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Writing A Manuscript – Editing Styles

Author: Karen Cole

Whenever you correct or make changes in a book manuscript, what you’re doing is editing that manuscript. I’ve been in the business of helping people write their books for over the past twenty-five years, and I’ve helped many a first-time author put a manuscript together in a way that made it more readable, enjoyable, saleable and finally — marketable. You can do this too, with proper training, some experience and a solid working knowledge of written language and its capabilities.

There are three basic methods of helping an author write or edit a manuscript: ghost writing, rewriting, and copy editing. There is also a lesser style of editing called proof reading. The first method I will discuss is ghost writing. That is when you work from the materials the author gives you, but you actually write the book yourself. You might be using audio and/or video tapes and written materials, making phone calls, taking notes as you go, or holding meetings and interviews. You also may be doing some research on related topics or to add more material to the book. Once you have what you need, you actually do the job of writing everything by yourself, but with some help from the person hiring you for the job. This person will usually be listed as the actual author of the book.

You may supply new material, new characters, fresh nuances, etc. for the book. But ghost writing can also be on the fine edge of rewriting. For example, the ideas laid out by the original author may fully enter your writing of the book, sometimes as originally constructed by the author. You may rewrite major portions of what the original author wrote, or largely rearrange the writing to suit needed purposes. Or you may simply rewrite a manuscript that was pretty much formally written by the author. This is near the finer edges of copy editing, where what you actually do is simply correct the major and minor mistakes made by the original author.

The differences between ghost writing and copy editing are not always heavily pronounced. They can be quite subtle. But usually ghost writing involves writing by yourself, and copy editing involves making minor to major structural, syntax and grammatical changes in someone else’s writing. And rewriting usually involves heavily rearranging or entirely writing over again what someone else originally wrote. Some people consider it to be ghost writing when you simply take an author’s ideas and rearrange them into readable material, while other people consider that to be rewriting. A major job of rewriting might involved adding a new “voice” to the material, or making changes in the general writing style, which may be superfluous, exaggerative, or simply downright dull.

Copy editing or editing, on the other hand, usually involves keeping to the style of the original writing, without adding much if any of your own writing “voice” to it. What you’re doing is perhaps comparable to repairing the material to reflect greater consistency in the writing, while trying to keep within the boundaries of what the original author wants. You might be making several changes in grammar, suggesting syntax changes which entail remaking word order, and perhaps you will be adding new words and phrases, correcting punctuation, and changing some of the sentence structuring. You may be writing some of your own fresh material again here, as when you do ghost writing. But when copy editing and not ghost writing is involved, there will not usually be major additions of new book material.

On the other hand, you can certainly mesh both copy editing and ghost writing, which is largely a lot of what rewriting entails. You might research additional material and intersperse it where it’s needed in places throughout the manuscript, or you might rewrite the opening “hook” so that it “grabs” the readers’ attention in a more arresting manner. You could also possibly create a brand new ending for the book, and spice up the closings for its various chapters, to make the book more dramatic, give it more “flair,” and add more “spice” and substance to it. All this can be done while still keeping to the original author’s “voice” and maintaining an editing or copy editing style when it comes to the remainder of the manuscript.

Sometimes you will find that a book contains only grammatical errors and doesn’t need much actual editing, except for grammar and syntax or minor structural errors. Sometimes it might also require some fact checking for consistency. Fact checking involves making sure that a character’s name is always spelled the same way, that a town remains to the north and doesn’t suddenly slip down south, and keeping to other such factual consistencies. This style of editing is called proof reading the manuscript, and is also always the last thing you do before you turn in your final copy of it to the client, whether you ghost write, rewrite, copy edit or simply end up proof reading it. You must also try to proof read the manuscript while you are working on it, but you can save some errors for the final proofing of the copy.

Charges for the above services, as you’ve probably guessed, vary widely. You would of course charge more for greater work involved, especially if you’re doing most of the writing. Most ghost writers also charge more for research, sometimes by the hour. It all depends on how much time and effort you feel you need to put into the writing. You need to get a good grasp of exactly how much work is probably going to be involved, and how much time it is going to take you. If you are writing the book from scratch, using the author’s ideas and doing a lot of “side research” where you are looking up ideas for new material, this would be considered upper level ghost writing, or “ghosting.” You should then charge commensurate to the greater amount of work involved.

However, if all you’re doing is proof reading or “proofing” the manuscript, naturally you would charge far less money to properly perform such a service for the would-be book author. And what you would charge for copy editing or rewriting would once again depend largely on the amount of time and work involved. But you also need to consider the budgetary needs of the client. Some clients have more money to spend, some less. You need to discuss this in advance of performing the work, sounding the client out on his or her budgetary requirements. Also, you must consider the nature of the book you are working on. Is it a major money-maker, or likely to never sell very widely? Would you like to charge by the hour, by the completed page, or would you like to ask for a percentage of the book’s gross or net sales? You must determine these matters before you decide on your fees, and both you and the book author must agree to all such terms. You may even need to sign a formal contract.

Whenever you receive a manuscript from an author, or a request to “look at” his or her material and judge what needs to be done with it, review the materials the author is willing to release very carefully. Explain to the author that all original material is fully copyrighted under the US copyrights law of 1989, and that all nations with copyrights treaties with the US cover this as well. This is a simpler matter than it may appear to be, and there are usually only a few applicable laws. You should also explain that the partial or completed manuscript can be registered with the US Copyrights Office. Many potential authors are quite relieved when they find out they will always own full copyrights to their own original material, no matter who looks at it, unless they sign any of them away. And unless they sign any such rights over to you, you are releasing all rights you have to the material you write for the book, even your new or original material, to the actual author. This is because you are being paid for the single job of writing the book for someone else.

But how do you begin to work? Once you have a good idea of approximately what’s needed to turn the material you will have at your disposal into a full-fledged marketable book manuscript, ask the author for a five- to ten-page sample of his or her work. Often, the beginning chapter of the book will do. If you are strictly ghost writing, ask the author to give you some ideas and create about ten pages of readable material from them. You will then use this “free sample” to show the author your skills and what you can do to craft a terrific book. Also, don’t forget to sound out the author on his or her total budget and figure out a decent rate for the work you will be performing. You might call it “light to medium copy editing” or “research and ghost writing” or “simple proof reading.” Then set a schedule of payments and time to complete the manuscript with your client. Whatever you decide, behave professionally by your own standards, and get the client to agree to a definite plan. This is the best possible course of action for you to take in regard to working on a book manuscript. Remember, this is a job, and you are doing your best to both produce a great book for the client and to be paid what your skills are worth.

Finally, you will begin to work on what will be either your client’s own masterpiece, or if an agreement is struck, a book co-authored by the two of you. This can work quite well, and gives you a lot more credit for your writing. You can get your name on the book spine and jacket, and possibly make more money from the book as an equal partner of the client. Or if you want to remain “ghostly,” you may request the client to consider you the “editor” of the book, asking only for credit somewhere within its pages. This is often done by listing you on the acknowledgements page. It might state, “This book would never have been accomplished without the help of my editor, So and So.” That way you have hard evidence that you actually worked on the book. But if you feel you did more than mere editing, you may request that the client put “Ghostwritten by So and So” somewhere, so the world will know about the hard work you performed. In the bad old days, usually all the byline a ghost writer could hope to receive was “editor,” but nowadays it may be permissible to use the terms “ghost writer.” It is largely up to the discretion of your client, who may still want to be viewed as the actual author of the book. In that case, remember that you are being paid to be a ghost, and you are relinquishing all rights to the writing and material in the manuscript because you are being paid to work for the client.

You will also need to make certain assessments when it comes to creating a truly fine, hopefully best-selling and clearly wonderful fiction or non-fiction book, and when figuring out what exactly you are going to charge to do the job. Is this the kind of book that will likely become a best seller, or not? Could you stand to make serious money if instead of payment in advance, you accept a percentage of the book’s eventual sales over time? Whether payment is made for the actual construction of the manuscript or you are willing to work “on spec,” or you agree with the client to use a combination of both, you will have to make these arrangements in advance of performing the job. As I said before, you may even need to sign a multi-party book contract, one which may involve a potential book publisher or literary agent. Please remember that the amount of work involved is the greatest determinant when it comes to figuring out what you are going to do and how much time it is going to take, as well as how much you should charge. But it can be very important to consider book sales as well, and you should discuss this with the client.

Nowadays the writing fields of copy editing, rewriting and ghost writing are burgeoning and growing faster than ever, especially with the increasing amount of self-publishing services and the ready availability of writer’s resources on the Internet. Therefore it is imperative that as a freelance writer you know which styles of “editing” you will be using to create a new book’s content, and how you are going to arrange your particularized work schedule and payments. You must also work in a timely manner and behave professionally at all times. By carefully polishing a book manuscript written for someone else to a gleaming perfection of its beauty and attainment, you will enable the entertainment and information gained from it to become as powerful, readable, saleable and marketable as both you and the client want it to be.

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About the Author

Executive Director and President of Rainbow Writing, Inc., Karen Cole writes. RWI at is a renowned inexpensive and affordable professional freelance writers, book authors, ghost writers, copy editors, proof readers, coauthors, manuscript rewriters, graphics and CAD, digital and other photographers, publishing assistance and screenplay writers, editors, developers and analysts service.

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