What’s Missing from Your Editorial Process?

By Mark Nichol

No one standard specific routine exists for optimizing the quality of written material, but various models have some procedures in common that are, with adjustments, appropriate to any context and any type of content.

What follows is an outline of editorial production for most book publishers, a protocol that, with variations and simplifications, applies to the preparation of text regardless of the medium in which it is presented.

The writer produces an initial draft and reworks it until it seems satisfactory for the writer’s purposes. He or she then submits it to an agent or directly to an editor. The recipient will probably, statistically speaking, reject the manuscript outright, but let’s assume that it is accepted. Even if the agent or editor believes that the manuscript has potential, he or she is likely to return it with suggestions for improvement, which the writer will presumably take to heart before submitting the revised manuscript.

The amount of attention the manuscript receives at this stage varies significantly depending on many factors, even in the book-publishing industry. (The same, of course, can be said for the initial writing phase.) These factors include the publishing company’s policy regarding how much staff attention is devoted to the editorial process, as well as the editor’s skill level.

Ideally, the editor will work assiduously and extensively on the manuscript, helping the writer focus and reorganize the narrative (whether fiction or nonfiction) as needed, either by passing it back and forth for incremental revisions or simply developing it on his or her own in one or two passes. (A more senior editor may review the manuscript before or after this editorial stage, and it may also be distributed for formal or informal peer review.)

At this point, traditionally, the manuscript has gone to a (usually freelance) copy editor, but because of financial and temporal restraints — two factors often intertwined — this step is, with increasing frequency, elided from the process. However, it remains integral enough to the development of a manuscript that I include it here. The copy editor revises the manuscript on a more functional level, attending for the most part to grammar, usage, and style.

The manuscript is then returned to the writer, who is usually charged with accepting or rejecting changes, though he or she is informed that some alterations — generally, pertaining to the publisher’s style — are nonnegotiable, and the writer is also restricted to very minimal new revision at this stage.

The manuscript is then set into type and distributed to a proofreader and the author (as well as, if appropriate, an indexer), who comb the proofs for any typographical errors. The writer is enjoined from making any changes at this point and is sometimes removed from this round altogether. However, especially if the copyediting stage was skipped or rushed, the proofreader might be asked to edit in proofs — or might suggest being permitted to do so. (As we all know, some books are not proofread at all, but we won’t discuss such an unpleasant topic.) These changes are then entered into the design-program file and the book is printed.

As I mentioned above, the editing process for any other medium is a more or less condensed variation on this theme: Book production, once the writer submits the manuscript, lasts (rarely) weeks to (usually) months, magazine and journal articles take days to weeks to produce, and newspaper content is developed over the course of hours to days. Reports and white papers are prepared on the order of magazine timelines, and website content might go through in as little as a matter of minutes.

The take-away here is that regardless of the medium or the timeline, the writing-editing-proofreading matrix is essential to high-quality content. If you produce content for a business or an organization, and you or others in the enterprise are dissatisfied with the product, you might want to analyze what component(s) is/are missing from your editorial process and find solutions for incorporating them within your means as determined by financial and staff resources and time constraints.

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1 Response to “What’s Missing from Your Editorial Process?”

  • David

    I totally agree with you Mark that despite the medium we hope to publish our writing/content, the writing-editing-proofreading matrix is important to helping us ensure we eventually release to the public content that is of high-quality.

    I have found web content and stakeholders in the online publishing medium particularly guilty of recurrent disregard to the impact typographical and proofreading errors have on content published online. I agree errors of this nature found on web content take away quality marks from the content.

    Thank you for reminding us (both writers and editors) that we need to allow writings we are working on pass through rigorous, thorough editorial processes in order to produce high-quality work.

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