publishers editing a book before publication

So a writer finishes a book and sends it to the publisher. I would assume in all cases someone would read it, and sometimes suggestions are made. Some aspects of the plot are unclear, this character is not well defined, and the writer makes changes.

But what about the prose of the novel? I am reading a book now and it is good. Great story, compelling characters. But there are sentences like this-

  • “she shifted from foot to foot”. Does anyone actually do this? I don’t think I have ever shifted from foot to foot.

  • “He told me the unvarnished story.” Why not “he told me the truth.”

-“my heart swelled”.

-“I lowered myself into an armchair”. Why not “I sat down”.

-unvarnished makes another appearance - “Unvarnished, almost boldly and defiantly so, his bit into the roll”. What does "almost boldly"mean? You are either bold or you are not.

I know the writer is trying to be descriptive but all of these things jump off of the page as cliches.

Some writers can create a great story and some writers can write beautiful, poetic prose, not many can do both. And in this book, The Queen’s Fortune by Alison Pataki, about the woman who Napolean was once engaged to, before he met Josephine, the first sentence is this - “When the snow falls at midnight, blakenting the empty cobbled streets, sugaring the gothic bell tower of Storkylan Catheral, it beomes easy to imagine.”

Beautiful. And I felt like I have stumpled upon, for lack of a better word, a Dickensian writer. The rest of the book did not live up to that expectation.

But back to my point. Obviously no editer suggested changes to the prose, would it even matter if they had? Am I just ridiculously picky about what I consider to be good writing? Would any of the dear readers here even notice the things I mentioned?

I shift from foot to foot all the time.

And the publishing world shifted from a literary cottage industry to a tiny appendage to multinational conglomerates which demand profit margins of 10+% instead of the old 2-5%. One way the industry coped was by moving toward bestsellers and genre, which includes historicals. The other way was to get rid of all possible bodies, especially copyeditors.

Do people care? Probably not. Sentences don’t sell. Chapters do.

You nailed it.

— veteran editor of the old literary cottage industry

(I would challenge some your assertions. For one thing, “I lowered myself into an armchair” is much more visual and evocative than “I sat down.”)

Sitting down is a completely different image to lowering oneself into a chair. The former is a quick, no big deal movement. The latter invokes a slow and deliberate process possibly caused by old/slow/weak/painful joints/muscles.

And less painful…

In honor of this thread, I just lowered myself into an armchair. Ahhh…

And if I’d read the first sentence of that novel, I’d be prepared for a whole novel of flowery prose. The repetition of a favorite phrase wouldn’t surprise me at all (I just finished a mystery where multiple characters “stared slack-jawed” on an almost constant basis).

I often find myself editing prose in my own head, and I’m not above writing to an author and pointing out things I like and things I don’t. Especially if it’s newly published. I even hear back from them now and then.

the character was a teenager. I “lower” myself into a chair, with a grunt, but I am 57 with a bad back.

“Lowering yourself into an armchair” also denotes an air of expectation.

“Let me tell you how I came to dismember the Bishop,” said Radcliffe.
I lowered myself into an armchair and licked my lips.

When I was a teen, there’s was many a track practice after which I ha to lower myself into chairs, beds, cars, baths.

I’ve had more editors than the average first-time published author. All four of the publishers I interacted with wanted changes, ranging from “you really need to shorten your run-on sentences and your sprawling paragraphs” to “I think you should insert a scene between here and where, where something like such-and-such happens, because you’ve done this and that by that point and you need something to tie it together” or even “frankly I think you should ditch the first 30,000 words, no one’s gonna have the patience to read that… let’s pick up your story where you go to college and if you want to include some of that earlier stuff you can do it in a flashback scene or two”.

Line by line editing – where you get back a Word document with markup turned on and individual sentences have been edited for you, the author, to approve or disapprove – seem to be the rule, not the exception, at least with small independent publishers. And I appreciate it even if I don’t always agree with them. Many times I do.

If I am caught up in the story and involved with the characters, I am much less likely to notice (and nitpick) the prose.

Nobody writes without using cliches. Some people use them more than others.

There are times when “I sat down” is just not descriptive enough. Other times, it works fine.

Someone shifting from foot to foot I wouldn’t even notice. Someone with a swelling heart, I might notice. YMMV.

But I have seen a lot of books that could have used a bit of editing. Bad choices, one character quoted when another character was meant–nobody proofreads these days, it looks like. A good copy-edit costs around $1500. A lot of publishers evidently feel like the book is not worth that expense.

Did you mean: editor?

I noticed a ton of bad writing in the early parts of The Gone-Away World. It was just awful. I thought that maybe this was intended to reflect the story as told by the narrator. But as the book progressed the writing got noticeably better.

Clearly there was no copy editing going on to at least even things out.

(And yet somehow this became a bestseller and well known enough for me to give it a go. Still a terrible book overall.)

I’ve noticed obvious typos still present in later editions of many books.

(I have a relative in the on-line by-the-piece copy editing business. The clients are often amazed by the large number of “On, now I see it.” fixes that are given. Editing your own writings just isn’t workable.)

I proof-edit for a publisher (not individual authors). Sometimes it’s a reprint edition and they are basically just looking for page layout errors and places where the punctuation got messed up. For example, a draft I reviewed where all the close-quotes were missing. Another example was a photo-illustrated edition where the photo captions were all off by one.

But sometimes I get new works and am asked for the full treatment. I can’t tell you how many manuscripts I get where characters’ names change. Or a person traveling from Boston to San Francisco loses 3 hours of daylight. Or the author didn’t know the difference between the African countries Guinea and Equatorial Guinea (they are like 1,500 miles apart). Or didn’t know the difference between a millipede and a centipede. Or has a person firing an AK47 in one scene and the next it’s a AR15. (Sometimes I think that if authors got the gun stuff right, I’d be out of a job).

I try not to comment on author’s prerogative, such as stylistic but non-grammatical wording, pet phrases, and the like. But if I see something overused, or if I can’t tell whether an author is using poetic license or regional colloquialisms or is just ignorant, I’ll point it out for consideration.

Or the infamous cases where two people are having a long dialog, and most of the “John said” and “Frank said” are omitted, but there’s one at the start and end, and if you keep count, you find that it’s gotten out of synch.

Not true; we’d have no “To Kill a Mockingbird” without a particularly hands-on editor.

And my friend David* used to have me read his mss. before submitting them to the publisher, who subsequently made some edits of their own.

What you get when you give an author carte blance, final cut, no editor, is Stephen King.


Finished the book a few days ago. I would recommend it. Fascinating time in history and the main charcter, Desiree Clary, is someone I had never heard of before.

But, as I said above, some writers can create a great story and some writers can write beautiful, poetic prose, not many can do both.

I am now reading A Place of Greater Safety, by Hillary Mantel. Also about the French revolution. It’s a cliche but it is Dickensian. She wrote the Wolf Hall trilogy. I’m not going to read them, I saw the TV series and a documentary, so I’ve had enough of Henry the VIII. But if you like historical fiction, highly recommended.

Yes I did. Good, albeit obviouis “catch”, as we used to say in the days when I was a proofreader. :smack:

I once misspelled “grammar” as “grammer” on my resume, applying for a job as a proofreader! Got the job anyway.

That is an unusual case.

Generally, a book editor gives a list of suggestions, that the author can accept. And they’re usually not major. If the book needs a lot of work, the editor won’t buy it.

There are exceptions (in addition to Lee, there’s Thomas Wolfe), but that type of editor was rare in the past, and practically nonexistent today.

Did you mean “obvious?”