Why is it taking so long to edit your book?


The duration of your editing process depends far more on you than it does on your editor.

I recently told a friend of mine that I was working on editing two 70,000-word books right now. “How long does that take?” she asked. I didn’t have a simple answer, and that got me thinking.

I’ve edited whole books in two weeks, and others that took a year.

Here’s are a few things that make the difference.

How complete is your book?

Some editors insist on starting with a full manuscript. And that’s certainly far easier. If you have the whole book in front of you, you can see everything that needs fixing, and there are no obstacles in the way.

The alternative is to work on the book in chunks. I’ve worked on books one chapter at a time. Of course, that means I have to wait for you to finish each chapter.

How quickly do you write?

The books that took a year to edit did so because the writers were slow. Sometimes months went by between chapters. And sometimes chapters arrived out of sequence.

Ironically, writers like this are often the most impatient to receive feedback. They’ll ask you to wait six weeks for a chapter, and insist on feedback a day or two later.

Slow writing not only makes for slow editing, it makes for disjointed editing. Editors try to keep the whole book in their minds. If there’s been a lapse of time, I need to re-acquaint myself with the work and insights I had when editing previous chapters.

Even if you can’t assemble the whole manuscript, it’s far better to deliver it in two to five large chunks than 12 or 15 widely separated chapters. Your book will benefit if you can carve out consistent time to work on it so you can deliver it in bigger pieces.

Delivering one chapter at a time does allow for coaching, but after a few chapters of that, you’re really better off attempting to create larger segments.

Can you hit your own deadlines?

Editors schedule and work on multiple projects at once.

If you are supposed to deliver on September 10, we may have blocked time for you in the weeks that follow that.

If you deliver instead on September 30, that may conflict with another book editing project. And that, in turn, could mean less time to concentrate on your project.

Is there a structural issue?

If you tend to write in a stream of consciousness, what you create will not be organized in a way that’s easy to edit. The editor has to read the whole book — or at least skim it — to figure out what you’re getting at. Then we need to determine what the structure ought to be. And then we need to determine how to break up and reassemble what you sent to match that structure.

That’s a time-consuming process. Not only does it require reading and rereading the whole book, it requires lots of thought and reflection on how things ought to be organized. That’s going to slow things down, especially if it requires multiple conversations with the author to resolve.

One way to avoid this delay is to plan your book better ahead of time. Figure out what is going to go where before you write it. Or, write your stream of consciousness text and reorganize it yourself before you send it to the editor. If you do that, the editor can concentrate on problems of effectiveness and language rather than untangling a mess.

Are your chapters consistent?

Part of our job as editors is to make things consistent. So if each chapter is supposed to start with a case study, include a graphic explaining the main idea, deliver some research to support its thesis, and end with a numbered list of tips, then we’ll try to make sure all the chapters match.

If you chapters structures vary for inexplicable reasons, we’ll need to figure out how to fix that, and which chapter organization works best. That takes time.

Do you have writing tics that take effort to untangle?

I’ve edited writers who wrote every other sentence in the passive voice, repeated the word “leverage” hundreds of times in the same book, wrote multiple sentences that were 100 words long, and wrote sentence fragments that didn’t have endings. Detecting and fixing problems like that is the editor’s job. But if there are enough of them, plowing through your manuscript is going to be a rough, slow slog.

Can we finish in one pass?

If your manuscript has big or pervasive problems, like tangled structure or lots of passive voice, then the first set of edits will address those problems. But often, once we’ve solved those problems, you’ll spot others that were hiding in the background.

Sometimes there are issues that the author needs to address — missing sections, facts that appear to be wrong, or an unresolved inconsistency in terminology, for example. We can’t edit those parts until the author fixes them.

Obviously, if we turn the manuscript back to the author and they need to fix things, we may need another pass at the whole manuscript to complete it. And that adds time.

Time is money

Slow processes take more of the editors time and effort. There’s a cost to that. Slow processes tend to generate more expensive editing jobs.

There’s also the editor’s time and attention to consider. I love jobs that start quickly and end quickly. As a result, I’m motivated to put extra effort into solving the problems and getting the manuscript completed in an awesome way.

Conversely, if you’re slow to deliver and your manuscript is filled with problems that you could have fixed on your own, you’re telling me you don’t care that much about your own book. I’ll do the best job I can, but that certainly doesn’t make me want to apply extraordinary creativity to make up for your lack of effort.

I like fast authors, I cannot lie. Fast authors write better text. That not only makes editing easier, it generates a better result — one that readers will appreciate, even if they don’t know how it was created.

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