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The good-enough draft
How do you know when your book manuscript or proposal is ready to show to publishers?
Hi Manuscript Workers,
As I shared earlier this year, I’m currently writing a book! This book is intended to be a practical guide to editing scholarly manuscripts, aimed at scholarly writers and those who support them. This means I’m speaking to graduate advisors, mentors, colleagues, acquiring editors, freelancers, and anyone else who regularly sits down with a piece of scholarly writing in draft form and tries to help the writer improve it.
While there are many stages of the editing and revision process for scholarly manuscripts, my book will focus on the stage known as developmental editing.
As I put it in my own book manuscript draft:
Although there’s no universal consensus on how to define the various levels of editing, there is general agreement that developmental editing concerns itself with “the big picture” or fundamental aspects of a given piece of writing. I typologize these elements as (1) argument and contribution, (2) evidence and analysis, (3) structure and narrative, and (4) style and voice. In other words, the scholarly developmental editor pays particular attention to the elements of a text that can make or break the manuscript’s chances of being received well by peer reviewers, approved for publication by decision-makers, and ultimately reaching readers in and beyond the author’s scholarly field.
Lately, I’ve been thinking more and more about a specific part of that last sentence: “the elements of a text that can make or break the manuscript’s chances of being received well by peer reviewers [and] approved for publication by decision-makers.” This is particularly relevant because I’m often asked by the authors I work how they can determine whether their proposal or manuscript draft is ready to submit to publishers in hopes of being accepted for peer review.
While there are many elements of a book that help it to connect with its ultimate readers, including attractive cover design, rigorous copyediting, correct bibliographic references, and a well-constructed index, many of those elements are perfected much later in the life of a book manuscript. Before an author can get to those later stages of the publishing process, a publisher has to decide that the manuscript merits publication with their press at all.
As a developmental editor, I help authors deal with the fundamentals of their text that must be in good enough shape to convince someone else that this piece is worth engaging with further. In my observation, acquiring editors can usually see beyond some of the more superficial aspects of a manuscript draft in the initial evaluation phase, because they know that surface stuff will get handled later. What they’re most interested in at the beginning is whether the piece is fundamentally well argued, supported with sufficient evidence, structured logically, and generally stylistically appropriate.
This means that if you’re asking yourself whether your current draft is good enough to submit to a publisher for initial review, I suggest that you reframe that question into the following four questions:
Is my core argument coming across clearly throughout this manuscript?
Have I provided sufficient evidence to support the argument I want to make?
Is the text structured logically to enable readers to follow my argument and understand how my evidence supports it?
Is my authorial voice coming across the way I want it to, to connect with the readers I care about most?
If you can answer “yes” or “I’m pretty sure” to all of these questions, then your draft is likely ready to share with an acquiring editor. It doesn’t have to be in perfectly finished form, ready to send off to the printers immediately. It does have to effectively convey your ideas well enough for an acquiring editor to evaluate whether the book is a good fit for their press.
Should the editor want to move forward and solicit the opinions of peer reviewers, your draft will also need to convince the reviewers that it makes a substantial enough contribution to scholarship to merit publication.
Some peer reviewers do seize on details that might seem superficial (e.g. grammatical errors or citation inaccuracies) and make a big deal out of them in their reports. Sometimes this is done in the name of “rigor,” though we can often interpret it less charitably and more accurately as toxic gatekeeping that disproportionately targets scholars in marginalized positions.
In general, it’s an acquiring editor’s job to see past those types of reviewer criticisms when deciding whether a book has good potential to be published successfully. Your editor may pass along certain nitpicky comments to you for your own information, so that you can decide whether to address them in your revisions. The publisher may even require you to address certain issues in your revisions before they will put the book in production. However, it’s unlikely that the decision whether or not to move forward with your manuscript will hinge on those kinds of errors in your initial submission. An exception to this rule would be if the text has so many superficial errors that the fundamentals are impossible to evaluate or the publisher has doubts that you can realistically fix all of the problems in revision.
This brings me to another question I sometimes receive from authors: should I pay a freelance editor to help me polish my manuscript (or book proposal or sample chapters) before I send it to publishers?
To answer this question, I go back to the four evaluative questions above. If you can’t answer yes to those questions about your argument, evidence, structure, and style, or you just aren’t sure, then a developmental editor may be very helpful for you. They will make their own evaluation of your materials and offer specific recommendations for improving your draft so the fundamentals shine through as strongly as possible when you share the draft with publishers. This is what I do for scholarly authors in my Book Proposal Accelerator program, for instance.
When deciding whether it’s worth investing in other kinds of editorial support, such as line editing or copy editing, I go back to the question of whether the less fundamental aspects of your text—such as grammar, sentence construction, or citations—might interfere with a publisher or reviewer connecting with your big picture.
If you frequently get feedback from friends or colleagues that your writing is hard to read—or you just know that you don’t have a head for the technical details of manuscript prep—you might want to invest in working with a line editor on sentence construction and flow or with a copyeditor on mechanics and references before submitting your draft to a publisher.
Polishing your draft at the sentence-level or below, as a line editor or copy editor would, could help you make a better impression on publishers. However, it won’t help much if the fundamentals aren’t already in place. If you’re torn between working with a developmental editor or a copy editor, and you can’t afford to work with both, and you’re still in the pre-submission phase, I would prioritize developmental editing (for the reasons laid out above).
I’d save the line editing or copy editing for your very last draft, right before you send it to your publisher for final submission. A reputable scholarly press will engage their own copyeditor before the book is typeset, but if you want to make sure everything comes across as well as possible when the publisher is making their final decision on whether to accept the manuscript for publication, then you might want to enlist some extra support. This isn’t always necessary, so if you don’t have the funds to invest in a freelance editor or you just don’t want to add this extra step, you may not have to. Check with your acquiring editor to see what they recommend. They should be able to tell you whether they think your manuscript really needs that additional help.
I hope this post has been useful for you if you’ve been sitting on a draft and wondering whether it’s good enough to send to publishers yet.
If you’d like some support in getting your book proposal to where it needs to be, my self-guided Book Proposal Shortcut course can help. If you’d like me to take a close look at your proposal draft and give you developmental tips on your book’s argument and structure, keep my Book Proposal Accelerator program in mind. I’ll be opening it to a new cohort of scholars in January 2024.
My new book should also help you with getting your book manuscript to a “good enough” draft for publishers. Unfortunately, it will likely not be released for a long time (I’m still revising it), but if you stick around this newsletter, you will be sure to hear all about the launch date when it’s set.
Do you have questions after reading this post that weren’t answered here? Check out my full archive of writing and publishing tips, where many of the most common questions I receive about scholarly book publishing are already addressed.
Thanks for reading and see you next week!