the storyline or argument is well-structured and engaging. And when the book is ready for publication, the acquisitions editor steps into yet another role, coordinating with multiple departments such as production, sales, publicity, and marketing to ensure a smooth and successful release. So, while the author writes the book, it's the editor who helps bring it to life for readers to enjoy.

In this in-between stage, Developmental editors (sometimes known as Structural editors) play an essential role in the publishing world that goes beyond what you might initially expect. They don't just look for grammar or punctuation mistakes. Instead, they dive deep, examining the big-picture aspects of a manuscript, like the plot, pacing, or character development in a novel, or the structure and clarity of arguments in a non-fiction piece. Their goal? To collaborate with authors and polish the raw diamond of a manuscript into a sparkling gem of a book. Now, in some publishing houses, the person who first spots that diamond-in-the-rough (the acquisitions editor) might also be the one who helps cut and polish it (the developmental editor). They're there, right from that exciting "Eureka!" moment of discovering a promising new work, all the way to the satisfaction of seeing the final, polished draft. But this isn't a hard and fast rule. In bigger houses, or when a project is particularly complex, these roles can be split. That way, each stage of the book's journey, from its exciting discovery to its meticulous development, receives the undivided attention it deserves, resulting in a truly magnificent final product.

Once a developmental edit is complete, the manuscript is sent to a copyeditor. Copyeditors are another vital part of the publishing machine, working meticulously to ensure that each piece of writing is as polished as it can be. They go into the fine details of the manuscript, focusing on the nuts and bolts of language, grammar, punctuation, and style consistency. They work to eliminate errors, repetition, ambiguities, and redundancies, creating a smooth reading experience that allows the story or argument to shine without distractions.

However, the role of a copyeditor extends beyond merely dotting the 'i's and crossing the 't's. Copyeditors ensure that the writing is accurate and well-researched and that the text's tone aligns with the intended audience and purpose. Their trained eyes and astute understanding of the nuances of language help enhance the overall quality of the manuscript, subtly improving the reader's connection with the work. Without their contribution, the path from manuscript to a finished book would be much more fraught. So while their work may not always be overtly visible, because a great copyeditor's work is by definition invisible, the final polished product is a testament to the critical role copyeditors play in the journey of a book.

In the final stages of a book's journey from manuscript to print, proofreaders step into the spotlight. They are the last line of defense in catching any errors that may have slipped past both the author and the editor. With a sharp eye for detail, proofreaders comb through the near-final version of a text, searching for any lingering spelling mistakes, punctuation errors, or inconsistencies in typography. However, their role goes beyond hunting for typos. They also ensure that the layout, formatting, and overall presentation of the writing aligns with industry standards and the publisher's specific guidelines. By catching and correcting these minor yet crucial details, proofreaders contribute to the reader's seamless engagement with the book, playing an indispensable part in the book's publishing journey.

The relationship between authors and editors

Why do authors need editors? Well, imagine authors as ship captains. They have a clear destination in mind, but navigating through the vast sea of ideas and putting them down coherently can be a monumental task. That's where editors come in, acting as their trusted navigators and guides. Editors provide a fresh, objective set of eyes, helping authors refine their voice, clarify their message, and polish their writing until it shines. They don't just spot errors; they help fine-tune the story or argument, ensuring the reader can follow along with ease and enjoyment.

A great author-editor relationship is a partnership. The author brings talent, originality and brilliance, and the editor provides constructive feedback, encouragement, and, sometimes, the necessary push to get the best out of them. For authors, having an editor is like having a co-pilot who shares their vision for the journey, supports them through the rough patches, and helps them bring their ideas to land in the most engaging way possible. So, editors aren't just a nice-to-have—they're an essential part of the writing and publishing process, turning good stories into unforgettable ones.

Coming soon: How should an author choose an editor?