Expert opinions offer outstanding opportunities to improve your writing process.
Every day is a learning day. By better understanding the editing process, you invest in your skillset and make your life a little easier on your next big project.
What is the difference between editing and proofreading? Do you need them? How can you get your book ready to be turned into a professional audiobook?
Learn about all of this and more in our latest interview with Ross Browne.
Q1: Can you start by introducing yourself and The Editorial Department? What does The Editorial Department do for those who have not heard of you before?
Ross: My name’s Ross, and I’m coming at you from Tucson, Arizona, where I head up publishing’s oldest freelance book editing firm here in the United States. My company, The Editorial Department, was founded in 1980 to help writers of all experience levels hone craft and turn promising manuscripts into publishable properties. We specialize in manuscript critique, developmental editing, line and copy editing, and traditional and independent publication support.
Q2: So, to get to know you a bit better, who is your favorite author of all time? Why do you like them so much?
Ross: I have a bit of an obsession going with British crime novels right now. I’d have to say it’s in a dead heat between Caz Frear and Tana French at this very moment. Both these authors do such interesting and original things within the genre of mystery. Their stories are original and full of suspense and brought to life by unforgettable characters I’d happily follow anywhere.
Q3: In terms of editing content, what are some standard practices that you apply when conducting the excellent work that you do?
Ross: While every book is different, the overall process of helping a good manuscript become a fine book is pretty consistent. We start with a read of a manuscript to feel for its commercial and literary potential, what works, what needs work, and what the author can improve on from a technique and craft standpoint.
We provide detailed written feedback on all of this and then discuss it with the author to arrive at a clear, actionable path through the revision process. The author revises with our ongoing guidance and feedback. Then once the content of the book realizes a suitable standard of quality, we turn to the polishing of the writing and correction of grammar, spelling, punctuation, and so on.
For fiction, our focus is on things like plot, characterization, pacing, suspense, dialogue, genre-specific issues, quality of narrative voice, and so on. For nonfiction, it’s on clarity, organization, structure, flow, suitability for intended readership, and accessibility of writing style.
Q4: Would you approach editing a voice-over script differently from your regular editing requests, such as book or website content? Why is this the case?
Ross: First, let me say that I’m a voracious consumer of both print books and audiobooks, and I often enjoy “reading” in both formats to get a feel for how the experience of a book differs when listening to it versus reading it in print.
While a strongly positive or negative reaction to a voice actor can affect the experience of an audiobook, the book itself needs to be as good as it can be, regardless of how it will be experienced. I find that a book that reads well in print will be just as engaging and satisfying to the ear if voiced by a competent actor—and vice versa. The editorial process on our end is the same, no matter what format a book is being released in.
One reason for this is that our editors are big believers in a concept we call “see how it sounds”. This boils down to reading your manuscript aloud. Letting your ear guide the effort to make the narrative more pleasing, the dialogue more captivating, and the tone of your writing more even and consistent.
We explore this principle at some length in our book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, which our founder Renni Browne coauthored and is the best-selling title on how to edit your work that’s ever been published. The idea is that your ear will often catch what your eye may not. There’s nothing quite like hearing the text of your manuscript read out loud to help you spot phrasing that may be awkward or hard to follow. Enlisting the ear in the self-editing process can be tremendously helpful in honing a voice. Giving your wording the sound and feel you want it to have.
This process is precious to authors whose books will be released in audiobook form for obvious reasons.
Q5: In what ways do you approach a proofreading task in comparison to an editing task?
Ross: I’m glad you asked because many people who haven’t worked with an editor believe that proofreading is all there is to editing. That an editor’s job is basically to correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation. While proofreading is an essential component of what editors do to prepare a manuscript for publication, it’s a small tip to a much bigger iceberg.
Most of the editorial process happens before final proofreading. Much of it takes the shape of conceptual feedback and suggestions to help authors strengthen things like story, content, characterization, and so on.
This falls under the umbrella of what we call developmental editing, which guides an author through the revision process. Developmental editing can come in editorial memos, running commentary in manuscript margins, or conferencing in-person or by phone. We employ anything that works to support an author in revising the manuscript and making it as good as possible before final polishing and correction.
This is followed by line editing, where we make hands-on edits to the wording itself. Line editing isn’t about correction so much as honing style and voice. Making sure the phrasing and word choice is as pleasing and easy to follow as is appropriate for the work in question.
The final editorial step is copy editing and proofreading: correcting spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc.
Q6: What are some key differences between proofreading and editing fictional content and non-fictional content, in your opinion?
Ross: Most of the nonfiction my company edits is of the book-length narrative variety: memoirs, biographies, books about history, politics, and so forth. As editors, our first duty with nonfiction is typically to support the author in being transparent, factually accurate, and informative. The narrative tone is essential but generally less of a priority than the quality and organization of the information and the takeaway value for the reader. So the majority of the feedback we provide and editing we do is in support of the latter.
With fiction, an author’s voice is much more central to the reading experience and gets more attention from our editors. But we also focus quite heavily on making sure that the story is as gripping as possible, that the characters are memorable, and that the pace is suitably quick.
Q7: Many of our readers here on Voquent are voice actors or people looking to invest in our services. What tips would you have for them when it comes to proofreading and editing voice-over scripts that they already have?
Ross: For writers considering hiring a voice actor for an audiobook, my suggestion would be to read your book aloud first and to revise anything that sounds off or clunky to you. Trust your ear and try to read without too much inflection.
Q8: Proofreading and editing text content can take a toll on your concentration. Do you have any tips for new writers or editors about how to avoid screen fatigue and stay productive when tackling a long editing or proofreading task?
Ross: Ah yes, frequent breaks are a good thing. Standing up, moving your body a bit, taking a moment to refresh your ability to concentrate and pay close attention. This is really important! Beyond that, I’d strongly suggest working with your document in a view that doesn’t show the markup formatting.
Word processing applications like Microsoft Word and Google Docs usually give you the option to track your changes. You see what is as cut, moved, inserted, or deleted as you edit. This is an excellent tool for reviewing editing, but it’s a feature we don’t recommend having active in view when you’re doing the editing itself. The markup formatting makes text much harder to read and can be distracting, especially if the editing is heavy. And it’s much easier to miss errors when the markup view is showing.
Having your word processing app track the changes but only display the text as edited will reduce fatigue and make editing much more effortless. You can always switch views to the markup to see what was changed.
Q9: What aspects about editing and proofreading do you wish industry professionals had told you when you started out?
Ross: That there’s no way to guarantee good writing, but plenty of valuable guidelines out there to avoid bad writing.
Q10: To change pace again before the end of the interview, what book are you reading now, and what do you like about it?
Ross: Love the question! But first, a bit of context. I had the distinct pleasure of attending an online author chat with Ken Follett and Lee Child. Two favorite authors of mine who I believe are very good at what they do. I learned that a key point of literary inspiration in Ken Follett’s writing life was Ian Fleming’s James Bond series.
I grew up enjoying the Bond movies in the Sean Connery / Roger Moore era, but for whatever reason, I never read any of the book versions, despite being a fan of spy fiction. (Truth told, I assumed they were pretty schlocky.) Upon hearing Follett’s praise for the series, I figured I better check it out and start at the beginning.
Casino Royale was published in 1953 by Ian Fleming and introduced James Bond to the world. A lot has changed in the 68 years since this book was released. Aspects of handling female characters have not aged well; Fleming is a much better writer than I expected. Just a dynamite storyteller. I’m partway through the book, on the edge of my seat as Bond endures hellacious torture by a Russian operative. Bond has no means of defending himself or escaping, and there’s no help in sight. It’s a thrilling story!
Q11: Lastly, do you have any other advice for editing and proofreading written content you’d like to share?
Ross: Just that for anything beyond the most central basics of grammar, spelling, and such. Guidelines for writers are just that: guidelines and not ironclad rules. The best editors recognize that there’s rarely a single “right” way to do anything when writing. What works for one book may not work for another. With fiction especially, the editorial process needs to accommodate an author’s creative vision. Which may run against the grain of what’s expected or what’s been done before.
Editing is busy work. It is no wonder that there are professionals who make a living out of it! While these services exist to help, you can also learn a lot from adopting some of these strategies into your writing process.
Writing is a very personal endeavor. Figuring out what works for you and honing that approach is paramount. Whether that is using Word’s tracking features or as simple as reading your work out loud. There are plenty of expert ideas that can improve your work tenfold.
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