The path to publication starts with an idea, then words on the page, then more words on the page. Then deleting most of those words. And then adding more words. You get the idea: the path to publication involves a lot of words.
Once you are looking at nearly 300 pages of words, you beg your previously corralled critique partners to read your words. Then you listen (or not) to what they suggest. You make corrections/additions/deletions (or not) and hustle your nearly perfect manuscript (you think) to your previously obtained beta readers. Beta readers are generally friends/acquaintances/perfect strangers who love to read. You ask/beg them to read your nearly perfect manuscript. At some point they tell you they love it/hate it or are completely ambivalent about it.
Next, you write the most compelling query letter/synopsis and hook yourself an agent/publisher. And you think: my work is done here.
And then you take a nice long rest. What you should do while you wait and wait (and maybe wait some more for the next steps in your path to publication) is write your next manuscript. Also, you should be making a name for yourself in social media—in a good way, mind you. People are more likely to buy your book if they’ve heard of you and like you.
At some point you will be assigned a content editor. Other than your acquisitions editor (who liked what she saw when she accepted your manuscript), your critique partners/beta readers/friends/family/complete strangers that you wrangled in off the street, your content editor is the first official person to read your words. Listen closely to what she has to say. She might tell you that your manuscript is beautiful and there is not one damn thing she can do to improve your words. Trust me. This never happens.
What really happens is this: your content editor emails you two documents. One is your beautiful manuscript, now decorated with
comments/suggestions/changes/deletions/requests for entirely new chapters—look at it as a puzzle that she has torn apart and you must now put back together. The second is a document – anywhere between six and maybe thirty-four pages (give or take a page or two) where your editor introduces herself and tells you how thrilled she is to be working with you. Sure, she is probably required to say this, but it is still nice to hear.
Within this document you will discover your manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses. Generally speaking you will have more weaknesses than strengths. Sometimes more than you might have imagined.
Next, your editor will detail crucial areas that need improvement – most likely there will be many. She might even create a shorthand code of recurring issues, so she doesn’t have to type the same words over and over – and over – again. You will refer to these codes frequently. Soon, you will have them memorized.
Next, she will explain to you the storytelling elements of your manuscript.
Which, of course, you already know since you wrote the manuscript, but it is a beautiful experience when someone else details the plot and rising action and crisis and resolution—and provides recommendations for each element. You really wish she had been available during the original writing process – if she had, she would have been your developmental editor rather than your content editor.
Along with the storytelling elements, your content editor will detail your main characters. Now, these are your people. You created them, but suddenly you must look at them in an entirely new light. This can be scary. Sometimes you have a main character who needs a blood transfusion (she needs to grow). Sometimes you have a main character who really isn’t a main character at all, and you must wipe her out of your manuscript. It’s true. And, most probably, necessary. Just do it.
Right about now might be a good time to mention that one of the most important elements in an author/editor relationship is trust and respect. You both need to trust and respect each other to publish the very best book. Look at it this way: most likely your content editor has edited more manuscripts than you’ve written. Also, she has the benefit of objectivity, while you might still be patting yourself on the back for having written a story with a beginning, middle and end.
After your editor details the setting, subplots, genre and pacing, theme, voice and ending, she details, chapter by chapter, what works and what doesn’t. And then she does a beautiful thing: she provides suggestions. Again, why wasn’t she around from the very beginning?
If you’re very, very lucky, this is what it’s like to work with a content editor.