editing a self-published book


 

Have you completed a memoir, or written a lot of material, and become stuck? A developmental editor can help you figure out what you need to do and how you can reshape your material. I do this work and find it very rewarding because I love helping clients tell their stories. Whenever I can, I offer would-be authors advice on how to get unstuck in the process of writing their memoir or self-help book, and in that spirit, I’d like to share with you an interview I did with a colleague, Al Desetta.

Al Desetta is a ghostwriter/developmental editor I have referred people to when the project isn’t quite right for me or the timing isn’t going to work out given the client’s plans and my schedule. I asked him to shed some light on how he works so that people who follow my blog can learn from him.

 

Nancy: Many people are confused by what a developmental editor does. How would you describe what you do?

 

Al: A developmental editor helps an author develop the true potential in a completed or partially completed manuscript. Unlike a copyeditor who simply corrects a manuscript, a developmental editor looks for ways to help the author improve it, which typically includes helping the writer reorganize the book, rewrite parts of it, add new or additional information, cut or deemphasize parts of a manuscript, etc. For example, I often help memoir writers deepen certain aspects of their stories that they may have overlooked or not considered important. Writers—especially first time writers—are frequently too close to their experience to fully realize the true power in certain events. As a developmental editor, I help authors find the “diamond in the rough” of their experience.

 

Nancy: Who is your typical client? Why do they hire you? For instance, where are they in their process of writing?

 

Al: A typical client is a first-time author who has written a book, but who is uncertain about the quality of the work and seeks me out for objective and constructive feedback. They know they have the germ of a good idea, or even a pretty well-developed book, but they want someone who can offer a professional opinion on the state of the manuscript and ways to improve it.

developmental editor

Stuck on writing your memoir? Hire a developmental editor to evaluate it and help you write it! Developmental editor Al Desetta explains.

 

Nancy: You ghostwrite and you do developmental editing. How do you help a client decide which service is the right one for that particular project?

 

Al: Usually clients are pretty clear about which service they want. Ghostwriting is for people who don’t have the time or skills to write their own books. Developmental editing is for authors who have written their own books, but who are stuck in some way. Sometimes developmental editing also includes some ghostwriting. I’m helping an author right now who has partially completed a memoir. Some of what I do with her is developmental editing—I ask her questions and point out areas where she can improve and develop the manuscript. But I also do a little ghostwriting to help in the process—I interview her about aspects of her life, write chapters based on the interviews, and she then revises these chapters and adds more information.

 

Nancy: When you get full or partial manuscripts from a new client working on a nonfiction book, what are the most common problems you see?

 

Al: Two common problems are overwriting and lack of a workable structure. These problems often surface in memoirs, but are also true of most nonfiction books.

 

Memoir writers often tend to overwrite—they are so close to their experience that they don’t know how to manage or shape it. They think they can write their way out of this problem, but that only compounds the problem. A memoir can’t be about an entire person’s life—it has to focus on an aspect of a person’s experience. What you leave out is as important as what you decide to include.

Related to this is the importance of structure. When an author doesn’t have a workable structure or organization, it’s like driving without a map. Or, to use an analogy that a writing teacher once told me, you set out rowing on the ocean and you lose sight of land. And you keep rowing, hoping to sight land on the other side. But pretty soon you realize you’re lost on the ocean and more rowing (or more writing) won’t get you back to land. Having an organization or structure at the start helps a writer from getting lost, especially in memoir writing, where the author has access to great amounts of information about her life, but often isn’t sure what to include or how to organize it.

 

Nancy: Are there any recent developmental editing projects that stand out for you that self-help mind/body/spirit or inspirational memoir writers could learn from? Any lessons you drew from these recent projects, or were reminded of?

 

Al: One lesson that always stands out is how gratifying the process can be, for both writer and editor. People have life experiences or ideas that they’ve always wanted to write about, but all authors encounter obstacles as they try to write about them. Right now I’m ghostwriting a memoir for a mother and son who were held captive for months by Islamic terrorists in the Philippines. It’s been a wonderful experience to help them create the book they’ve always wanted to write, a process that has also helped them to heal.

 

As a developmental editor and ghostwriter myself, I understand Al’s enthusiasm for helping people to tell stories that lead to healing for themselves and others. If you are eager to get unstuck in writing your memoir, consider contacting a professional, experienced developmental editor to get you back on track.

 

Al Desetta’s website, where you can learn more about his services and the kinds of books he has worked on, is www.AlDesetta.Com

 

 

Whether you self-publish or work with a publisher, it’s important to know how to create copy for your book cover that is compelling and will inspire and entice your reader to take action. There isn’t a lot of room on the back of a book, especially when you add publishing information such as an ISBN, an author bio, or testimonials from other authors, so the copy has to be tightly written without excess verbiage. I highly recommend you read or reread The Elements of Style, a short and brilliant book by Strunk and White, which shows on how to prevent yourself from using three words when one will do. If your book will be a hardcover original, you’ll have more space for text than if it’s a paperback original: You’ll actually have two panels that the reader accesses when opening the cover as well as the back of the jacket (sometimes called the back panel). However, most books today are paperback originals, and hardcovers often use the back of the book for an author photo and/or testimonials for the book or the author, so you might be stuck with just the two vertical panels for text.

 

Here are some tips for writing copy for book jackets or covers that will sell your book to readers:

 

Research. Before you start to write, read ten book descriptions on the back of books that would appeal to your intended audience. Get a feel for the amount of detail and how the writer avoids spoilers in winding up the description and weaves in the themes. Look at the kinds of promises made in the copy. Can your book make similar promises?

 

Sell it, baby. This is advertising copy, not editorial copy. Don’t go into too many details about plot or concepts. Use strong, compelling verbs and nouns. Some of the books I have on my desk use language such as “embark,” “initiate,” “embrace,” “address,” and “achieve.”

 

Highlight your key ideas with a bullet point list. If yours is a work of nonfiction, think about using bullet points in your description. Start each bullet with strong words, whether verbs or nouns, pay attention to parallelism. If you have a list of nouns, be consistent and don’t mix a verb into your list: “practical solutions,” “advice on,” and “7 strategies” should not be mixed with a bullet point that starts with a verb, such as “Learn ways to…” If your bullet points are incomplete sentences, rewrite the others to make them all incomplete for consistency. Notice the parallelism in this article: I start every tip with a strong verb phrase in boldface, and use full sentences.

 

Watch the hype. Don’t gush about your book or yourself to a degree that might turn off readers. The rule is “know your audience.” Maybe your followers will be excited by terms such as “earth-shattering” or “truly unique” but maybe you are better off with “groundbreaking” and “original” and “fresh approach.” Remember, too, that you can’t qualify “unique,” which means one of a kind. Nothing’s “very one of a kind” or “more one of a kind,” so don’t use “very unique” or “more unique.”

 

Work your expertise into the description. Don’t just give your name and any degrees you have. You might write something like “Joe Smith, a lifelong spelunker and founder of CaveExplorers.com, the #1 spelunker’s site on the internet…”

 

Grab ’em up front! Consider asking a question in the first line or setting up a very short example that will grab your reader’s attention instantly—or, make a starting statement. You want the reader to have an energetic response rather than a lukewarm one.

 

Follow a “Wow! Okay… Wow!” structure. Structure your description by grabbing the reader, then explaining what’s in the book and who you are, and ending with oomph. Of course, you want your description to be engaging and energetic, too, as I’ve explained, but the energy of the reader naturally dips when you’re listing the facts about what’s in the book. Think about how a musical performance will start with an energetic song, include quieter ones in the middle, and end on an energetic note.

 

Check your spelling and usage. Don’t rely on the eye, I like to say. Actually use spellchecker software, and if you really want to be picky, consult Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 11th Edition (the standard dictionary in book publishing) to make sure you’ve styled every word correctly (groundbreaking not ground-breaking, for example). Be consistent throughout your text (for example, don’t mix “soundboard” and “sound board,” both of which are acceptable—choose one and stick with it). Don’t use terms people might not know unless you define them (for example, people often confuse “i.e.” and “e.g.” so it’s better to use “for example”). Have someone else who is good with grammar, spelling, and mechanics proofread your copy and look over it yourself several times to catch usage errors (such as “effect” for “affect,” which spellchecker software will overlook). Be as nitpicky as you can.

 

I hope these tips will help you make your book jacket copy sing!

Thinking of self-publishing? Should you choose the editing or editorial evaluation package from the self-publishing arm of a publisher, or from self-publishing houses?

As a former in-house acquisitions editor at HarperCollins, a current ghostwriter and developmental editor, and the coauthor of several successful books, I can help you make the right choice for yourself and your book based on your goals (and your budget). You need to know whom you are hiring (and yes, you want to hire someone who knows why I used “whom” right there!). You also want to get the most bang for your buck, and that means making sure your book’s structure, approach, voice, and concept are solid before you start line editing it. You don’t paint the walls of a house before you’ve installed the plumbing and wiring correctly!

Many editors don’t know anything about structuring and editing books, which is a skill of its own. Also, those of us who are developmental editors do not work on every type of book there is. I am well read in many areas, but in some, I admit, I know next-to-nothing! I do turn down and pass along projects I know for certain I’m not the right editor for because I don’t have enough background in working on that type of book. My clients benefit from being able to work with someone who keeps up on what’s going on in the publishing world, the book marketing world, and the worlds of wellness, motivational speaking and writing, business, health, and more.

Peggy McColl

Some of the books I’ve worked on include business books, self-help, inspiration, life lessons books, and memoirs.

 

ADVICE FOR NONFICTION AUTHORS

Here’s what I recommend for authors who want to self-publish nonfiction: Work out your outline and the beginning of the book, looking to other successful books as your guide, and then call in a developmental editor who can evaluate the material and advise you BEFORE you get off track. Write a clear description of each chapter whether or not you do a whole book proposal before contacting an editor. Don’t make the editor guess at what’s in each chapter based on the chapter titles. If you’re looking to sell the book to a publisher and need a book proposal, follow the standard instructions for creating one (you can use the guidance on my website, and please pay close attention to the all-important comparative books list). Then, ask a developmental editor with an acquisitions background or success in shaping proposals that sold to evaluate it. A developmental editor will alert you to writing issues you need to be aware of, and will guide you on structural changes you need to make. If you’re writing a memoir, you will want to be sure you know what the purpose of the memoir is. Memoirs by non-famous people have to have strong themes and titles to capture the attention of readers who aren’t friends and family members.

When you’ve gotten the manuscript into the best possible shape, hire a copyeditor/light line editor to clean it up. He or she should simultaneously create a style sheet for a proofreader to work from (a style sheet lists all the proper nouns and the grammar and punctuation rules you decided upon, such as whether or not to capitalize the first word in a full sentence that follows a colon). Hire a proofreader and ask a friend or fellow author to be another set of eyes.

ADVICE FOR FICTION WRITERS

If you want someone to evaluate your novel (or your completed memoir or other nonfiction manuscript), recognize that it will take hours just to read it, much less to read it, make notes, and correct those notes afterward. How often have I thought, “Oh, I see—now I understand what she was talking about back in chapter 2. Let me go back and change that note.”! If you want to get an evaluation and save money, create an expanded chapter outline and a plot description. Otherwise, the editor has to skim and skim to get the big picture. I was trained to do this as an in-house editor and had lots of practice reading for literary agents, book clubs, and publishers, and I regularly met with other editors doing the same sort of work to compare notes. We became masters of skimming and evaluating. But even masters need time to go through a manuscript whose entire cover letter with plot description is three sentences long! Make it easier for an editor to evaluate your book by creating the one-page synopsis at the very least. And if you can also write up a list of chapters with short descriptions, that’s even better. It will help the editor and it will give you a big picture view of your book in the process. Maybe in preparing the chapter outline, you’ll spot sections that need to be edited down, for instance.

If you decide that you really must write the whole book and “get it on paper,” so to speak, before getting direction from a developmental editor, don’t let me stop you. Just know that if you go that route, you are likely to have to do a lot of cutting and restructuring, and you may end up spending a lot more money paying an editor because you’re presenting that person with a manuscript and no “cheat sheet” with plot description or chapter summaries. Don’t be married to what you wrote.

I hope this helps! I really don’t want any of you feeling you must approach the book writing process a certain way, but I also don’t want you shocked by how much money and time it takes to shape your very raw manuscript.

Good luck on your writing and editing!