October 6, 2014

Trade Secrets: nonfiction editing with Gary Jansen

By Cassidy Ritter

Trade Secrets” is an ongoing blog where we ask professionals from the traditional publishing world to explain how they approach their jobs, in order to help self-publishers understand the intricacies of the publishing process and glean some tips.

Today, Senior Editor at Penguin Random House, Gary Jansen, talks with us about the editing process.

Jansen studied English literature at New York’s Adelphi University. Soon thereafter, he landed a job in the publishing industry, earning his masters degree at Queens College while working. For 14 years, Jansen’s career was focused in the book club business, performing duties in marketing, special promotions and editorial for The Book of the Month Club, The Literary Guild and Doubleday.  Six years ago, he moved into editorial at Penguin Random House, editing 20-25 books a year. In this capacity, he has worked with numerous New York Times bestselling authors in the field of religion and spirituality. 

Q: Can you take us through the editing process from start to finish?

A: The process depends upon the manuscript that is received. Some books need very little editing: An author presents material that is fully developed — it may need a tweak here and there, but it is fully encapsulated in someone’s mind and executed onto the page….

Then there are other manuscripts that vary in degree of development and readability. Sometimes an author struggles with an idea, sometimes with his or her thesis, sentences, paragraphs, or the book’s arc. And so the editor really needs to look at the manuscript on a lot of different levels: How is it executed and how is the writing? Does it fit the genre? How is the narrative developed, if we’re talking about narrative nonfiction? And if we are talking about an academic book, how are those ideas developed? How powerful is the thesis? Is the thesis backed up with clear ideas or solid, new information?

For me, and this sounds so high school, a clear thesis is one of the most important things I look for in a manuscript– how clear are you in executing your ideas, how clear are you in executing the words on the page?….

So there’s all these different things you’re taking into consideration when looking at a manuscript… Each book has its own personality and life—like individuals—that make each one different.

Q: How many steps of editing are there? And is each step in the editing process done by a different person?

A: The first step is your general editorial read. It’s a quick read to get an idea to see how the author executed his or her proposed idea or ideas. Then you do your deep dive, honing in on the thesis and promise of the book: How well developed is the narrative arc? Should such and such chapter be deleted? Should we move this chapter earlier or later in the book? How is the language and word choice? Should this paragraph be deleted? How are the sentences? Is there consistency? That would be the first step, those two initial reads: the initial overview and then the deep dive. All along the way I’m marking up the manuscript and making notes.

I then go back to the author and have him or her review the comments, queries and edits. We then have a discussion. Sometimes they like to talk on the phone or meet in person; others, you just give them some feedback and they are able to run with it…

The author reviews the edits and goes back to work. When the author is done he or she sends in a revised manuscript. You (the editor) take a look at it again and essentially repeat that process until the two of you come to a place where there’s an agreement that we are done, that we have made the book as great as we can….

Some books are a breeze, and the author and I might only need to go through the book once. Other books take much longer. One book took about 5 or 6 rounds to get it right. But the work paid off. Though that particular book never hit the bestseller list, it had strong sales and continues to backlist well today.

Once that’s done, it goes to our production department, which assigns the book to a copyeditor for fine-tuning. The copyeditor is another set of eyes, focusing on style, grammar and readability, The copyeditor also makes sure that there aren’t any inconsistencies in the book. He or she is looking for anything the author or editor may have missed. Once he or she has finished the book, the editor and author review the copyedited manuscript.

That copyedited manuscript then goes back to the production editor. The production editor and the copyeditor work to pull all the pieces together. They review any changes the author or editor may have made when they reviewed the manuscript that last time. They will review the entire manuscript and sometimes query the editor if there are still outstanding issues, such as a line that doesn’t make sense or a question that may have been missed.

Once that is done, the manuscript goes into what we call the “first pass.”  First pass pages are essentially your galley pages and typeset manuscript: This is what the book is going to look like when it’s eventually published. The author and editor review that again and do another read to make sure all the edits and copyedits were incorporated.

Then after that review, it goes into “second pass,” and the author and editor take a look at the work one more time, just to make sure that it’s in good shape. It then goes into “third pass,” which incorporates any changes or slight tweaks needed from the second pass. The editor, production editor and proofreader look at it again here.

At that point, production reviews the book again and then it goes into a “final pass,” where it is converted into a digital file and that file is then be sent off to the printer.

Q: What steps do you personally like in the editing process?

A: I love the initial conversations with the author. I work in a lot of nonfiction and I really like developing ideas with an author, if the author is open to that. There are some authors who say, “I don’t want that. I have my own clear idea of what I want to do. Here’s how I’m going to do that, and the first time you’re going to see it is when I’m done with it.” And there are some authors who like to be collaborative.

Q: Who has the final say in the editing process?

A: For me, it’s always about collaboration. I’ve never been put in a situation where there was not a diplomatic resolution to problems or concerns in regards to a manuscript.

Q: What are common problems you try to fix while editing?

A: Does an author state and back up a clear thesis? That is an integral question I always ask as I’m reading a manuscript. I’m also looking at syntax and the execution of a line. I love nothing more than a simple, clean line that readers can understand instantaneously…. So when I’m reading and editing those manuscripts, it’s really about clarity of purpose and clarity of the line.

One of the big, and sometimes funny, problems I’ve noticed with first-time authors is what I call the “I” monster, which is when an author uses the word “I” over and over again. Now, if the book is a memoir, that makes sense, but I’ve seen some first timers use the word “I” repeatedly when the emphasis should be on the subject. I have sympathy for that because writing a book is very difficult and sometimes an author doesn’t even know that he or she is doing this, making the book about themselves instead of the subject. Once you point it out, it becomes clear as day. It’s an ah-ha moment for many.

Q: What is the best mindset for authors to have when working with an editor?

A: I think openness — really being open and willing to be engaged in conversation and to exchange ideas. You may disagree with an editor about some of his or her ideas, but I think one way of looking at disagreement is that it helps you to reinvigorate your own beliefs and to see more concretely what you believe. It can sometimes help you see your work in a different light. … Plato had said something along the lines of, “The wisest person realizes that they know nothing.” Have that mindset, get some feedback and then make decisions based on that feedback.

Q: What are the biggest problems self-published books have in terms of editing?

A: I think what happens with self-published books is there is a certain fire inside the authors. A lot of people need to get their ideas out … and essentially what they do is a brain dump onto the page. Some authors believe that’s a book, but so much of a book is about sculpting things and extracting that work of art on the page…. Some self-published books are reactionary, but with a little bit of help and sculpting and just being able to bump ideas off someone who has a certain level of literary expertise, I think they can be shaped into something great. I’ve also read some self-published books that have great ideas in there but they are buried under repetition or poor syntax.

Q: What other advice would you give to self publishers about editing and the editing process?

A: There were two fantastic editors who gave me great advice as I was growing up. One was, “Every book, well at least nonfiction, should have somewhere within the first paragraph or page a sentence that begins, ‘This book is about…’” Now people jump up and down saying, “Seriously? That is so bland! ” It doesn’t necessarily have to be those literal words, but it should get across as soon as possible, “This book is about what?” Tell them. A lot of the time, especially in self-published books, you’ll see an author just jump into an idea without outlining the book or giving a road map…. You need to be clear there, you need to have clarity of purpose.

Another great editor-in-chief said, “I don’t believe in luck, per se. I believe in creating your own luck” — meaning that the more intelligent work you put in, the more opportunities happen for you to be in the right place at the right time. I think that can be applied to writing as well; the more intelligent time you put into a piece of writing, the more people you make contact with, the more conversations you have, the more relationships you develop, you create this openness in the writing process. And you create your own luck and success….

Putting in that productive time makes the difference. The best way to do that is, in addition to sitting down and writing, join communities and start conversations with other writers or people you trust. I think some of the most successful authors have been the most hungry, but, at the same time, have demanded great feedback from other readers. Hard work is so important, but so is community.

BlueInk Review offers credible and unbiased reviews of self-published books exclusively. Visit us at www.blueinkreview.com.

Cassidy Ritter is a junior at the University of Kansas, where she studies journalism, business and global studies and is a correspondent for the “University Daily Kansan.” She was BlueInk’s 2014 summer intern.


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