by Kristen Hall-Geisler
After three weeks of waiting, your line editor finally returns your manuscript to you. The email with your edited work attached has a lovely note saying that the book is in great shape, that you really took the developmental editor’s advice to improve the flow, and that you’ve come so far with this project.
But the email also says that the editor used Track Changes in Word to suggest fixes for your book. When you open the document, it is covered in red like a scene from a slasher movie. It can be horrifying at first glance. You might be thinking you’re a horrible writer, probably a horrible person, and there are too many mistakes to deal with. You may be tempted to move your cursor up to the menu bar and click “Accept All” just to make all those red marks go away.
Please don’t. You are not a horrible person or writer, and we editors are, believe it or not, humans too. You may disagree with a suggestion or two we’ve made, and that’s fine. You will likely realize as you go through the line edited manuscript that there are a few little wording changes you’d like to make that the editor didn’t suggest. The red marks on the screen may seem intimidating, but they’re easy to deal with even when you go through all of them one by one. Let’s look at a few of the kinds of corrections a line editor will make in your manuscript.
There are many little rules and style choices for punctuation in American English. As editors, we keep a guide like The Chicago Manual of Style (Indigo’s favorite) at hand while we work because we have to look up these rules all the time. Seriously—we double-check what we remember about some rules with every manuscript. I have sticky notes all over my personal copy to lead me to the same half-dozen rules I never get right the first time. (I’m looking at you, a while versus awhile.)
So when your line editor changes two hyphens (–) to an em dash (—) it’s because that’s the proper character to use. We know that commas go between two independent clauses with a conjunction like and, and we know to use semicolons between two closely linked independent clauses without a conjunction; we’ve been reading these rules for years.
These types of fixes are probably fine for you to accept without thinking about it too much. You’ll want to save your brain power for the tougher stuff.
Spelling and Capitalization
Of course your editor will fix any typos or spelling mistakes for you, and you can easily accept those changes as well. Most capitalization corrections are also style issues we deal with all the time, even if they strike you as strange. It’s General Hall-Geisler or Professor Hall-Geisler, but the general was speaking with the professor in the hallway. I talked to Mom on the phone, but I don’t call my mom as often as she’d like.
But there will be some spelling and capitalization issues where only you have final say. Often, these changes in the manuscript will have a comment in the margin as well. The editor will ask if you meant to spell a name in an unconventional way, or if you’re using a phonetic spelling because the character is speaking in dialect. The editor will make a suggestion based on readability for the stranger who picks up your book, but the final call is always yours as the author.
You’ll want to look at these carefully, but understand that the line editor’s aim is consistency across the entire book. If you make a change on page 33, you’ll have to make sure that change follows through the next 200 pages.
Voice and Style
What your line editor does not want to do is edit out your voice and style. There are style guides, and there are grammar and spelling conventions, but your way of telling a story is important. You want to read through your editor’s suggestions with an eye toward maintaining both consistency—that’s what you paid the line editor for—and your voice.
Editors are quite good at reading manuscripts and making the author’s voice shine, even if it’s an unconventional voice they’re using. The goal is always readability; you don’t want any word or sentence to trip up the reader so they’re pulled out of the story. As soon as a reader wonders if it should be General or general, or if that comma belongs there, they’re outside the world you’ve so carefully built inside that book.
But that world can only be created by you, and its story can only be told by you. You will probably not accept every single suggestion given by your editor. You may even scoff at a correction or two. As an author myself, I’ve certainly chosen not to accept some of my editor’s changes. An author friend whose book I professionally edited told me I did a great job, he loved it, and he took about 75 percent of my suggestions. We were both pleased.
You Always Have the Final Say
We editors really hope you love our work and find our suggestions edifying. We understand if not every bit of red we leave on the page is accepted by you. And we’re always open to answering your questions about why we made certain changes.
In the end, you as the author have the final say as to what ends up between the covers of your book, especially if you are publishing it yourself. If you’re publishing traditionally and you have your work edited before submitting it to agents, you’re responsible for the manuscript you send out. In either case, we editors want to help you put the best book possible out there for others to read.
Kristen Hall-Geisler has been Tracking Changes in manuscripts for Indigo since 2012. Her favorite editorial projects are nonfiction, historical fiction, and works in translation of just about any genre. She’s written three books, including Skull and Sidecar (2018), and so has also picked her way through pages full of red marks from her editors.