Progress reports on editing

Progress Reports: What’s happening during your edit?

It’s 10:00 p.m. Do you know where your manuscript is?

It’s like being trapped in a replay loop of the old TV public service announcement reminding parents the kids should be home for the evening, safe and sound—only this time, it’s your manuscript you’re worried about. You sent your baby to the editor a week ago, and you haven’t heard a word since then.

You can’t imagine what might be wrong. Doesn’t your editor love the story? Maybe they don’t. Maybe they hate it. Maybe it’s so awful they wish they’d never accepted the job. Maybe just reading it made them so ill they’ve been bedridden for a week, unable to lift a finger.

Maybe your manuscript killed your editor.

It’s almost certain that your manuscript is exactly where it should be: in progress on your editor’s desk. The thing is, there’s not a whole lot to say about an incomplete edit, whether it’s been a day, a week, or the better part of a month. Even the chattiest editor isn’t likely to have much concrete to say about an edit in progress.

What’s happening during your edit?

When I receive a new manuscript, I download the file, open the manuscript, confirm the word count (for edits charged by the word), and give it a quick once-over for obvious technical or version issues with the file. Then I let the author know their baby has safely arrived and send them a packet of publishing support materials to mull over during the edit.

And that’s that. I try to send an email or two as the editing period goes on with projections about my completion date, but there’s simply not much to say about the manuscript yet.

Editing happens layer by layer, not chapter by chapter. The very first processes I run on any book involve the entire manuscript, not the opening pages. Then I’ll make any number of passes through the manuscript based on what needs to be done. Each pass focuses on a different issue or editorial process; if a lot of those issues happen to pop up in Chapter 31, then I’ll probably spend quite a bit of time down there early in the edit. It’s not a sequential process, and you shouldn’t expect an editor to be able to start returning chapters day by day as the edit progresses.

Furthermore, editing is an immersive, deep-flow process. Questioning styles and reversing editorial decisions opens dozens of virtual browser tabs in our brains. We need complete, uninterrupted immersion to make our way into your story world along the specific path you’ve chosen. What I might tell you about the landscape of your manuscript the first week could be completely different from the conclusion I reach after traveling the entire path.

In the meantime, I’m like that mechanic buried beneath the carcass of your vehicle in the shop. I’ve got all the nuts and bolts of your story lined up next to one thigh where I can reach them while the other hand’s deep in the engine. Every time someone thumps beside the wheel well and calls out, “Hey, how’s it going under there?” I have to stop what I’m working on, slither out, sit up, and try to refocus on telling you that, well, I’m in the middle of things right now.

That’s all the mechanic and I have to say at that point: we’re in the middle of things. We’ve identified some issues, but we’re not sure if they’re symptoms of something larger, and we’re not sure what we’d recommend doing about them yet. Only one thing is certain: your car (or manuscript) isn’t getting any closer to getting fixed while we’re sitting here making polite noises about what we might or might not need to do.

What about feedback?

None of that’s to say that editors aren’t happy to offer plenty of feedback. That will arrive in the form of an editorial report (or editorial letter) returned along with your edited manuscript. Your editor will describe the strengths and weaknesses of your manuscript, what was done during the edit, opportunities for further refinement, and recommendations, techniques, and resources to use going forward.

Some editors write longer editorial reports than others. If you’d prefer more support and guidance, find the right editor who provides the kind of approach you’re after. Many editors include email or phone follow-up as part of the edit. Once you’ve thoroughly digested your editorial report, that’s the time for questions about the edits.

So there’s nothing nefarious going on when an editor says they prefer not to be contacted during the edit. They simply want to be able to give your project the dedicated focus you’re paying for. They need time and space to develop a comprehensive picture of your writing and manuscript. That’s not possible on a piecemeal basis unless you’ve already arranged to approach the edit more like a coaching project.

As I tell my clients, I’ll touch base a couple of times during your edit, but for the most part, no news is good news. Enjoy the break from your manuscript. It’ll be time to tackle revisions before you know it.

Lisa Poisso, Editor and Book Coach

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