Preparing Your Manuscript for Editing

Nassau Hedron,—Updated 19 September 2014

Working with an Editor


To get the most out of working with an editor, there are some steps you should take before delivering your manuscript. This article will guide you through those steps.

Define Your Goals

You can’t give coherent instructions to an editor if you aren’t clear in your own mind about what you want them to do.

Unclear instructions can increase the time it takes to get your work edited because you and your editor will have to speak or exchange emails to clarify what you need. And if you give unclear instructions and don’t remedy them, your editor may produce what you asked for rather than what you expected. Giving clear, well-defined instructions will produce the best editing and will help make the interaction enjoyable.

It helps to understand some basic editing terminology in order to communicate your needs effectively. Not all editors use the same terms, so if you haven’t already, I recommend you take a look at the first part of this series, Types of Editing. That article will help you decide what sort of editing you want and will give you the terminology you need to request it.

(Note: The advice in the rest of this article applies to all types of editing.)

Self-Edit First

One way to get the most out of your editor is to do some of the preliminary editing yourself. (See our four-part series on Self-Editing for tips on self-editing effectively). There are two good reasons for this.

First, clearing away as many editing issues as possible before handing over your manuscript makes it easier for your editor to see the issues that remain. If the editor has to clean up a lot of simple things like spelling mistakes and typographical errors, it can distract them and make it harder to see underlying problems. By fixing these basic mistakes yourself, you give them a clear view of any deeper issues that might need attention.

Second, you don’t want your editor spending time doing things you could have done yourself. If you’re being charged by the hour you want to use your editing budget wisely by applying it to the issues where you really require some outside help, not to things you could have done on your own. But even if your editor doesn’t charge by the hour, they don’t have unlimited time to spend on your book, so let them use the time available for the things that really need their attention—that way you get the best result.

Provide a Style Sheet

Any editor who’s working to professional standards will create a style sheet as they go through your manuscript. A style sheet is a list of non-standard words, character names, and other phrases. It gives the spelling, meaning, and any background information for each word—in essence, it’s a mini-dictionary created specifically for your book.

The style sheet helps the editor in two ways. First, it helps them ensure that words are used consistently if they appear more than once in the work. (For example, if you use the invented place name Bazzinganam twice, once with a single ‘z’ and once with two, your editor will know which one to correct.) Second, the style sheet helps your editor ensure that words are used correctly even if they appear only once.

The style sheet is important no matter what type of book you’re writing. In a science fiction novel, you might have words that you’ve invented for technologies that don’t exist outside the story. In a non-fiction book, there may be terms that are familiar to experts in the field, but baffling for non-expert readers. And even in a realist novel, a character may have a name with an unusual spelling or live in a place whose name is exotic, unusual, or invented.

If you create a draft style sheet beforehand and give it to your editor along with your manuscript, this will give them a big head start, allowing them to work more quickly, with less need to query you and a lower risk of errors.

The draft doesn’t have to be anything complex. Just make a list of the words you think might belong on a style sheet based on the description above, with their correct spelling and, where applicable, a basic definition or a short character description.

If there are any exceptions to the spellings and definitions on your style sheet—for instance if a word is supposed to be spelled incorrectly in one place because a character doesn’t know how to spell it—then you should make a note of this as well.

Creating a list like this can be distracting if you try to do it when you’re writing, so it’s usually best to create it while you’re doing a self-edit instead. As well, putting yourself into ‘editor mode’ may help you decide which items need to go on the style sheet.

Although style sheets are most associated with copy editing and stylistic editing, they can be useful for a developmental edit as well, because they can help your editor understand what role you intend for a particular character or concept.

State Your Stylistic Preferences

Some books have specific needs in relation to style or formatting. The more you can identify these needs ahead of time, and the better you can define them, the easier it will be for your editor to apply them to your manuscript.

What do I mean by specific needs? First, let’s look at style. You might want your book to have a particular spelling format and local terminology.

For instance, if you’re writing for a U.S. audience, and your editor happens to be from the U.K., that shouldn’t be a problem as long as you make sure they know that you want U.S. spellings and terminology. For instance, you want the word for “work” spelled “labor,” not “labour.” And you want a row of people waiting to buy tickets at a movie theater to be called a “line,” not a “queue.”

On the other hand, if your book is for a Canadian audience, then you might want your editor to do things differently because Canadian usage blends British and American styles. Now “labor” will be spelled the British way (“labour”), but you’ll still refer to the row of people with the U.S. term (a “line”) rather than the British one (a “queue”).

And what about special formatting needs?

Let’s say that you’re writing science fiction and your characters speak to one another aloud, but some of them also communicate telepathically. The spoken dialogue will go in quotation marks, but what about the telepathic dialogue? If it’s in quotes, then the reader can’t tell it apart from spoken words, so you need to choose a different format for it—perhaps something «like this» or <like this>—and tell your editor so that they can make sure this format is used correctly and consistently throughout the book.

Provide a Clean Manuscript

Writers sometimes like to apply various formats to their manuscripts while working on them to make them look and feel more like a finished book. This might include fancy fonts, drop caps (the oversized letter that’s sometimes used in books to begin the first word of a chapter), justified text (meaning that each line of text goes all the way to the right margin), and so on.

There’s nothing wrong with doing this if it helps you write, but when it comes time for your editor to get to work this type of customization turns into an unnecessary complication. If there are specific instances of formatting that affect the meaning of the text, rather than just its appearance, then those should remain. Other than that, you want to provide your editor with the cleanest, most readable text possible. Unnecessary frills can be distracting for an editor, who after all is trying to focus on the content of your text.

In general, follow these guidelines as far as possible (unless your editor asks for something different):

  1. Most editors use Microsoft Word. If you want to send your file in a format other than .doc or .docx, check with your editor first.
  2. Use a common, serif font like Times New Roman. Don’t use a sans serif font like Arial or Calibri (many versions of Word default to Calibri). Serifs are the little lines that are attached to the strokes in letters, like these: A M. Serifs make long texts easier to read, and your editor does a lot of reading.
  3. Use the same font throughout your text unless there’s a very compelling reason to use more than one font. (Italics are a good alternative to using a different font.)
  4. Don’t justify the text. This means that the left margin of your text will be flush with the margin, but the right edge will be ragged, due to each line of text being a different length. Your text might look messier this way, or feel less like a finished book, but none of that matters to your editor. The computer-controlled justification in Word introduces uneven spacing that’s hard for your editor to read. Although you may like the ‘finished’ look of justified paragraphs, it’s best to leave this part of the formatting process to a professional typesetter, after your edit is complete.
  5. Use only 12-point type.
  6. When in doubt, double-space. Some editors require this, others don’t, but the fact is that virtually no editor is going to require single spacing, so if you’re not sure, default to double-spacing.
  7. Don’t use paragraph styles in Microsoft Word to format your manuscript, except for any changes you make to the “default” style (such as double-spacing paragraphs and setting a serif font). If you add extra formatting for your own purposes, that’s perfectly fine, but remove those styles before delivering your work to the editor, and make sure your manuscript is still properly formatted without them. Multiple paragraph styles make it harder for your editor to change or remove formatting, and generally make the document more complicated.
  8. Don’t use the tab or space keys to indent or center text. Instead, use your word processor’s controls to center the text or set an automatic paragraph indent in the “default” style. Similarly, if you want to create bullet points, use the bullet point function—don’t create bullet points by hand using asterisks.
  9. Remove any hidden text, tracked changes, comments, and other clutter that’s not part of the manuscript. (If you want to tell your editor something about the manuscript, do it via e-mail, not in an embedded comment.) Your editor should be working with nothing but the actual text of your book.
  10. Begin each chapter on a new page.
  11. Don’t add extra blank lines between paragraphs. If there’s a particular spot where you want to leave a space that will actually appear in the final version of the book, for instance to indicate a break in the action, then put three pound signs (###) or three asterisks (***) on that line to make it clear that it should be intentionally left blank.
  12. If you aren’t including the entire book in one file for some reason—for instance if you’re using a different Word file for each chapter—give the various files names that will sort in the correct order when they’re put together into a folder. The best way to do this is generally to start the file name with a number, such as the chapter number. This can be followed (if you want) by other details.
    Files that sort incorrectlyFiles that sort correctly
    Endings, Chapter Three
    Middle of the story, Chapter Two
    The beginning, Chapter One
    01 The beginning
    02 Middle of the story
    03 Endings

If your editor gives you additional instructions on preparing your file, follow them. Some editors will provide instructions on their web site, while others might include them in an email.


This article should give you a good head start in preparing to work with an editor. Part 3 of the series, Making the Most of Your Editor’s Feedback (coming soon), will help you complete the process by showing you how to make the most of the edited manuscript your editor sends back.

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