Editors on Editing
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Editors on Editing

What Writers Need to Know About What Editors Do

Gerald Gross, Gerald Gross

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eBook - ePub

Editors on Editing

What Writers Need to Know About What Editors Do

Gerald Gross, Gerald Gross

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About This Book

The classic guide to the book publishing process, with essays by over three dozen professional editors: "Terrific."—Judith Appelbaum, author of How to Get Happily Published For decades, Editors on Editing has been indispensable for editors, aspiring editors, and especially writers who want to understand the publishing process, from how manuscripts are chosen for publication to what lunch with an agent is like. In this third revised edition of the book, thirty-eight essays are included to teach, inform, and inspire anyone interested in the world of editing. Covered are such topics as:

  • the evolution of the American editor
  • the ethical and moral dimensions of editing
  • what an editor looks for in a query letter, proposal, and manuscript
  • developmental editing; line editing; copyediting; and freelance editing
  • working in different genres and markets, from science fiction to children's books to Christian publishing
  • the question of political correctness in both nonfiction and fiction
  • making the most of writers' conferences
  • and many more

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Grove Press


What Editors Look for in a Query Letter, Proposal, and Manuscript

Jane von Mehren
JANE VON MEHREN is a senior editor at Ticknor & Fields, a division of Houghton Mifflin. She spent six years at Crown Publishers, where she began her career working with James O’Shea Wade and rose to the rank of editor. In addition, she has been a recipient of the Tony Godwin Award, which allows a young American editor to work in Britain. Among the books she has edited and acquired are Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women by Susan Faludi and Catwatching and Dogwatching by Desmond Morris.

Submitting a query letter, proposal, or a manuscript to an editor is like going out on a job interview: First impressions count! A lot! Jane von Mehren recommends that “the first thing you, the writer, can do is to make sure that no matter what you submit, it follows the correct format.” She then proceeds to offer six basic rules for making your material look professional in the editor’s eyes, and goes on to list vital dos and don ‘ts specific to preparing a query letter, proposal, and manuscript so that they become effective tools and business plans for selling your work, whether fiction or nonfiction. Editors sometimes seem too jaded or busy to pay attention to what you have eagerly, anxiously submitted; but, Ms. von Mehren concludes, “despite their being overworked, remember that editors are always looking for new material. There is nothing quite so thrilling for an editor than coming upon an original, exciting, and thoroughly professional author. Your expertly prepared and presented query letter, proposal, or manuscript can convince her that you are that author.”

What Editors Look for in a Query Letter, Proposal, and Manuscript

One of the many myths that exists about editors is that we spend our days sitting quietly in our offices, reading the voluminous numbers of query letters, proposals, and manuscripts we receive. This Utopian vision fails to take into account the phone that never stops ringing, the weekly meetings that must be attended, and the numerous stages of the books we oversee. In fact, we almost never consider our submissions in the office between nine and five. We do our reading at home during the evenings or on weekends and because our time is limited we simply cannot afford to read every single word of every single submission.
Then how on earth can an author hope to make an impression or catch an editor’s attention, you ask?
The first thing you, the writer, can do is to make sure that no matter what you submit, it follows the correct format. Before sending in your material, make sure it conforms to these six very basic rules:
1. Never send anything that is not typed. If you work on a computer, use a high-quality printer; try not to employ a dot-matrix printer for anything longer than ten pages or so.
2. Always use 8½-by-11-inch white paper. It need not be expensive, top-quality bond paper, but don’t use onionskin, erasable typing paper, or any other type of very thin paper that will tear and smudge easily. If you use computer paper, make sure to tear apart and separate each sheet; expecting an editor to do this for you will only irritate this very busy reader and make him or her less inclined to even consider your work. Keep your margins approximately 1½ inches on the top and to the left, and 1 inch at the right and on the bottom.
3. Except in the case of a short query letter, always double-space your manuscript. Many editors won’t consider proposals or manuscripts that are single-spaced and will return the material to you unread.
4. Number the pages consecutively from beginning to end, preferably in the same place on every page. Do not begin each chapter with a new page 1; should a reader lose his or her place in the manuscript, it can be impossible to find again.
5. Carefully proofread the material you submit. A typo here or there in a completed manuscript will be forgiven; in a query letter or proposal, however, such mistakes will only make you look unprofessional.
6. Always include a stamped, self-addressed return envelope for an editor to return your work. A business-size envelope is sufficient for a query letter. In the case of a proposal or manuscript, send the packaging appropriate to the size and weight of your material; padded envelopes are recommended for anything longer than one hundred pages.
Neatness counts. Nothing will turn an editor off faster than a manuscript that is sloppy, poorly typed, or single-spaced. The goal is to make your query letter, proposal, or manuscript as editor-friendly as possible—if your reader has to squint, turn the page to an odd angle, or wade through illegible material, you’ve already given him or her reason to reject your work. While this may sound harsh, it is a realistic reflection of the enormous amount of material an editor must read—besides, you want the editor who buys your work to retain his eyesight, don’t you?
In order to make sure that your submission will not be wasted, you need to consider carefully where to send your material. A writer should never send anything to a publisher addressed solely to “Editor,” whether it be the “Managing Editor,” “Fiction Editor,” or even “Cookbook Editor.” It’s unprofessional. Most editors work on numerous kinds of books, usually both fiction and nonfiction, and these generic labels have little meaning as they often apply to most of the editors on staff. Neglecting to use a specific editor’s name will relegate your submission to the slush pile—the equivalent of the lost and found at a major international airport.
Figuring out which editor and which publishing house to submit your material to is not as hard as you might think. The first question to consider is: Which houses publish books similar to what you have written or are planning to write? If you don’t have any idea which companies might be appropriate, go to your local library or bookstore and scan the shelves. Jot down the names of several titles from different publishers; then call the editorial department of each house to find out the names of the editors of those books. While you are at it, make sure that you ask for the correct spelling of the editor’s name.
Of course, these guidelines will only help you to present your material in the best light possible to the most appropriate person within a particular house. Ultimately, it is the submission’s content and the style of your writing that will determine whether an editor responds favorably to your work.

The Query Letter

Ranging from one to five pages in length, the query letter should pique an editor’s curiosity about your project to such a great extent that you will be asked to send in more material. Query letters are appropriate for all sorts of fiction and nonfiction, ranging from travel books and cookbooks to biography and how-to. Sending a query letter as opposed to a proposal or a manuscript permits the author to test the waters while allowing an editor to quickly see whether or not the project is right for his or her list. You will usually also get a much faster response to your inquiry than if you had sent more material.
Your query letter is a piece of advertising copy that should sell both you and your book to the editor. It should showcase the concept of the work you wish to sell to the publisher; it is, in a sense, a miniproposal. Because a query is so brief, it is also vital that not a single word be wasted. Give your letter a definite focus, a clear-cut slant. Pack it with information about what your book is about, what credentials you have for writing the book, who you think the audience is for the book, and how you can help the editor reach that audience. Describe its main features, making sure to emphasize what makes it different from other books available on the same subject. This will attest to your book’s salability. On the other hand, don’t ever tell an editor your book is a “guaranteed best-seller”; it probably isn’t and saying so will immediately mark you as an amateur.
When presenting a work of fiction, do not describe the entire plot of your novel; instead, create a paragraph or two that depicts your story in a manner that will tantalize your reader and have her wanting to read more. Characterize your manuscript in terms of its genre. You might compare your novel to that of another writer; is your work like Stephen King’s or Anne Tyler’s, Amy Tan’s or Clyde Edgerton’s? If you decided to submit to this particular house and editor because of having read one of their books, say so; it will indicate that you have done some research and aren’t sending out your material blindly. Since fiction is often dependent on a successful narrative, you might also send in a chapter of the novel; always include the first chapter rather than a section from the middle of the book, which will be more confusing than helpful. It is particularly important to convey your credits as a fiction writer in your query letter. There are so many people trying to write fiction, that if you have been published, even if it’s only one short story, you will have already elevated yourself above the rest of the crowd.
In submitting a query about a nonfiction project, first give an overall description of your project. The next, crucial step is to distinguish it from the other books available in your field. Describe how your book is different from the other books currently available; this will show that you have done your homework, making you look more professional as well. If you have access to new and provocative information that has never been published before, and that presents a whole new perspective on your subject, make sure to mention it in your letter; you might send some examples of this material as a part of your query. Although it is not necessary, you can include either a table of contents or an introduction that succinctly and provocatively sums up what you wish to achieve in your book.
Remember that a query letter is like a fishing expedition; don’t put too much bait on your hook or you’ll lose your quarry. Be brief, be succinct, be enthusiastic, and be tantalizing!

The Proposal

A strong proposal is both a sales tool and a business plan. It should persuade an editor to offer you a contract for the book you plan to write, and it should estimate the length, cost, competition, investment in time and money, as well as potential profit. Like a query letter, the proposal should make an editor want to know more about your project—and excite him or her enough so that the publishing house will offer you an advance that will subsidize you while you finish the book.
Writing proposals for novels is extremely difficult and they are equally hard for editors to evaluate. A strong outline or proposal doesn’t necessarily translate into a good novel; on the other hand, a bad outline will not interest an editor though you might write a wonderful novel given the chance. Unfortunately, unless you have a solid track record as a novelist, you will almost certainly not be given a contract on the basis of a proposal or outline. Your only real option is to sit down and write the whole novel; that is indeed a huge investment, but this is a basic fact of publishing life and ignoring it may mean that you never even begin your career as a fiction writer. This does not mean that an outline of a novel is never useful; in fact, editors will often respond to a query letter about a work of fiction by asking to see the first three chapters and an outline of the rest of the book. This is a means of seeing what an author is up to; if an editor likes what he or she reads, he will ask to see the rest of the manuscript. While this may sound inefficient, it actually speeds up the process and lowers your postage costs.
Proposals are, however, extremely useful for nonfiction works; in fact, most nonfiction is sold on the basis of a proposal as opposed to a completed manuscript. While proposals range in length from a very few pages, sometimes even less than 10, to as many as 125, they tend to contain the following six elements:
1. A proposal begins with a statement a few pages long that explains the concept of the book you plan to write. This section often starts with an anecdote or some provocative set of facts that hooks the editor on your book idea. Writing in the active voice, you should use this section to explain why your idea is unique, why it is the right book at the right time, and why you are the right author for this project.
2. Most proposals have some sort of marketing section in them. This section includes a full discussion of the competition your product will face in the bookstores. Check what is available in your local bookstores—doing research in a variety of stores—and in Books in Print. Describe what other books are available on the subject you plan to write about, emphasizing how and why your book will be different. Obviously, you need to limit the number of titles you discuss, so pick the best-sellers in the genre, citing impressive sales figures where you can. The point here is to show how your book will be as successful, if not more so, than these proven competitors in your field.
The second purpose of the marketing section is to define your audience and ways in which the publisher might reach it. Cite statistics to show how many people will be interested in your book’s subject matter; when writing a travel guidebook proposal, for example, include the number of Americans who travel to that destination each year. If you know of professional organizations that might want to buy copies of your book or whose newsletter might be a way to advertise directly to your core audience, say so. Make sure to be realistic in your assessment of the marketplace, as editors, who constantly make their own evaluations, will not be impressed by inflated numbers or wild generalizations. Do not tell an editor that your family and friends think that this book has huge potential, as this is the quickest way to make yourself look like an amateur.
3. A table of contents usually follows next. This will give an editor a sense of how you envision the organization of your book. It will give your reader an indication of the scope and depth of your material.
While you may not choose to have a separate table of contents, you should make sure to include a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the contents of the book you plan to write. For each chapter of the book, write a miniature essay, usually no more than a few pages in length and often no longer than a few paragraphs, that describes what material will be covered and how it will be handled. Your aim is to show the depth and detail of your approach and how the themes of your book will evolve from one chapter to the next. You want your chapter summaries to be complete enough to convince an editor that you can write the book you propose, and that it will contain interesting, fresh, valuable material and yet also leave the reader wanting to know more.
4. Provide a section of production details. Approximate how many pages your book will have and how long it will take to research and write it. What kinds of costs will you be incurring? Will you have to travel to do research? Will there be extensive fees for permissions or artwork? Indicate what additional kinds of materials you envision including in the book: are you planning to use photos, charts, diagrams, etc.? Here your goal is to realistically assess what will be entailed in writing this book—and how much money you will need to do the job adequately.
5. The author bio, written in the third person, should establish your credentials for writing the book you propose. Your previous writing credits, if any, should be listed first; enclose any material you have written on the subject. Then give a description of your qualifications; this includes academic degrees, career highlights, or a lifelong study of the subject as an avocation. If you can get or have already gotten endorsements or blurbs from prominent people in the field, cite them. Include videotapes of any TV or other public appearances you have made. Give a rundown of what media, if any, you have already done. Since more often than not it is the author who is at the center of any publicity or promotion a book gets, it is a tremendous asset to a publisher to have a mediagenic author to work with.
6. Finally, you should provide one or two sample chapters from your book. This will prove to an editor that you can write, and although no one will assume that this is the finished product, these pages should show off your writing skills to their best advantage. Each chapter should be twenty to twenty-five pages in length and display the writing style you plan to use throughout the text and contain the kinds of information that will appear in the book. Remember to choose chapters that will suggest all the possibilities for the full-length work and still whet your reader’s appetite!
Keep in mind that a proposal is not the same thing as an outline you would use to write your book. The best proposals are those that elicit the fewest questions. Why? Because you’ve anticipated an answered them all. Remember, your aim is to write a proposal so gripping that after reading it an editor will get on the phone and offer you a contract for your book.

The Manuscript

There is a certain irony in the fact that an editor can tell a writer quite a bit less about what she looks for in a completed manuscript than what she’d like to see in a query letter or proposal. In part this is because editors are not writers and do not know how to write a book; we soon learn that every single writer approaches his or her task in a different fashion. And when a completed manuscript is submitted to an editor, it is quite close to being finished and should persuade an editor of its value on its merits: the content and style of the work. You should, however, make sure that your manuscript, whether fiction or nonfiction, does not indulge in sloppy thinking or careless writing. Ask yourself: Is my plot or argument persuasive; is it well executed; does each scene, character, conversation, and idea make an important and effective contribution to the work; is it original; will it keep people outside of my family and closest friends reading through the last page?
It may take a while, but a well-written and -conceived manuscript, proposal, or query letter presented with enthusiasm and professionalism will find a publisher. In the meantime, consider carefully the responses you are getting from editors and use them to continue honing and sharpening your work for future submissions. Keep in mind how difficult your task is. After all, you’re trying to catch the attention of extremely busy individuals who read enormous amounts of material daily while they try to balance acquisitions with their editorial, production, and marketing responsibilities.
But despite their being overworked, remember that editors are always looking for new material. There is nothing quite so thrilling for an editor than coming upon an original, exciting, and thoroughly professional author. Your expertly prepared and presented query letter, proposal, or manuscript can convince her that you are that author.

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