As we continue our Ask an Expert series, today on the blog we’re sitting down with New York Times-bestselling author and editor Emily Colin, author of The Seven Sins Series, The Memory Thief, and The Dream Keeper’s Daughter. Emily shares how she brings a story to life through the various stages of editing, and brings a writer’s perspective to why editing is essential.
1). Can you tell us a bit about your editorial work?
I do a wide range of editorial work—from developmental editing to copyediting to proofreading. When I work as a developmental editor, I take a deep dive into all of the elements that bring a novel to life: setting, pacing, point of view, dialogue, plot, description, characterization, tone…you get the idea. I may suggest that the author revisit the catalyst for the story, beginning the book in a different place; tighten a saggy middle; deepen the theme; give us a more nuanced sense of characters’ emotions; step up the pace; make some changes to resonate with the market…it all depends on the project. If the manuscript is based on historical events, I’ll do a bit of research to make sure those are reflected accurately. Of course, if I notice inconsistencies or errors in spelling or grammar, I’ll mark those—but that’s not my primary objective. My role is never to change the author’s voice, but rather to make sure that the manuscript is dynamic throughout, the characters are vivid, the dialogue resonates, the plot moves along at a nice clip, and the prose shines.
When I take on a copyediting job, my role is very different. By the time a manuscript comes to me to copyedit, it’s ideally already gone through the developmental editing process. As a copyeditor, I do my work based on a style guide—typically, the Chicago Manual of Style—and a dictionary, usually Merriam-Webster. As I copyedit a manuscript, I’ll make sure that it adheres to both of these points of reference when it comes to spelling, hyphenation, capitalization, and all manner of other minutiae. I’ll also suggest that the author rephrase certain sentences if I feel they’re awkward and could be more concise. If the manuscript is non-fiction or based on historical events, I’ll fact-check to make sure there are no glaring errors, and doublecheck any links included in the book. I’ll also peruse Works Cited pages to ensure the formatting is correct, and doublecheck any quotes for accuracy.
By the time a job comes to me for proofreading, it’s already gone through a developmental edit and a copyedit. In fact, it’s generally been formatted by the designer, and is coming to me as a final step before going to print. At this point, no major changes should be needed. As a proofreader—again, relying on the Chicago Manual and Merriam-Webster—I’ll doublecheck for spelling errors, typos, and missing words; make sure that the page numbers in the table of contents match those at the beginning of each chapter; ensure that the line breaks occur appropriately and that there are no extra or missing spaces between paragraphs; and, if the manuscript is non-fiction, doublecheck references, facts, historical figures’ names, links, and anything else that might possibly contain an error.
2). What is your favorite type of editing?
Of all three of these, my favorite is probably developmental editing, since it gives me the opportunity to work closely with the author to help them hone their creative vision and make their manuscript the best it can be.
3). What would you say to authors who are still in the beginning stages of polishing their manuscripts, and who are on the fence about whether or not copyediting or proofreading are necessary?
I would say that copyediting and proofreading are always necessary. If you’re working with a traditional publisher, this is part of the package—and the same person doesn’t usually copyedit and proofread a given manuscript. It’s ideal to employ two different individuals for each stage of the process, since one will invariably catch something the other’s missed. No matter how hard a copyeditor or proofreader tries to be eagle-eyed, something always slips through (much to the chagrin of every editor out there).
If you’re independently publishing your book, then the responsibility falls to you to make sure your manuscript looks professional—and the last thing you want is for a reader to be humming along, loving your story, only to be jolted out of the world you’ve created by a glaring typo on page fifty-two.
The thing is—no matter how many times you’ve read your manuscript, as the author, you’re not ever going to be able to catch everything. You’re too close to the project. On top of that, unless you’re familiar with guides like the Chicago Manual, there are some details that will fall outside your wheelhouse. This is why it’s great to employ folks who do this for a living, so you can get back to what you really love—writing your next book.
4). You are a New York Times-bestselling author, and you’re releasing the latest book in your celebrated Seven Sins series on August 3. As an author, how do you find the editing process? What part do you enjoy the most? What part do you find the most challenging?
I’m an odd author, in that I love editing even more than writing. To me, it’s like arranging a room to achieve perfect feng shui, once you’ve already invested in all the furniture and decorations. I adore revisions and tend to tear through them rather quickly—far more quickly than the writing itself. One of my favorite parts of the process is to get feedback from my editor and see what I can do to incorporate it into the story. Writing is so solitary, the moment I actually have someone else giving me suggestions on how to make my books better, I get ridiculously excited!
I’m also a fan of searching for words in my manuscripts that serve no true purpose, such as “just,” “really,” or “seemed.” I have a list of about ten words that I tend to overuse every time I write, and I use MS Word’s Find and Replace function to search for and eliminate them. This results in a far cleaner—and leaner!—manuscript than I had to begin with. Depending on what genre I’m writing in, I’m always aware of my target word count based on what the market will bear, and so this part of the process is a relatively painless way of hitting my goal.
As a final step, before sending a manuscript to my agent or editor, I’ll upload it to an app called Voice Dream Reader and listen to it. When I hear my manuscript read aloud, I often catch repetition, small typos, and other things I miss during physical read-throughs.
In terms of what I find the most challenging, it’s likely killing off my darlings—those scenes I adore, but that don’t necessarily move the manuscript forward. If left unchecked, I have a dreadful tendency to let my characters wander around bantering and kissing for far too long. Trimming those sections always hurts my heart—but it makes the manuscript stronger in the end!
5). Do you hire someone else to copyedit and proofread your own books?
Since all of my books have been traditionally published, the publisher has handled the copyediting and proofreading—though of course, I’ve proofed my galleys! Though I make every effort to deliver as clean a manuscript as possible (see above exhaustive efforts), the final responsibility doesn’t rest on my shoulders (thank goodness).
The one exception to this rule is UNBOUND: STORIES OF TRANSFORMATION, LOVE, AND MONSTERS, the young adult anthology I co-edited (and contributed to), which came out this past February. Since that was published as part of an authors’ cooperative, I did copyedit and proof it—and my co-contributors can attest to the fact that I read through that bad boy no fewer than thirty times!
6). How do you balance your editorial work and your writing life?
This can sometimes be challenging. If I’m on deadline for a book, I have to be careful about what editorial projects I take on. I need to be realistic about what I can accomplish and not over-commit. This was harder when my career first began, but now I generally have a good sense of how long something will take me to accomplish—unless the editing project turns out to be far more complex than I anticipated.
7). What new projects (either writing or editing) are you looking forward to?
Oooh, great question! I’m excited to finish writing the third book in my Seven Sins trilogy, as well as to complete the revisions on a women’s fiction manuscript that’s been in the works for some time. The two projects are incredibly different, so vacillating between them gives me a bit of whiplash—but it’s never boring, that’s for sure!
As for editing, I’m always excited when a book comes across my transom that’s something I would’ve loved to read anyhow. For me, that’s often a manuscript that incorporates some element of romance, fantasy, mystery, science fiction, or an unexpected glimpse into history.
8). In your opinion, what does it mean to be a “successful” writer?
I don’t think there’s a single definition for this. It truly depends on the person. Finishing a book is a massive accomplishment and should be celebrated! Beyond that, every writer has different goals. For some, it’s simply about seeing their book in print, holding the physical volume in their hands. Others feel like they’ve arrived when they’ve walked into a bookstore and can find their novel or memoir on the shelf. For still others, it’s about hitting a particular financial goal, winning an award, or making a bestseller list.
For me personally, I feel like I’ve succeeded when I hear from readers who’ve been moved in some way by the stories I’ve told. When they say my books have helped them through difficult times, made them laugh or cry, or even kept them up all night turning the pages, I feel a tremendous sense of happiness—and awe, that I get to do this for a living. Without my readers, I wouldn’t have a career. I’m grateful for them every single day.
Emily Colin’s debut novel, THE MEMORY THIEF, was a New York Times bestseller and a Target Emerging Authors Pick. She is also the author of THE DREAM KEEPER’S DAUGHTER (Ballantine Books). Her young adult titles include the anthology WICKED SOUTH: SECRETS AND LIES and the Seven Sins series, both from Blue Crow Publishing, as well as the anthology UNBOUND: STORIES OF TRANSFORMATION, LOVE, AND MONSTERS (Five Points Press). SWORD OF THE SEVEN SINS, the first book in her Seven Sins series, was a Foreword INDIES Award finalist, a #1 Amazon bestseller, and was shortlisted for the 2021 Manly Wade Wellman Award for North Carolina Science Fiction and Fantasy.
Emily’s diverse life experience includes organizing a Coney Island tattoo and piercing show, hauling fish at a dolphin research center, roaming New York City as an itinerant teenage violinist, helping launch two small publishing companies, and working to facilitate community engagement in the arts. Currently, she finds joy in teaching classes for the Writers Workshop at Authors Publish and working as a freelance editor. Originally from Brooklyn, Emily lives in coastal North Carolina with her family. She loves chocolate, is addicted to tiramisu, and dislikes anything containing beans. You can find her trying to do yoga, with her nose buried in a book, or getting dragged down the block by her over-enthusiastic dog, Moo. Visit her at www.emilycolin.com, on IG at @emily_colin, or get a free short story at emilycolinnews.com.
Chelsea is a copywriter, editor, publicist, and content creator at Books Forward, an author publicity and book marketing firm committed to promoting voices from a diverse variety of communities. From book reviews and author events, to social media and digital marketing, we help authors find success and connect with readers. Interested in what’s possible for your book sales and building readership? Check out our services, tell us your goals, and get a customized publicity campaign tailored just for you.