Styles of Manuscript Editing

Karen Cole

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When you are correcting or making changes in a book manuscript, what you are doing is editing that manuscript. I’ve been in the business of editing would-be books for over the past twenty-five years, and I’ve helped many a first-time author put his or her book together in a way that made it more readable, enjoyable, saleable and finally - marketable.

There are two basic forms of helping an author write his or her own book. One is ghostwriting. That is when you take the material the author gives you, such as through tapes, written materials and/or phone calls, taking notes as you go, and holding meetings and interviews, and then you actually do the job of writing the book yourself. You may supply new material, new characters, fresh nuances, etc. for the book. But ghostwriting can also be on the fine edge of rewriting. For example, the ideas laid out by the original author may fully enter your writing of the book, sometimes as originally constructed by the author. Or you may simply rewrite a manuscript that was pretty much formally written by the author. This is near the finer edges of copyediting, where what you actually do is simply correct the major and minor mistakes made by the original author.

The big difference between ghostwriting and copyediting is not always so pronounced, you see. Some people consider it to be ghostwriting when you simply take an author’s ideas and rearrange them into readable material, while other people consider that to be rewriting. A major job of rewriting might involved adding a new “voice" to the material, or making changes in the general writing style, which may be superfluous, exaggerative, or simply downright dull.

Copyediting or editing, on the other hand, usually involves keeping to the style of the original writing, without adding much if any of your own writing “voice" to it. What you are doing is perhaps rearranging some of the material to reflect greater consistency in the writing along the lines of what the author wants - or seems to want. You might be making changes in grammar, syntax changes which entail remaking word order and perhaps utilizing new words and phrases, correcting punctuation, and changing some of the sentence structuring. You may be adding some of your own fresh material again here, as when you do ghostwriting, but when copyediting and not ghostwriting is involved, this will not usually be major additions of new book material.

However, you can certainly mesh both copyediting and ghostwriting. You may research additional material and either intersperse it where it is needed in places throughout the manuscript, or you might rewrite the opening “hook" so that it “grabs" the readers’ attention in a far more arresting manner. You could also perhaps rewrite or write a brand new ending for the book or for its various chapters, to make the book more dramatic, give it more “flair, " and add more “spice" and substance to it. All this can be done while still mainly keeping to an editing or copyediting style when it comes to the remainder of the manuscript. And you would probably not be changing the overall original “voice" of the book.

Sometimes you will find that a book contains nearly only minor grammatical errors and doesn’t need much actual editing except for grammar and perhaps some syntax or minor structural errors, and maybe some fact checking as well. Fact checking involves making sure that a character’s name is always spelled the same way, that a town remains to the north and doesn’t suddenly slip down south, and keeping to other such factual consistencies. This style of editing is called proofreading the manuscript, and is usually the last thing you do before you turn in your final copy of it to the client, whether you ghostwrote, rewrote, copyedited or simply proofread it.

Charges for the above services, as you’ve probably guessed, vary widely. You would of course charge more for more work involved in the writing, and less for less work involved. It all depends on how much time and effort you feel you need to put into the writing. If you are practically writing the book from scratch, only using the author’s ideas and doing a lot of “side research" where you are looking up ideas for new material and adding it, this would be considered upper level ghostwriting or “ghosting" - and you would charge commensurate to the greater amount of work involved. On the other hand, if all you are doing is proofreading or “proofing" the manuscript, naturally you would charge far less money to properly perform such a service for the would-be book author.

Whenever you receive a manuscript from an author, or a request to “look at" his or her material and judge what needs to be done with it, review the materials the author is willing at first to release very carefully. Explain to the author that his or her own original material is fully copyrighted under the US copyrights law of 1989, and that all nations with copyrights treaties with the US cover this as well. You may also explain that the partially or fully completed manuscript can be registered with the US Copyrights Office. And once you have a good idea of approximately what is needed to turn the material you will have at your disposal into a full-fledged marketable book manuscript, sound out the author on his or her total budget and figure out a decent rate for the actual work you will be performing. You might call it “light to medium copyediting" or “research and ghostwriting" or “simple proofreading. " Whatever you decide professionally by your own standards and what you can get the client to agree to is the best possible course of action for you to take in regard to the manuscript.

Then finally you will begin to work on what will be either your client’s own masterpiece, or if an agreement is struck, a book co-authored by the two of you. That is if the client is amenable to the latter course of action. This way you can get your name on the book spine and in the book jacket, and possibly make more money from the book as an equal partner of the client. Or if you simply want to remain “ghostly, " you might request the client at his or her discretion to consider you to be the “editor" of the book, and ask him or her to credit you somewhere. This is often done on the Acknowledgements page, for example by stating, “This book would never have been accomplished without the help of my Editor, So and So. " That way you have ample hard evidence that you actually worked on the book. But if you feel you did far more than mere editing, you could request of the client that he or she put “Ghostwritten by So and So" somewhere within the book, so that the world will know all about the hard work you actually did. In the bad old days, usually all the byline any such ghostwriter could hope to receive was indeed “Editor, " but nowadays it may be permissible to more often use the terms “Ghostwriter, " or “ghostwritten by. " It largely is up to the discretion of your client.

You will also always need to make certain simple but necessary assessments when it comes to creating a truly fine, hopefully best-selling and clearly wonderful fiction or non-fiction book, and when figuring out what exactly you are going to charge to do the job. Whether payment is made for the actual construction of the manuscript or you are willing to wait and take a percentage of the book’s net sales, or you even agree with the client to use both courses of action, you will have to make these arrangements somehow. Please remember that the work involved is the greatest determinant when it comes to figuring out what you are going to do and how much you are finally going to charge to do it.

The fields of copyediting and ghostwriting are fast becoming much more common nowadays, especially with the greater advent of self publishing services and the ready availability of book writing services on the Internet. And it doesn’t hurt to know exactly what style of so-called “editing" that you will be using to qualify and quantify a new book’s content by polishing the manuscript to its gleaming perfection of beauty, profundity, the information gained from it, or whatever the client’s and your goals ultimately happen to be.

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