As a Book Doctor I Will Not Harm Your Book, I Will Only Make It Better

Barrys Desk Manuscript Pile

Unintelligible chapters, random ideas, acronyms without explanation. Your book needs a doctor STAT!

The following is a guest post by Senior Development Editor Barry Richardson on how he edits books to improve the content and readability of the work.

Writing a book is an accomplishment to be proud of; it’s not an easy thing to do. But authors (especially first-time ones) should be aware that their manuscript will be read by someone—the development editor or “book doctor”—who is going to take a close, hard look at what is wrong with it. Many authors can’t believe I would find fault with their precious book. “But all my friends loved it!” I have heard this countless times. (That’s great! Maybe they’ll publish your book, but we can’t!) I’ve had authors accuse me of ruining their book, which is the opposite of my intention. I want to make each manuscript better. If a manuscript is good, I can make it very good; if it’s bad, I can probably make it okay.

What is involved in development editing and what will I do to a manuscript to turn it into a good book? First off, development editing is not copyediting. Authors sometimes confuse the two and are stunned when they get back their manuscript with tracked changes in red all through it showing rewriting, reorganization, and deletions. When your manuscript goes into Production, it will be sent to a copyeditor who will check things like grammar, punctuation, consistency, etc.

I recently wrote about 12 Things I Look at in a Manuscript. Here is a closer look at how I will improve your book.

Writing: Some manuscripts are very well-written; they’re interesting and carry the reader right along. This isn’t always the case, but usually simple editing will fix up the problems. Unfortunately, there are times when the writing is awkward, confusing, or convoluted and would be embarrassing to have in a published book. I then have to smooth out the writing. I assume the author cannot do this on his or her own, since this is the manuscript submitted for publication.

I start with the idea that authors know what they’re talking about, but I want to make sure their writing is reader-friendly. They may be experts, but they can’t always write clearly and coherently. I should be able to understand what the author is saying, even if I don’t know anything about the subject matter. Again, I assume the authors can’t make their writing more clear, so I do it for them. Authors don’t always understand this concept—sometimes they accuse me of “dumbing down” their book.

Flow: It seems obvious that thoughts, sentences, paragraphs, and sections should follow one another, and that order of the chapters should make sense. But sometimes authors just start throwing ideas out one after another in no particular order, just to make sure that everything is covered. I once worked with an author from Romania. He was a genius in global financial trading, but he didn’t see why material had to flow in a logical progression. “Isn’t it enough that the ideas are sound?” he asked. I gave him the benefit of the doubt because English was not his native language, but I had to rewrite his entire manuscript.

Introductions/connecting material: This is often a key to making a book more accessible. A short introduction to a new chapter or section or a few words connecting one section to another can work wonders in helping readers follow your thoughts. I will add these where I feel the author has jumped too suddenly from one thought to another. Sometimes I need the author’s input in doing this, but usually I can do it on my own.

Repetition: Some authors feel that if something is worth saying once, it’s even better to say it several times, even in the same paragraph. I once had an attorney/author who explained to me that from a legal standpoint, it was critical to leave no room for misunderstanding, so he had to use the same word five times in a single sentence. I had to explain that his book was not a legal document; he was supposed to make the concepts understandable to the layperson.

Putting too much in: Sometimes authors who know a lot about a subject want to put everything they know into their book. This can become repetitious, overwhelm readers, and eventually cause them to lose track of what’s being said. There is a delicate art to knowing what to leave in and what to take out. Deleting material—in some cases, lots of material—is an area where the book doctor’s hand definitely can cause the author pain, but it is often necessary.

Leaving too much out: Then there are the authors who feel that if you’re reading their book you must already know A, B, and C, so there’s no need to include it because they want to discuss X, Y, and Z. This can be tricky, since with certain high-level books, it is expected that the reader has a general knowledge of the subject. But for the standard non-fiction book, I want to understand what I’m reading. Again, I assume that if I don’t know what a GRP is, then it should be explained. This is an area where I usually have to ask the author to add new material because I can’t just make it up.

It’s amazing how the simple act of adding subheads can make all the difference in the world. Subheads provide signposts for readers as they go through the book. But they are also extremely helpful for improving the flow, accessibility, and organization of a manuscript as I am editing. Subheads impose a structure on the material. I can see where the material has gone off track or where certain material actually belongs in a different section or chapter with similar material. I once had the writer who was working on a book with a well-known person say to me, “Everything makes so much more sense with the subheads you’ve added.” I wondered how a professional writer would not know the value of subheads, but I was glad to be of help. In the end that’s what I’m really here for—to make the final book better, not to destroy it.

Barry Richardson is a Senior Development Editor at AMACOM. Our in-house “book doctor,” he helps improve manuscripts while keeping the author’s voice and expertise–whether it’s heavy-duty editing, reorganization, rewriting, or coaching authors. Prior to joining AMACOM, he worked for 25 years at Prentice Hall (P-H). Visit our website for freelance development inquiries.


3 responses to “As a Book Doctor I Will Not Harm Your Book, I Will Only Make It Better

  1. Barry was a tremendous help on both of my books.
    Aspiring authors should pay attention to his good advice.
    Thanks, Barry!

  2. Erika Spelman

    As an Associate Editor in the Production Department, I like getting manuscripts Barry has worked on–it makes my job much easier for the book to already be in good shape!

  3. Barry Richardson

    Thanks, Scott! I thoroughly enjoyed working on your books. I recognized their considerable value to potential readers as soon as I started reviewing them. It’s always great to work with strong material.

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