How To Prepare A Manuscript For Publication, Part 1: Always Put Content First

So, you want to have your book published by a major publishing house, or you want to self-publish a book. How would you go about preparing your manuscript for publication?

The first rule in publishing is always to put content first. Always.

Many writers are fascinated with layout and fonts, and get so hung up in making the text look beautiful that they forget the content. This was true even back in the old days, before there were word processors.

In my university creative writing class, seemingly before the invention of electricity, we had to complete a term project. One of the students presented a beautifully bound book of his poetry, complete with photos and words in calligraphy. Everyone else had handed in poorly typed pages covered in white-out, fastened together with staples. Surely, compared to us he would get a good grade, we all thought.

And we were all wrong. Before the whole class, the professor pointed out the binding, the photos, and the calligraphy, and noted that in his opinion the student was trying to use all of this to hide the fact that the poetry was sheer doggerel. The words were all that mattered to him, he said, and he wished the student had spent more time creating good content rather than fussing over the presentation of the work.

And so it goes. What was true then is still true today, in this modern world where we can create veritable marvels of layout and design on a typical desktop computer. The writing is in the words–in the content–and not the presentation. You can have the best presentation in the world, and still fail to get published because the content is not very good. Of course, if you are self-publishing, you may not have anyone there to tell you that your content does not make the grade, and so all of your concern about formatting, fonts, and layout will be wasted effort.

Put the content first. Always. You can worry about fonts and formatting later.

Indeed, the submission guidelines for most publishing houses insist that the text should double-spaced, 12 pt. Times New Roman, with minimal use of italics or bold, and everything set to Normal or Body text if you are using MS Word Styles (a typical formatting guide can be found here, but you should consult the submission guidelines of individual publishing houses for specifics).

You can always feel free to ignore a publishing house’s submission guidelines, but only if you do not want to have your book published, as most acquisition editors will not even bother reading your manuscript if you do so.

Of course, if you are self-publishing, you may think that you should focus on formatting from the get-go, as it will save you time later. This may be true, if you know what you are doing. However, if you do not know what you are doing, then you will almost certainly end up having to reformat everything from scratch later on. Indeed, if you have used some of MS Word’s more advanced features incorrectly, you may even have to take the entire manuscript and paste it into Text, just to remove all the formatting so you can start all over again. As an editor, I have had to do this with manuscripts so that I could sort them out for typesetting. I know what firsthand what a pain in the neck this can be.

It is much better to focus on the content first, and then worry about formatting at the end, when you are actually ready to submit the manuscript to a publisher, or, if you are self-publishing, you are preparing your manuscript so that it can be made into an epub or a pdf (I will explain how to do this later).

When looking at content, there are four main issues that you should focus on.

First, what are you offering the reader? Books are meant to be read, but before a reader will read a book all the way through, the reader has to find some personal benefit from the book, even if it is just entertainment value. You really need to ask yourself why others might want to read your book, and then hone in on that with your content. For example, if the book is supposed to make people laugh, then they should be spewing coffee all over their keyboard when they read it. If it is to make them afraid, the book should scare the hell out if them. If it is to inform, then the book should be a treasure house of information, data, and insight. If the book is to inspire, then it should be the kind of book that would motivate an army to fight to the death.

Too often, writers write solely for themselves, without having a reader in mind, and without giving someone else a reason to read the work. Mind you, it is good to have a passion for the work you are creating, and if you are able to exorcise some inner demons while writing the book, then that is good too. However, it is simply a waste to write a book that no one will read, or that no one would even want to read.

Second, does your manuscript capture the reader from the first page? Better yet, from the first sentence? Most people—certainly most editors—are above all busy and distracted. They simply do not have the time or energy to wade through several pages of manuscript to see if a book is going to go somewhere. You need to interest the reader from the very beginning. In this regard, you could do well to study some great books and see how they begin. One of my favorite first lines is from One Hundred Years Of Solitude:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

If this line does not make you want to read further, then you simply do not like novels. Other great first lines can be found here.

Third, is the writing accessible to the reader? By “accessible”, I mean clear and easy to understand. If the narrative is confusing, the dialogue is obscure, and the story is told by multiple voices in a non-linear fashion, you may have trouble finding an audience. There have been some books that were characterized by all these and more, yet found a large audience. However, they were generally engaging and expertly written. The less accessible the book is to readers, the harder you will have to work to keep their interest. And sometimes—often—all of this razzle dazzle becomes a distraction, and it is better to write a simple story, beautifully told.

Fourth, does the manuscript have sound mechanics and a consistent style? This is usually the domain of a copy-editor, rather than a writer. However, if a writer understands how to use punctuation correctly, and is able to produce copy that is reasonably clean of grammatical errors and spelling mistakes, then this provides a better basis for a copy-editor to work with, as no one really likes cleaning up someone else’s mess.

Most English majors are familiar with The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, and while I do not agree with all of the prescriptions in it, the overall sensibilities of the book are on the mark. Indeed, one could say that the book distills the very essence of 20th century American prose. Disagree or dislike the book all you want—it still belongs on your bookshelf, and if you disagree with any of its prescriptions then you should at least force yourself to articulate why the book errs, and how its advice can be improved upon. Strunk’s original version can be found here.

While William Strunk, Jr. was a gifted teacher and E. B. White was a gifted writer, neither was a copy-editor, and so the book does not delve into earthshaking issues such as the proper use of hyphens, the capitalization of foreign place names, or the proper formatting of bibliography entries. If you wish to become a copy-editor, or wish to explore the depths of pedantry the human race is capable of, then you should look at purchasing The Chicago Manual of Style, the AP Stylebook, or The Oxford Guide to Style.

Few writers really excel at all of the above points, and so this is why most published writers need and use editors. If a book lacks focus, then a good editor can help you find that focus so that you can better serve the reader. A good editor should be able to cut away all the deadwood so that your story will be clearer, and more compellingly told. A good editor will tell you if your manuscript is an incomprehensible mess, and will help you try to make some sense of it. Finally, a good editor should be able to correct any mechanical and stylistic mistakes in the manuscript so that you do not come off looking like a fool.

If you do not have any editorial help, then you will have to learn to do all of these things yourself. Most people are not equipped for this. For example, while I can easily spot someone else’s typos and spelling mistakes, I find it nearly impossible to see my own (and no doubt, there is at least one glaring mistake in this blog post). Most people have blind spots when it comes to their own writing. This being the case, without the help of an editor you may find getting published to be a difficult ordeal, as whether you like it or not someone else—possibly multiple people—will have a hand in your manuscript, making or suggesting changes to your content that you may have difficulty living with.

It would be much better to sharpen the content to as fine a point as possible before submitting it, rather than to see your manuscript go through some rather painful surgery later on, or, worse yet, to see it be rejected.

Self-publishing does not exempt you from having to do this work—it only makes your own work much, much harder, as you have fewer people to rely on to help get your manuscript in shape. A person who plunges ahead and self-publishes a manuscript which would not and could not ever be considered publishable under any circumstances by a publishing house is the definition of a fool, as all the work will be for nought. If no publisher would ever touch the work, then who would buy it? This is not to say that you should never self-publish—only that you owe it to yourself to polish your work, and make sure that you have content that is really worth publishing. And, if you have any doubts at all, you owe it to yourself to hire a professional editor to give you a helping hand.

Stakeholders In The Editorial Process

Most people unfamiliar with publishing have trouble understanding exactly what an editor does. Likely, in their minds an editor is just a glorified proofreader who can easily be replaced by the spell-check function in MS Word. While this kind of thinking is understandable, it is not at all correct. Yet, it can be difficult to explain what an editor does with any clarity, as most often an editor’s work is defined by what one does not see, rather than what one does see. A properly edited text will not contain typos, spelling errors, and misused punctuation. It will not be disorganized, incoherent, and lazily written. A properly edited text is one where your mind can absorb the contents without focusing on the writing.

This does not tell the whole story, however. The best way of understanding what an editor does is by looking at editorial work from the viewpoint of the stakeholders–the people most affected by the editorial process–and seeing how the editor works to satisfy their often competing claims.

The Publisher
More than anything else, an editor is in the risk-management business. Every time something is published, the publishing house’s reputation is on the line. If the work is shoddy, then its reputation suffers. If the work is full of factual mistakes, plagiarized material, IP violations, or libelous assertions, then the publisher may face lawsuits or worse. It is the editor’s job to minimize the risk to the publisher. Since most publishing projects do not make much money for the publisher, an editor is usually not as concerned with profits, though there is always the hope that things will go well. However, he or she will be quite concerned about protecting and enhancing the publisher’s brand by publishing the best work possible.

The Author
Just as important as an editor’s obligations to the publisher are his or her obligations to the author. And, an editor seeks to protect the author from risk and enhance the author’s brand in nearly the same way as he or she does for the publisher. However, the author is not an employer, but more of a client. With this in mind, an editor works as a sounding-board for the author, reviewing the author’s work, and making suggestions for improvement. While it is often hard for an author to accept editorial advice, the most important goals of the editor are to help the author become a publishable writer and increase the market potential for the author’s work. In a very real and important sense, the editor and author are not enemies, but allies. It serves both of their interests to have a product that the publishing house is willing to publish, and the public is eager to buy.

The Public
What is the use of publishing a product that no one wants to read and no one is willing to buy? Ultimately, publishing is a service industry: It seeks to serve different sectors of the public. The service it provides may be informational, inspirational, or entertaining, but it is a service nonetheless. A good editor will always have the publishing house’s mission statement in mind, and will be asking if the material being edited really serves that mission. If not, then the editor will insist on revisions to the material so that the goals of the publishing house will be met.

The Marketing Department
More often than many people realize, new publishing projects have their origins in the marketing department of the publishing house. Nearly always, new publishing projects are reviewed by the marketing department, which makes its own tweaks or suggestions. Many editors therefore have to work hand-in-hand with the marketing department to make sure that its demands are met, and that the marketing and sales force have a product they feel comfortable selling.

The Typesetters
The first modern editors were typesetters, in the sense that typesetting and publishing were more often than not nearly identical professions. Later, they began to diverge. Nevertheless, the first real style manual was written–not by an editor or publisher–but by a typesetter, and the contributions of typesetters to editing cannot be ignored. It was the typesetters more than anyone else who standardized English punctuation and spelling, and who insisted upon concise prose as a way to save money on typesetting and printing costs. In short, typesetters do not want to print slop. The most obvious job for the editor, then, is to make sure that the product is ready to be typeset without any further changes needed, and then to review the work after it is typeset to make sure that there are no mistakes (proofreading). This is the mechanical kind of editing that most people associate with the profession.

The Editor
The last stakeholder is the editor him or herself. If an editor has done a good job, you will rarely if ever see his or her fingerprints on the work. What you should see is the author’s voice, enhanced and uplifted with the editor’s help. Having said this, an editor is hired for his or her insights, judgements, and skills. These will all find themselves reflected in what is published. And it should be this way, as publishing is an art practiced by human beings, and not an engineering project overseen by robots. It may have been the author’s voice, but it was the editor’s choice to hire the author, and the editor’s judgement that guided the project. While an editor does not and cannot take credit for the writing, an editor’s own efforts and skills will ultimately be seen in the finished product. The editor thus has his or her own reputation to guard.

Enhanced by Zemanta