The First Days of an Editing Project

Demystifying how I edit a novel for a client is one of my favorite subjects to talk about. I love working on novels for clients almost as much as I love working on my own novels. As I've mentioned before in other posts, I find the entire process of working on an editorial project to be extremely rewarding.

I figured since I was starting on a new project today for a new client, I would talk a little about the first few days of editing a project, as well as what is involved in determining if a client is a good fit with me.

First Contact

An editorial job begins with the first contact with a new client. Most of the time, the client contacts me, be it via Google+ or by e-mail. The first thing I do is direct them to my Editorial Services page. This page goes into what I do, how I tend to operate, and my rates.


Once a client has had a chance to go over my rates and what I do, it's time to talk shop. This is the stage where I'll send a sample of my editorial if they're interested in working with me. I have several clients who have agreed to let me share the first chapter of their edits with clients.

I do not edit a section of a potential client's work as a sample. Why not, you ask? The first part of a novel often represents the most time investment on an editorial job. While I'm very happy to show examples of the work I've done for others, giving away a chapter worth of edits just doesn't work with my editorial style. It takes me a lot of time to work my way through the initial chapters.

I will ask for a basic synopsis of the story (back of cover blurb) and a sample of writing. This is also where there is a discussion of trigger subjects in the novel.

I am an extremely flexible editor; it takes a significant amount to actually offend me, so I will tackle on projects involving explicit material. However, depending on target audience, I may make recommendations on how to tone the subject matter down to ensure the best reception from readers possible.

My job is not to cater to the egos of my client, but to help them strengthen their novels and turn it into a selling story. I also don't have any attachments to the plot, the characters, and the writing as the author does.

I try to make certain my clients are aware of this prior to working with me.

The Contract

I use a very simple contract to lay out the terms of the editorial agreement. I don't believe in complex contracts; my client needs to be able to understand the terms without requiring a lawyer. This contract is in place to protect both of us. Once the contract has been approved by both parties, it's time for the deposit.

The Deposit

I require a 50% deposit before I start working on a client's project. This mitigates the risk of non-payment for me. It also proves that the client is serious about wanting the slot, too. I request the deposit before I begin work, but after the contract has been agreed upon by both of us.

Some clients opt to pay entirely in advance due to their financial situations. On occasion, I will make special payment arrangements with a client. However, since I have been burned in the past by non-payment for work, I only do this with trusted, returning clients.

Receiving the Novel

Once the deposit is sent and the contract confirmed, I get a copy of the novel, preferably in a word format, as I work on both a windows desktop and an ipad. I confirm the novel file opens and works properly, then file it away until the client's starting date, which is usually the first of a month.

Beginning the Work

Every novel is different. Every editorial job is different. Every author is different. This is a bit of a mantra of mine when I start editing a project.

One thing doesn't change, however. I start editing the first page(s) with a vengeance. The opening sequence of a novel makes or breaks a novel when it comes to sales. If the first scene isn't strong, people won't be interested in buying the book. If there isn't that intangible ‘something' that makes the beginning intriguing, people will turn away and find something else to read.

The start of a novel can set the tone for the entire book. As such, I spend a lot of time and effort focused on the first chapter. So, what do I do when I edit the opener of a novel?

Here's a list! This is just the start of the list, however. There is a lot of stuff that goes into the first scene and chapter of a book when I edit. This is meant to just give you a basic idea of the things I look for when I developmentally edit for a client.

  1. Does the first sentence intrigue me? Why or why not?
  2. Does the first paragraph intrigue me? Why or why not?
  3. At what point did I become interested in reading the story for pleasure? Why?
  4. Who is the main character and why should I care about them? I both ask this of the writer. I also ask this of myself as I read to determine what is either turning me on or off about a story.
  5. What is keeping me from getting absorbed by the story? Why?
  6. What can be improved in a stylistic way to help capture the ‘intangible' elements that turn a good story into a great story?
  7. Is the plot interesting? Why or why not? What can I suggest that makes the plot stronger?
  8. Are there any inconsistencies or holes needing addressed to make the story make sense?
  9. Which characters do I like? Why? Who do I dislike? Why?

This list changes depending on the story, too. I will ask different questions for a science fiction versus a fantasy, and a mystery versus a romance. No one set of questions will work for all novels.

One thing that does stay the same is the fact that I have to explain and justify every comment I make. I recently did the first round of edits on a client's first six chapters of a episodic story. The section in question was approximately 20,000 words long.

My notes were 13,000 words long.

This is why I do not offer samples of the clients work being edited, instead opting to use a portfolio system. I am thorough. I feel that just saying “this is telling” isn't sufficient. I have to say “this is why this is telling.”

Just as I will ask a writer ‘why' over and over again, I will answer those why questions of myself as I leave notes. There are times where I say, “I just don't like this because I don't like this — personal preference.” That's okay. We're all allowed to have our opinions on something. I never expect a client to change anything I recommend, either. They're paying me for my opinion. What a client does with my opinion is entirely up to them. I just try to do my best to offer suggestions that will strengthen the story.

Most importantly, I try to make suggestions I feel will help strengthen them as writers. I have one of those careers where if I'm doing my job correctly, they'll learn all of the skills they need to really start developmentally editing themselves, so they only need beta readers and proofing editors.

Some clients will always want someone to confirm their development of a novel. But, I always love it when a client doesn't need me anymore because they're telling strong, wonderful stories on their own. That's my ultimate goal.


During the first-read edits, I'm pretty communicative. If I'm not e-mailing updates to a client on a daily basis, the client knows what's going on with me, be it through my Google+ stream or via an e-mail. The second reading tends to be a lot more casual and laid back, because most of the work has been done, so instead of daily communications, it may take me a few days to get back with my thoughts and comments, especially if we're doing the second reading by chapter. If I get the entire novel for the second reading at one time, I tend to take a few afternoons to mark the entire thing up.

In some rare cases, I can get the turnaround for the second reading done in a day if the novel is really clean compared to the first reading. (These are my absolute favorite moments of editing, too… it's rare, but when it happens, I think it makes both me and the author feel really accomplished.)

Time Invested

Every client is different. On average, I estimate it takes about 80 hours to complete a project for a client. This varies by client, of course. One client I had approximately 120 hours worth of investment in. Others I've done is as short as 50 or 60 hours for a 100,000 word-long piece.

Later Parts of the Editorial Process…

The first three or four chapters often represent the bulk of time investment, as I don't believe in beating a dead horse. Most stylistic problems in a novel will make an appearance in the first three chapters or so. Once I have dealt with all of the recurring grammar errors and stylistic issues, I can focus on the characters, the story, and the plot line — the hardcore structure of a novel.

Formatting Editorial Notes

I use the comment feature of word and inline editorial to make notes. More often than not, I will use inline editorial, as it's easier to convert to a list of notes. Once I am done the inline editorial phase, I create an outline for the client.

The outline is used to comment on the scenes as a whole, making important recommendations and suggestions for the scene (or chapter) and also list all of the inline editorial notes so the client has all of the notes in one easy-to-reference location. This way, the author can also see exactly what I wrote for each scene and find things easier, without having to dig through their entire novel file.

That's about it, folks. I hope this glimpse helps you understand the process of editorial a little better.

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