Lessons I learned from working with a professional book editor

At what stage does a writer involve an editor in their writing process?

Answers to the question will be as varied as there are writers. In summary, depends on where in the writing stage a writer is.

The three types of editors mostly used in book publishing are: Developmental editor (critique on story structure and flow, useful after writing first few chapters of a book), line editor (language and grammar, practical after a writer has completed a book and self-edited at least four times), and proofreader (fantastic just before a book is published, to catch a missing word, letter).

The type of editor chosen will depend on the needs of the writer. I use use the editing process of my book, The Choices She Must Make, to illustrate on the lessons I learned from the process.

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Friends and outsiders read the book and gave me feedback. Most of the comments were on grammar, and changes to flow of sentences to make the book read faster. I chose to work with a line/grammar editor.

What did I learn from the editing process? 

  1. Passive voice. As a writer, I know the benefits of active voice. I can identity passive sentences when I read books by other writers, surprisingly, not mine. The editor pointed out the many instances of passive voice in my novel and gave examples on how to make the voice more active.
  • The more the revisions I made, the better I have become at identifying and fixing passive words/sentences.
    • Keep the Subject at the beginning of a sentence.

2. Repetition. The editor singled out overused words and phrases in each chapter of the book by highlighting them in yellow. In severe cases, counted and wrote the total number of times a word was used on the margin. One example was my use of the word smile, seventeen times in one chapter!

  • The editor suggested alternative words I could use in place of my repetitive use of smiles, good, then, wondered, thought, in no way, etc.”
    • Now that I know, I will use the identification process in future books. Find alternatives for repeated words.

3. Overused words – like repetition (above), the editor pointed out my use of noted, notice, noted down, made a mental note, etc. Asked me to reference a thesaurus more often - find one word to replace many words.

  • On seeing the glaring colours singling out overused words, I bought a hard copy of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expressions. I plan to acquire more thesauruses – have them as my writing companions. 

4. Language. Words to avoid, “then did she, was what, got, having seen, who had been, inhaled it in, when she felt, found herself, words in her mind, reminded herself, keep it up, the words prompted, a lot of emphasis, at one point, etc.

  • Hard to believe I used those words, but there was enough evidence in my book – and the editor highlighted them, in assorted colours.
    • I promise to make my next book as colourful, during my writer-editing process. I will use colour to identify and edit, starting with the words the editor identified in this book. Thank you.   

5. Add details to scene descriptions, to appeal to the five senses of the reader.

  • What noticeable items are in a room/scene? Furniture, artwork, utensils, weaponry, etc., Focus more on items which enhance the atmosphere that a writer intends to create from the story scene.

6. Watch out for words that sound similar but written differently

  • Their Vs there, wonder Vs wander, tow Vs toe, believe Vs belief, seat Vs sit, relief Vs relieve, bath Vs bathe, bit Vs bite.

7. Give names to main and minor characters in the novel. We write flawlessly, referring to “that guy,” or, "the Teacher," forgetting that all people have names, in real life.  

  • This was easy to implement. I went back to the book and gave a name to the local school teacher. I left the returnee from the USA that way, without a name. My use of ...from USA is pregnant with connotations. I prefer that a reader (depending on which part of the world they are), insert meaning as they read the book.

8. Explain words from other languages, on first use. Do this within text as much as possible, in place of footnotes/endnotes.

  • My novels are set in Africa/Kenya. I have used some Swahili words and local terms easily understood by locals but not my international readers – Matatu, ugali, Sukuma wiki, Safari, etc.

9. Maintain uniformity throughout the book.

  •  Make a choice on how to use particular words – with or without a hyphen or space.

 10. PoV – make a decision on which PoV to use (1st, 2nd or 3rd person), and maintain that throughout the book. Do likewise in each chapter/scene – which character’s PoV?

11. Names of places. I am still conflicted, when to use real place names and when to coin new names. After I explained my reasoning to the editor, we agreed on a middle ground.

  • Use existing names for larger areas such as country, city or large towns. Avoid real place names when too close. For example, within a small village, residential estate – small enough for someone to claim "they are your fictional character," you wrote about them. 

 Have you ever used a professional book editor? What lessons did you learn, how did you apply them in your subsequent writing?

Stay tuned for my next post, how I am applying what I learned from my editor as I write the next book.