by Gary Smailes
So you’ve had your book professionally edited, and you are faced with the task of turning the feedback into something that lifts your book to the next level. This article will help you do that.
The chances are, when you pop open that email from the editor, you’ll be faced with two things. The first is a mass of detailed tracked changes within the manuscript itself, and the second is a separate report, listing suggestions on larger topics as to how to improve your book overall (pacing, plotting, etc.). Dealing with this second element means some level of rewriting.
You will discover here how to get the most from your professional book edit. You’ll learn a step-by-step process that addresses all the feedback, while also applying those tracked changes and even doing major rewrites. Note that this process works for nonfiction as well as fiction, but sometimes “your novel” will be the default form referenced herein.
Step 1: Take It All In
OK, … so you have your feedback from your professional book editor; you are excited and scared at the same time, but you are ready to move forward.
Your feedback will consist of two elements: a separate report and your manuscript with some embedded tracked changes. Please note I am assuming that you have had your book edited by BubbleCow. Feedback from other editors will be less detailed, but the principles of this article will still apply.
The report will consist of the editor’s thoughts and guidance, and the tracked changes will be smaller alterations embedded within the main manuscript.
The first step is to read through the editor’s report. One word of warning: it is human nature to react defensively to any corrective feedback. Your brain will see it as an attack, and you will revert to a fight-or-flight response. This means you’ll either want to scream and shout that the editor is wrong or just go and hide.
However, this is an emotional reaction, and you need to use your rational brain instead. The single best way to switch from emotional to rational is to give it time. (If you are interested in this subject, Dr. Steve Peters has written an excellent book on the subject. It is called The Chimp Paradox.) Therefore, the first thing to do after reading your report is to stop, breathe and wait.
Authors often tell us that they’ll take a couple days to absorb the report. They’ll read it a few times, and, with each read, they’ll start to see the value in the comments and guidance.
Another thing we often get told by authors is that nothing is really a surprise in the report. They kind of knew the issues beforehand, but they just didn’t know what to do. They often say things like, “Ah, … I did worry that I was not adding enough description, but I was just unsure at what points to expand.”
Step 2: Tracked Changes and Comments in Your Novel
Having absorbed the report, and perhaps even made a few notes, the best place to go next is to the main manuscript.
You will find that a number of changes have been made to your book, using a track changes system. This is a tool built into all major word processing software that allows an editor to make a semi-permanent change. What happens is that the editor corrects the manuscript, and the software shows the reader the changes but remembers what has been altered. The result is a manuscript that contains lots of tiny tracked changes.
For example, let’s say the author has incorrectly punctuated a sentence of dialogue. They’ve used a period (a full stop) instead of a comma. The editor would change the period to a comma. This would show up in the manuscript as a tracked change.
A manuscript can contain a surprising number of these small changes. In fact, it is not unusual, even for a manuscript in ‘‘good shape” before editing, to have hundreds of changes.
Your first job will be to go through these changes and decide if you wish to keep them.
The software package you are using will allow you three optimal options for dealing with the suggested tracked changes:
- Agree to individual changes: It is possible to look at each individual change and then press the Accept button (in Microsoft Word, using its track changes program, which is our default herein) to keep the change.
- Disagree to individual changes: It is possible to look at each individual change and then press the Reject button to remove the change and revert back to the original text.
- Agree to ALL changes: It is also possible to Accept All changes in the manuscript with a single press of a button. However, this is not recommended, since you may not wish to incorporate all the suggestions.
Working with the Comments
The next step is to consider the comments embedded in your manuscript. These are different from the tracked changes. They are not suggestions for small changes (like changing a period to a comma). They are, instead, comments directly from the editor to the author.
The content of the comments will vary greatly. They might be a question, an indication of a part that needs more work or some feedback that links with a wider issue from the editor’s report.
The best approach is to work through the comments in turn and do one of the following:
- If the comment can be resolved quickly with a small rewrite or addition to the manuscript, then do it immediately. Once you have made the change, then delete the respective comment.
- If the comment needs more work, perhaps it is part of a wider issue or indicates a section that needs rewriting, then do nothing. Just leave the comment as a reminder to work on that later and move on.
- If the comment needs no action, or you disagree with the suggested change, then just delete that comment and move on.
Since you will have already resolved the tracked changes, once you have completed this initial process which includes addressing the easier comments, all that will be left in your manuscript are the comments that require more work.
You are now ready to consider your first rewrite.
Step 3: Start Your Rewrite
By the time you reach the point of rewriting, you will have carried out a number of important steps. You’ll have decided on all the tracked changes edits; you’ll have acted on the comments that need either no or a small amount of work, and you’ll have read over your report and will have a feel for the editor’s feedback.
The best way to approach your rewrite process is in a stepwise manner.
Many authors make the mistake of trying to fix all the problems in a single rewrite. This is not a great idea. Whenever you alter a first draft, it is very easy to add in more mistakes than you are correcting. It is, therefore, essential that changes are done deliberately and with thought.
The best first step is to find the biggest issue within your book (reread the report and the remaining comments within the manuscript) and then come up with a strategy on how this one problem will be fixed. If needed, make a small plan with the steps you will take. Think carefully about each change and the potential impact on the story.
Once you have a plan, it is time to dive in and start rewriting. At this point, it is essential that you work methodically and at a steady pace. Don’t rush ahead; just keep making the changes as they are needed.
Once you are happy with the results, it is time to move on to the next problem. Return to the editor’s report (and remaining manuscript comments) and work out what you will tackle next. Once again, make a plan and work methodically.
You should work through your report, focusing on changing one issue at a time, applying it to the whole of your manuscript, then repeating these steps until all the issues have been addressed.
This process can take time, anywhere from weeks to months, but don’t rush. This is probably the last chance to make significant changes to your book.
Step 4: Get Some Feedback
OK, … so you’ve sweated blood and applied the feedback from your professional book edit. You are probably feeling a little bruised and unsure of just where you stand with your manuscript. This is a classic situation of not seeing the wood for the trees.
What you need is some feedback at this point, and you may want your friends and family to come into play here.
While their feedback can be very useful, you must receive it at the correct time and know how to “decode” that feedback to add value to your book. The best time for friends and family feedback is after the rewriting stage (the book’s second draft). By that point the book has been seen by a professional editor, you have made rewrites, and the story is almost there. You are just looking to gain confidence and have someone pick up any errors you added in the rewrite.
The biggest issue with friends and family is that they are not editors, and, therefore, the feedback may be biased and generic reader’s feedback, where individual preferences for book-reading may cover various genres. In essence it means that you’ll get generalized feedback that will not have an immediate application. You’ll be dealing with comments, like “I didn’t like this character” and “I wish there were more ninjas.” However, here’s how you can squeeze out actionable value:
The problem is that your mum/dad/husband/wife/friend all want your novel to be great; yet they also probably like you and don’t want to hurt your feelings. This means feedback from this inner circle is all but useless. For the best, most honest and most valuable feedback, you need to break out of this circle and into the big bad world.
Seek out the kind of people who would actually read your book in real life. It is these people, real readers, who will give you the kind of feedback that counts. You could try asking friends in your social media network or, perhaps, on forums you visit. The key here is to pick people who will be honest and have some knowledge of your genre.
There Are Two Types of Feedback
When you start looking for feedback, it is important to understand that you have two options:
General feedback is when you give the reader your book and just ask what he or she thinks. This type of feedback is good for getting a feel for the flow and what people will be saying about your book. It is also (potentially) good for building your confidence.
The problem with general feedback is that it is just that—general. It is unlikely it will bring up any specific questions or actionable criticism.
When collecting your general feedback, make sure that you listen more than you talk. Getting feedback via email or a Word doc is great, but actually speaking with your reader is the best possible solution. This gives you a chance to watch body language and prompt the reader for more insightful answers. However, when interacting with readers, you must resist the temptation to explain. Just listen.
Ask open-ended questions. These types of questions will give you the best results:
Typically who/what/when/where/why/how questions all work well. Asking, “Did you like Chapter 2?” will produce a limited response; either they did or didn’t like the chapter. However, asking, “What did you like about Chapter 2?” or, even better, “What didn’t you like about Chapter 2?” will produce the best possible feedback. You could even go with the supercharged “What would you do to make Chapter 2 better?”
Specific feedback is potentially the most valuable type of feedback. This is when you ask a reader to look at one potential problem and provide their thoughts.
Let’s say your editor found that your book lacked description. The editor’s feedback stated there was not a strong sense of place and that you needed to add more details as to settings. The editor’s report itself had given examples of how to do this, and the comments within the manuscript had suggested where it should be added. You have applied this feedback in the rewrite but are still a little worried if this issue was properly addressed.
This is where specific feedback comes into its own. You could give a reader the first chapter of the book and say something like, “Read this chapter and tell me if you can visualize the locations described,” or, better still, “What, if anything, should I do to improve the sense of place?”
The beauty with specific feedback is that you can get fast and accurate results. You can go back to readers multiple times with short sections of text, asking them a specific question.
Step 5: Filter the Feedback
Not all feedback is created equal, and not all readers are capable of giving you the kind of feedback you need. It is, therefore, essential that you filter the feedback, be it good or bad.
Resist the temptation to leap into action and apply the changes that readers suggest. Remember, their suggestions will be things that they think might help, but most readers know less than you do about writing. Instead of reacting instantly to their comments, take a step back and assess.
If you are unsure whether a suggestion is worthy of action, the first step is to get enough feedback. One reader may not be enough; you probably need at least three readers to assess your book, before you make major changes.
If you get enough feedback, then you can look for trends and patterns in the readers’ comments. If all the feedback says Chapter 1 is too short, then it’s time to revisit Chapter 1. However, if one of ten readers says Chapter 1 is too short, it’s probably best to ignore this single comment and make no changes.
Step 6: Read Your Book Out Loud
By this point you’ll have probably produced three drafts of your novel, and you are ready to move forward. The next stage is to read through your book and check for obvious mistakes.
The best way to do this is to print out the full manuscript and read the book out aloud. There’s something about seeing words on paper and visualizing the scenes that really helps you spot mistakes.
The perfect scenario is that you print two copies. Then, while you read it out loud, your critique partner follows the text. This way you’ll pick up those errors that your brain is autocorrecting.
Step 7: A Final Read-Through
You are now almost there, and it is time for the final read-through. This is where friends and family can really help.
The best way forward at this step is to print out a number of copies and send them to friends, family. Ask them to read through it and mark on the copy any errors that they find. This will provide you with fixes to make to the master digital copy, as the visceral nature of this process is both effective and satisfying.
Step 8: Professional Proofread
The final stage is to pay a professional to proofread your work.
One word of warning here: please don’t skip this step. The temptation for many authors is to assume that all the typos have been removed. This is dangerous. The English language is full of exceptions to the many grammar and spelling rules, and a rewrite has taken place. A professional proofreader’s job is much more than fixing typos. One of the most important things that the proofreader does is apply consistency. This ensures that everything is not only right but you are doing the same things in the same way each time.
Preparing your book for publication is a complex and difficult process, and not one to shortcut. No one will care about your book as much as you do, and the prepublication stage is your last chance to ensure your book is both the best it can be and error-free.
The professional edit is just the start. The editor’s feedback will give you a road map to address issues in your book, but it will take at least two or three rewrites to navigate this map.
Friends and family will play an important role in lifting your book to the next level, but you must know when to ask for help and when to just plow ahead without any additional feedback.
Publishing your book is an exciting, fulfilling and hopefully profitable pursuit. However, if your book is to succeed, you must see the completion of your first draft as not the end but the start.
Guest post contributed by Gary Smailes. Gary has a wide experience of the publishing industry and, over the years, has worked as a freelance writer, historian and researcher. He has more than twenty books in print and is represented by agent Andrew Lownie. He’s also the founder of BubbleCow.