Last updated 15 November 2022
I almost called this article ‘How to Avoid Screwing Things Up in an Editorial Team’, but the SEO gods said it was too long. However, that’s essentially what this article and its follow-up are about.
All editorial projects require collaboration. The simplest might only involve an author and a proofreader, whereas the most complex can involve many more people working together in an editorial team. For any project to turn out well, these people need to work in concert with one another – not getting in each other’s way and, ideally, scaffolding each other’s efforts to reach a shared end goal.
Table of contents
Working separately together
But what about when these people must work ‘together’ in an editorial team without any direct contact? This is frequently the case – for example, copyeditors rarely communicate directly with proofreaders, authors likewise with typesetters, and developmental editors with indexers.
This two-part article looks at some of the ways each person in a typical editorial workflow – author, developmental/structural editor and project manager (Part I), and copyeditor, typesetter/designer, proofreader and indexer (Part II) – can contribute positively or negatively to the experiences of the others. In doing so, they can drastically affect the outcome of the project, for better or worse.
(Note that there are other potential roles in the editorial workflow, such as permissions clearer, image researcher, cartographer and translator, but this article focuses on the core of what is often called the ‘production’ phase, plus the developmental editor, who sits slightly outside that phase but heavily influences it.)
The basics of working cooperatively
As in any industry, there are some basic must-dos that pertain to everyone who wants to avoid capsizing their project or making the other members of the editorial team want to chuck them overboard. These include:
- sticking to the brief and schedule
- communicating promptly and, wherever possible, proactively
- doing the best possible job within the budget and other constraints
- generally behaving ethically and respectfully to other editorial team members
With that said, the remainder of this article (and the second part) deliberately doesn’t aspire to the lofty goal of comprehensiveness and instead aims to pick out some specific areas where each role can be helpful and help others.
The author’s role, first and foremost, is to write good content. Much of their work may be carried out in isolation, long before any editorial personnel become involved. However, keeping in mind later stages can do a lot to make those stages run more smoothly.
In the simplest terms, the better the job the author does in the writing process, the better the job editorial professionals will be able to do later. This can be broken down into several areas:
- Have a vision: the grammar, sentence structure and organisation don’t necessarily have to be stellar – that’s what the editorial team is for – but the author should ideally have a strong vision of what their manuscript is about, who it is for and how the final publication will be used. That way, editors can focus on polishing and amplifying the message rather than wondering what the author wants to say.
- Speak up: if you do or don’t want certain changes to be made during the editorial process, tell your editorial contact. Even if you’re allocated an editor by your publisher, it’s usually still possible to let the team know about your preferences. (Just be prepared to be told that certain things are non-negotiable matters of house style!)
- Follow the format: if your publisher or editor asks you to use a specific structural scheme, style guide or series format, try to follow it as closely as possible. No editor enjoys butchering an author’s writing to squeeze it into a format that it doesn’t really suit. A far better result will be obtained if the text is written with the required format in mind.
- Follow the instructions: if you’re asked to work in a specific file format or to do (or not do) specific things to a version of the manuscript, try to do them, and ask questions if you’re unsure how. For example, not following an editor’s request to use track changes can make it impossible for them to verify changes and check their impact on the rest of the manuscript, which can lead to errors creeping in.
How others can help them
- Tailor communications: authors are not always familiar with publishing, and, even if they are, workflows and expectations vary. Communications should be tailored to the level of the author’s experience, and core publishing terminology may need to be explained.
- Communicate limitations: it’s important to be clear on the limitations of the workflow. For example, if a certain stage is the last chance for an author to make a certain kind of change (such as adding new images), tell the author so as to avoid complications and perhaps disappointment later on.
The developmental editor (also called a structural editor) works on the content and structure of the manuscript. They may get involved before the manuscript has even been written, or they may work on a completed draft. In non-fiction work (my wheelhouse), they look at such aspects as chapter structure, organisation, terminology, and suitability for the readership and market.
- You shall not pass: the developmental editor is often the first gatekeeper of the editorial process. Balrogs and other questionable textual creatures should be required to justify their existence and then adequately tamed, and the most unruly should be firmly jettisoned. For example, if the manuscript’s flow is illogical, it can’t make up its mind what sort of reader it’s addressing, half of its tables are missing, or the authors’ affiliations all contain different information, the copyeditor will constantly be distracted dealing with issues that aren’t strictly within their remit and is likely to pass on problems to the proofreader as a consequence.
- Structure, structure, structure: revising structure during copyediting isn’t ideal, and fixing it at proof stage can be disastrous for both the proofreading and the indexing. The developmental editor should make sure that the structural foundations of the book are solid, so that each stage of the editorial process can become steadily more fine-grained.
- Citation gestation: they may not look pretty when they leave the developmental editor, but the citations and references should have a logical and consistently implemented system, and be pretty much complete. This avoids delays in copyediting and potential irritation to the author (who may be surprised to be asked for a raft of new references).
- Style basics: the developmental editor doesn’t usually get heavily involved in grammar, spelling or details of style. However, if a specific style (such as Chicago) absolutely must be used and this isn’t firmly established during developmental editing, it can greatly inflate and complicate the work required during all subsequent stages.
How can others help them
The author is the person whose work most affects the developmental editor. See above.
The project manager is the hub or filter for everything that happens in the project. They may get involved during or after the development phase, or there may even be two project managers (one overseeing development and one overseeing the later stages).
In terms of communication, a project manager’s role can essentially be boiled down to:
- receiving information from everyone else
- processing and interpreting the information with reference to what’s going on elsewhere in the project
- repackaging the information for others (telling them what they need to know at a level of detail that’s appropriate to their task)
The above is an ongoing, cyclical process with many opportunities to inadvertently make others’ lives a misery. To avoid this, project managers should keep the following in mind whenever possible:
- Understand everything: their project, the client’s brief and the industry, so they can give accurate responses and instructions that others can rely upon.
- Empower people: Make their communications and briefs timely, comprehensive, concise and considerate, anticipating any unusual or troublesome impacts of their requests. (I wrote about considerate communications on difficult projects here.)
- Be available: projects get stuck (or quality suffers) when project managers take days or weeks to answer straightforward questions.
- Say ‘no’ when appropriate: every project manager wants to make their client and author happy, but sometimes requests cannot be accommodated without jeopardising the project’s quality, cost or schedule constraints. The project manager must stand firm and clearly state if a specific request would exceed agreed limits on the project’s delivery (and then provide alternative options).
- Don’t (unintentionally) misrepresent the job: chapter samples sent to freelancers should be representative of the work as a whole, and any unusual aspects should be mentioned so people know what they’re agreeing to.
How others can help them
Because project managers deal in information, they are seriously hampered when editorial team members don’t keep them updated. The information they give out is only as accurate as the information they receive, and unexpected changes in that information can wreak havoc in their planning. The earlier that team members tell the project manager about any changes, problems or delays, the easier those issues will be to manage and mitigate.
The next stages
So far, so good: the text has been written and organised, and there is a person in place to take it forward. The following stages of the editorial process (copyediting, typesetting/design, proofreading and indexing) are the focus of Part II of this article.