How Do You Write A Book?

Welcome to the Distress Signals Blogging Bonanza! What’s that, you’re wondering? Well, you can either go and read this post or read the next sentence. In a nutshell: Distress Signals was out in paperback in the UK and Ireland on January 5 and hits the U.S.A. on Thursday (February 2) and every day in between I’m going to blog as per the schedule at the bottom of this post. 

So Distress Signals is out and Book 2 is almost there. Although writing them were two very different experiences, without setting out to do it, I wrote both of them pretty much the same way (albeit in very different periods of time):

  1. Initial idea. Fun fact: both thrillers were sparked by magazine articles, although in very different ways. Percolation ensued, i.e. I didn’t immediately sit down and start writing.
  2. Post-It Plotting Party. I get a pen and a stack of Post-Its and I write down every idea I have about the book. This could be something big, like what it’s actually about, or something as small as a sentence a character may utter at some point. Then I take a chart of some kind – calendars are my new thing – and I arrange all these Post-Its on it in the order in which I think these events might appear in the book. This gives me some signposts to help lead the way.
  3. Vomit draft. A draft that doesn’t even deserve to be called the first one. A free-wheeling experiment. No editing as you go, no reading back if you can. This is where I figure out 70% of what happens in the book – the ideas come while I work through it. This is why Book 2 turned into a bit of a stressfest: because, drowning in self-doubt and distracted (oooh, shiny book launch stuff!), I pathologically procrastinated and didn’t leave myself enough time to do a truly vomit-y vomit draft. I had to go straight into a first draft, which proved to be a pressure cooker because I had to figure out if I could tell this story and how to tell it at the same time. Never again. Lesson learned.
  4. First draft. I give the book the break and then I go and re-do step 2. Except now that I have a vomit draft behind me, I know enough to plot out the whole book in more detail before I type ‘Chapter One’. This makes writing a first draft – the first one that could be read by someone else as a coherent book, realistically – much easier than writing the vomit one. Once this is done, my agent and editor come in and we start the editing process.

Here’s the thing though: there is no right way to write a book. And I’m eternally fascinated by how other people do it, because I’m always looking for a better way (and a magic pen). So tell me: how do YOU write a book? Let me know in the comments below – and don’t be shy!


Remember: there’s a super sexy hardcover edition of Distress Signals (the American one, out February 2) up for grabs, signed to you from me. To enter, simply leave a comment on this post or any post published here between January 5 and February 2. One entry per post, so comment on more than one and increase your chances. Open globally. Good luck!


How Many Drafts Did You Do Of Your Book?

“How many drafts did you do of your book?”

In between getting a book deal and being able to tell people I got a book deal, I went to an event at Dun Laoghaire’s Mountains to Sea festival where an audience member asked Paula Hawkins, superstar author of The Girl on the Train, this very question. On hearing it, I rolled my eyes and groaned about it to my company for the evening (who rolled her eyes at my groaning), even though it wasn’t that long ago that I sat in the audience at writerly events and asked the very same thing of published authors myself.

Why the eye-rolling? Because I don’t believe the guy who asked wanted to know how many drafts Hawkins had done of her book. What he really wanted to know was how many drafts of his book he’d have to do – minimum – before his publication dreams came true, before his debut hit 2 million copies sold in the space of a few months (selling at a rate of one every 18 seconds, apparently), became the “recommended” book in the Audible sponsor message on Serial and started being tweeted and Instagrammed about by the likes of Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston and Mindy Kahling.

What he really should’ve asked was “How many drafts did you have to do of your book?”

I know this because that’s what I wanted to know when I asked – or silently hoped someone else would ask – questions like  “How many drafts did you do of your book?” (See also: “Was your book finished when you submitted to an agent?” and “Do publishers make offers on partials?” and “How many words do you write a day?”) In his memoir We Can’t All Be Astronauts, Tim Clare despairs when a pair of friends emerge from a day spent at the London Book Fair with a deal for an idea they sketched out on a single sheet of A4 paper. We’ve all heard of ten-way auctions culminating in six-figure deals for three chapters and an outline, and I know of at least one publishing story that actually involves scribbles on a cocktail napkin. Sometimes the folklore of publishing edges very close to fabled Hollywood pitches, like the one where James Cameron says “Romeo and Juliet on the Titanic” to studio execs and gets a green light on the spot.

As a writer whose ratio of writing a novel to daydreaming about having a novel published was about 1:10, these stories were music to my ears. I collected them. Fixated on them. Turned to them for encouragement. Because I wanted the spoils, but I wasn’t prepared to do the hard work first. Not if I didn’t absolutely have to.

But boy, is it hard work. Distress Signals is almost ready for copy-editing and it’s taken a lot of work to get to this point. Here is a very long blog post to tell you just how much.

Beginnings (Autumn 2012-Spring 2013)

So you have an idea for a novel…

I don’t actually know how many times I wrote the start of the book that at this stage was called Dark Waters. Four or five times, at least. When I say “the start” I mean the opening chapters; I think the furthest I ever got was 10,000 words. I was trying to figure out how to write the book. Who would be the narrator? At what point would the story start? I have a folder on my computer full of these fragments, and very little of them – almost none of them, I’d say – made it into the final version. But I wouldn’t have got to the final version if I didn’t mess around with these aborted beginnings so much first.


Vomit Draft (Summer 2013)

The next major step in the process was a discovery draft. At least, that’s the professional-sounding name for it. In reality, it’s a vomit draft. You sit down and upchuck everything you know about the novel, filling in ideas for the bits you don’t know in between. By the time I sat down to do this, I’d spent the best part of two years kicking the idea around inside my head.

This was not a draft for anyone else’s eyes but mine, because it wasn’t a readable book. If I knew what was going to happen in a chapter, I simply wrote a summary of a sentence or two and then moved onto the next. The idea was to figure out what I didn’t know, so I skipped over the scenes I already had set in my mind. At the end of this I had about 50,000 words – but what I really had was the skeleton of the novel, the framework on which I’d build the book itself.


First Draft 1.0 (AUTUMN 2013 – SPRING 2014)

By spring of last year I was up to about 30,000 words of my first, proper, readable-by-other-people draft and, egged on by writing friends (Sheena and Hazel, I’m looking at you), I submitted the first three chapters and a synopsis to an agent. Now in my heart I knew that neither I nor the book was ready to be doing this, but at the same time I needed to do it, because I needed to take the plunge. I was trying to scale a mountain of fear and for months – years – I’d been standing at the base of it, looking up, paralyzed. I wasn’t ready to leave the world where I might possibly get everything I wanted and move to the land of reality checks just yet.

I got a rejection, which was devastating, but it was a very detailed and generous one that pointed out what I now realized was a glaring flaw in my main character’s story, a development that just didn’t ring true. I scrapped most of what I’d written and went back to the start again.

You may wonder about the logic of taking one person’s subjective opinion and changing your entire book because of it. Well, I knew she was right. I simply knew it. It caught in my gut. I knew the best thing to do was to change that element of the book.

First Draft 2.0 (Summer 2014)

So I re-started my first proper draft and this time got up to around about 50,000 words. Then I stalled. Not because I didn’t know what was to come next, but because life got in the way. I’d applied to go back to university as a mature student and in May, I found out I’d got in. This meant packing up my apartment in Cork, moving back in with my parents for a couple of months while I house-hunted in Dublin (a full-time job in itself) and then, hopefully, moving myself to Dublin once I found a place. Writing fell by the wayside.

In an effort to kick myself up the arse, I submitted to another agent. My thinking was once I pressed “SEND” I’d be gripped by a fear that she’d come back and request the full manuscript I didn’t yet have, and would therefore get it finished immediately. But of course that’s not what happened – life was still in the way, fear or no fear – and when she did request the full manuscript  nearly three months later, I still didn’t have it.

Imagine getting that e-mail.

I decided to pull the old “Sorry, I Was on Hols” trick, which was plausible considering that we were now into August. I cancelled everything and spent three weeks in a caffeine-fuelled haze, finishing the last 30,000 or so words of the book. Thankfully I was working from a detailed outline so I knew exactly what to write, but still, it was tough going. After a few days of re-reading, re-jigging and revising, I sent it off to the agent…

… who swiftly rejected it. But this time I didn’t listen to the criticisms that came with the (very nice) e-mail. Why? Because they didn’t catch in my gut. They didn’t stick. I didn’t think she was right. I thought that this was simply a case of this novel not being for her.

When I read over the novel again – this was a month after I’d finished it by now – I remember thinking, “Hmm. This is actually okay!” So now I still didn’t have an agent, but I did have a finished book I was happy with.

This being the first time in the process I had a full manuscript I felt confident about, I decided to go all in on the agent thing and do a simultaneous submission to my ultimate agent wish list. Two of them offered representation and at the very end of October I signed with Jane Gregory – who I almost hadn’t bothered submitting to, because I thought the odds were so fantastical.

photo 2-7

Second Draft (Winter 2015)

Gregory and Company can spend up to two years working with a debut author before their novel goes out to publishers, so I knew that now the real work would start. It was time to do a re-write of the Novel Formerly Known as Dark Waters Now Known as Adrift with Stephanie, Jane’s in-house editor extraordinaire.

I think this was the most enjoyable part of the writing experience for me, because enough time had passed – we were into the New Year now – for me to be able to look at the novel afresh and, with Stephanie’s input, make it much better. There were no structural changes to do (plotting is my strong point, I think) but there was plenty to be done about my characterization (my weakest link). This was also an opportunity to layer in more complexity and to tighten all the nuts and bolts. I spent about 6-8 weeks on it, and then there was another week where I worked on the changes Stephanie suggested after I sent her back the draft, and then another couple of days for typos and addressing my favourite hobby, missing words. The manuscript grew to about 105,000 words in the process (up from 85,000).

Some writers don’t like being edited and although this will sound harsh, I’m not sure if those writers really know what writing is about. Being edited is absolutely wonderful. It’s like one-on-one tutoring in how to make your book better – and not just this book, but every future book you’ll ever write. A good editor doesn’t tell you what to do – they’ll just point you in the direction of where the potential problems lie. It’s up to you to figure out how to fix them. But amazing things happen along the way. New ideas. Better ideas. A better book, by far.

It was difficult time-wise because I was in university by now and re-writing when I should’ve been writing my last two essay assignments and starting to study for my exams, and the moment I finished it I spontaneously developed the world’s worst flu. You can read more about what happened next here.

Third Draft (Summer 2015)

Now for the scary bit: the first edit with Sara, my editor at Corvus (Atlantic). The novel was now called Distress Signals. When I first met her in London we talked about some of the things she thought needed reworking, and again, I agreed with them all. I knew she was right. But when the marked-up manuscript arrived in the door with lines through some of my favourite sections, my palms started to sweat.

It was soon obvious that the entire third quarter of the book needed to be rewritten. I’d given my readers a breather half-way through, much like the moment in a horror movie when the sun comes up after a horrific night of terror. But what I’d actually done is bring the narrative drive to a halt, to slow the pace to a crawl after spending 50,000 words working to crank it up. Elsewhere I needed to dump a few research dumps, and there was more work to be done on characterization.

But, again, I really enjoyed the process. Who wouldn’t enjoy making their book better? It’s like the first draft is the cupcakes and editing is the icing and decorating bit. It’s the fun bit. The hardest part is done. Now you get to make things look pretty. (This analogy doesn’t go the distance, does it? But you know what I mean.) By the end of it I was really, really proud of my book – and still in love with it, crucially.

If I can give you one piece of advice it’s to write a book you are madly in love with, because that love is going to need to last a long, loooooong time. It’s going to have to be stronger than your desire to start a bonfire when you’re reading it for the 53rd time.

Last week I heard that my editor loves the changes and the rewriting is over. We just have some line editing to do on the new sections and then Distress Signals will be off to the copyeditor.

That’s how many drafts I had to do of my book.

What next? Oh, just the little matter of doing this all over again with Book 2.

More coffee, please.

 * * * * *



Since I got a book deal, the most common question I’ve been asked is why the book isn’t coming out for a year. The next most common question is how in the name of the fudge I’m going to squeeze the writing of a whole book into the time between now and next April, when – as evidenced by this thesis of a blog post – it took me approximately five times that to write the one I’ve just finished. (Darling, let me tell you: we’re both dying to know the answer to that). So between now and next summer, I’m going to do a monthly series called Book One/Two, where I update you on the publishing process and my attempts at doing this all over again. Consider this the prologue. I’ll hope you’ll stick around for the rest! 

UPDATE 17th August: Oh my, Freshly Pressed! Thank you so much, Freshly Pressed Elves. This is, somehow, the third time I’ve been FP’d. (Whaa…?) If you’d like to read the other two, they were Why, For Me, Print Will Never Be Extinct and Self-Publishing? Read This First.

Self-Publishing: The Professionals Effect


Over the last couple of weeks some of my fellow self-publishers have been keeping you entertained and inspiring with their self-publishing stories while I sand down my fingerprints finishing my novel. (Or this draft of it, at least.) Today in the penultimate ‘guest post’ installment, The Tour author Jean Grainger shares her self-publishing journey with us. You can read the previous guest posts in this series, 3 Things I Wish I Knew Before Self-Publishing My Novel and Self-Publishing: Do It Your Way by clicking on the links. Welcome, Jean!

Firstly I’d like to thank Catherine for inviting me to guest blog on Catherine, Caffeinated. This blog has been a constant source of advice, information and smiles for me since I started writing so I’m delighted to be here.

My journey into self publishing began when I spotted an advertisement for a one day course in Dublin. The expert speaker was Catherine. Hoping I had written a book that someone other than my mother might regard as a worthwhile way to spend their hard earned cash and time, I took myself off to hear what she had to say.

Of course, like most newcomers to this world I was seduced by the ads online promising that I’d be published in ten minutes, with nothing more than a curled up dusty manuscript needed from myself, or at least the digital equivalent. I had, unfortunately in hindsight, expressed interest in a company in the U.S. through their website who promised to make the whole simple process even simpler for a small fee who were now treating me to daily phone calls explaining how they were going to make me the next big thing.


It all seemed simple. No need to wait for the elusive nod from the big publishing house, no more torturing myself visualising my hard work on the dreaded ‘slush pile’ going straight from the post bag to the shredder. It seemed like my dream of becoming an author could come true with self-publishing. Still, in the back of my mind I knew there had to be a catch, I just couldn’t figure out what it was.

The day of the course came and as we sat in a lovely hotel overlooking the bay I chatted enthusiastically with my fellow writing hopefuls, some of whom were already published traditionally and who were seeking new ways to breathe life into their careers, or simply monetising their work, others, like myself were total newcomers. It was all very exciting.

With Catherine’s combination of sound advice and humour , she outlined clearly what you needed to do. Ok, you needed a bit of computer savvy, tick. You had to have actually written a half decent book, again, (hopefully) tick. Everything was going great, I was right on track when Catherine dropped the bombshell. You must, and there was no grey area here, you must have your work professionally edited. Obviously, I thought, she doesn’t mean me. You see, I’m an English teacher. My life is spent correcting mistakes, restructuring plot, ensuring  the writing is purposeful ,  coherent, using appropriate and varied language and adhering to the laws of English mechanics. I’ve taught at university, I correct state exams, I don’t need an editor, I am an editor.


I need an editor. Everyone does, I don’t care who you are, what your day job is, you simply cannot edit yourself.

I’d love to say that there and then in that hotel in Dublin I saw the light, but if I’m to be honest I wasn’t convinced. Catherine however, was the expert and I decided just to trust her on it. I parted with the cash, a considerable amount of it, and I got myself an editor. For my first book, I found two editors in fact, one who read the story and looked at structure, plot development, characters and so on, and another, a copy editor to look at the actual prose. If I have learned anything from this process it is this – If I was to look at that manuscript until I was old and grey I would never have seen the glaring inconsistencies the editing process brought to light. I can’t actually believe I thought it was OK, it really, really wasn’t.

My structural editor, the wonderful  Helen Falconer, over lots of tea and biscuits showed me how to make my characters consistent and believable, how to add and subtract from the plot and the result was a much better story. My copy editor seemed to be able to polish my prose so that it still sounded like me, just a better, more articulate me. Words cannot adequately describe the positive impact these professionals had on my work.

This knowledge was liberating when writing my second book. I knew I’d be chopping and dissecting it once it was done so it gave me the confidence just to write, I didn’t worry too much about the finer points. As with the first book, Helen once again worked her magic, and now I have two books of which I’m proud, the alternative is something that makes me shudder. The moral of the tale? Listen to Catherine, she knows her stuff.   [Thanks, Jean! Your fiver’s in the post…!]

Find about more about Jean on her website (Jean: is that header image really where you write? I’m jealous! It looks so cosy…). Her books The Tour and So Much Owed are available on Amazon.

I think what’s interesting about Jean’s story is that she held a very common misconception about self-publishing: that she didn’t need an editor. And why wouldn’t she think that? Jean is an English teacher! But after she ‘saw the light’ as she puts it, she met Helen, and I know that Helen has become a big part of her process and not only a box that has to be ticked. So tell us: what is the biggest misconception you had before you self-published? What long-held belief about the process went flying out the window as soon as you started? What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned? Let us know in the comments below…

Proofreading Explained

As promised, today we have another guest post from editor Robert Doran, whose ‘copy-editing explained’ post on Tuesday gave this blog a visitors spike. (As did his previous guest posts on the subject of all things editing —Structural Editing for Self-Publishers and Why Hire An Editor?). This morning, his focus is on proofreading…

“There exists a common misconception that if your manuscript isn’t in great condition, it needs a structural edit; if it is in reasonable condition, it needs a copy-edit; and if it’s in pretty good condition, a proofread is all that is required. Well, I have some bad news. The truth is rather different, and it goes something like this: every manuscript needs all three, because each of the three contributes something distinct and valuable to the project. OK, Ian McEwan or John Banville will get away with skipping the structural edit, but there are very few manuscripts that wouldn’t benefit from one.

Copy-editing and proofreading, on the other hand, are both essential if you want your book to reach the minimum industry standard. I think that bears repeating – the minimum! In previous posts we’ve looked at structural editing and copy-editing; now we’re going to take a closer look at proofreading and its place in the publishing process.


The clue is in the name, really: the original function of the proofreader was to read the typeset manuscript (proof) and check it against the copy-edited one. They made sure that the copy-editor had marked up the manuscript correctly and that the typesetter had interpreted those marks as intended. Essentially, they were the quality controllers, ensuring that the editor and the typesetter had done what they were supposed to and correcting any errors that remained.

Today, this quality-control function continues to be central to the role but the manuscript is generally read ‘blind’ (i.e. without reference to the copy-edit). Checking the typeset manuscript independently speeds up the process and also, in my opinion, takes greater advantage of the proofreader’s skills: less time checking one script against another means more time spent finding errors and inconsistencies.

In addition to correcting any typesetting errors and any errors that have slipped through at copy-edit stage, proofreaders are responsible for making sure that the layout and design, pagination, cross-referencing, images and captions, front and back matter (acknowledgements, imprint page, contents page, bibliography, index, etc.), headings and basically everything that goes into making a book are present, consistent and correct. That’s quite a long list, and it’s not even an exhaustive one. It’s also a list that clearly distinguishes the proofreader from the copy-editor, who is more concerned with the correctness and effectiveness of the author’s writing. Much of what the proofreader is responsible for checking didn’t even exist at the copy-editing stage, and it’s not uncommon for the copy-editor to never even see the typeset manuscript before publication.

You can see where I’m going with this: these are different jobs, so don’t expect your proofreader to copy-edit your book. Proofreading is not a lesser function, it’s a different one, carried out at the end of the publishing process.

Your manuscript should already be both complete and very clean by the time it reaches the proofreader (i.e. it should be edited). There are several reasons for this. First, it is expensive to make changes to a typeset manuscript (typesetters don’t work for free), so the proofreader is generally instructed to stick to correcting errors and to make only the changes that are absolutely necessary. This means that it is not the time to rename characters, to introduce a new plot element or to rewrite the introduction. All that should have been put to bed before the copy-editing stage.

Also, any substantial changes or rewriting need to be carefully checked, not just to make sure that they are correct but also to establish that they fit within the context of the paragraph, the chapter and the book. I have worked with authors who have made last-minute changes that introduced a glaring contradiction because they forgot to make a corresponding change in a later chapter. Essentially, such changes create the need for a new copy-edit, but because nobody is prepared to pay for that, things get missed.

The greater the number of errors that remain in your manuscript the more likely it is that some won’t be corrected. If you didn’t have your work copy-edited, and the proofreader is faced with, for example, page after page of incorrectly punctuated dialogue, that is likely to become their focus – to the detriment of other issues.

So it’s important to think of proofreading as a final check, not as an opportunity to make your manuscript better – that’s the purpose of editing. By hiring a proofreader you are accepting that you have moved beyond this point and are ready to publish. And it’s important that you proofread your own manuscript too. Although you are likely to have a degree of copy-blindness by the time it gets to this stage, you should never publish without having parsed the final version yourself. To that end (and to show that this slightly ranty post has a practical purpose!), here’s a list of things you should look out for:


  • Be particularly aware of homonyms. ‘Your’ and ‘you’re’; ‘compliment’ and ‘complement’; ‘their’, ‘there’, and ‘they’re’, etc. These slip through easily.


  • Check that full stops, commas, colons, semicolons, etc., are used correctly.
  • Quotation marks and apostrophes are sometimes reversed. Check them carefully.
  • Check for double spaces, particularly after full stops.

Typesetting [for print books]

  • Check that the font is consistent throughout the text.
  • Check that the leading (space between lines) and kerning (space between characters) are consistent. Because the text is justified, the tracking (space between words) will vary, but it should be neither too loose nor too tight.
  • Ensure the paragraph after a section break is not indented.
  • Paragraph indents ought to be consistent throughout.
  • Mark any orphans and widows (a single line at the bottom of a page or part of a line at the top of a page).
  • Running heads need to be consistent and have the proper information, e.g., book title, chapter title or author name. It’s easy to make a mistake with these, so check them thoroughly.
  • Chapter openers should also be consistent. Does each chapter start in the same place on the page and contain the same elements in the same order?
  • Check that subhead spacing and alignment are uniform. Also, check that chapter numbers are in sequence and word ‘Chapter’ is used (or not) consistently.
  • Check that page numbers are present and in sequence. Odd-numbered pages should be on the right. Check that numbering is consecutive.
  • Blank pages should have nothing on them – including no folios or running heads.
  • Check page references. If you refer to something as being in Chapter 3 or on page 98, is that still correct in the final version?
  • Check that all necessary information on the imprint page is present and correct, including ISBNs.
  • Check that the page numbers on the Table of Contents correspond to the chapter openings. Check the vertical alignment of the page numbers.


  • Check that the title, subtitle and author name are correct on the cover and the spine, if applicable. Check the direction of the text on the spine.
  • Check that there are no typos or inconsistencies in the blurb.
  • Check that the ISBN is correct, if applicable.

Authors have come to expect an awful lot from proofreaders, and proofreaders sometimes go far and beyond their remit. The rise of self-publishing has broadened the scope of the function, pushing the proofreader into areas traditionally occupied by the editor. I’m not sure this is a good thing. It’s worth remembering that proofreading developed as a specific editorial function for a reason, and that it should be carried out as an individual task because it’s an essential part of the publishing process that consolidates the work of the author and the editor.”

Robert Doran works as a freelance editor and is Editorial Director at Kazoo Independent Publishing Services (, a one-stop shop for indie authors who want to publish industry-standard books. He has nearly twenty years’ experience in bringing books to market and has worked as an editor, project manager, sales manager, and bookseller in Ireland and in the UK. He is a big fan of the Oxford comma. Follow him on Twitter @RobertEdits or visit .

Copy-editors: What They Really Do

Today we have a guest post from editor Robert Doran, whose previous guest posts on the subject of all things editing —Structural Editing for Self-Publishers and Why Hire An Editor? — were exceedingly popular. Today he’s explaining exactly what it is copy-editors do, and he’ll be back on Thursday to tell us all about proofreading. Welcome back to Catherine. Caffeinated, Robert! Take it away…

“People often think that if you can write you can edit – and vice versa. But writing and editing are very different skills, and competency in one doesn’t guarantee ability in the other. The creative impulse that often drives the author should be largely absent in the copy-editor, who is tasked with problem-solving and who essentially approaches the text as a puzzle. Happily, the editor’s eye for detail complements the author’s creativity, and when they are combined successfully you end up with something great.

Many self-publishers decide not to hire a copy-editor because of the cost involved and because they don’t fully understand what a copy-edit can do for their work. The thinking generally goes, I’m not paying someone to correct a few typos and to get rid of the passive voice. The truth is that you’re paying for a great deal more than that, and we’ll examine the specifics of where your money goes in a moment. First and foremost, what you get out of a copy-edit is a degree of confidence that your book is technically sound, that it does what you intended it to do, and that it comes up to the basic standards expected of published work.


In broad terms, the copy-editor must ensure that the author’s words are true to the intended message. One of the reasons why it is so difficult to copy-edit your own work is that the message is already clear in your head. You know your intention before you review what you’ve written, and that makes it easy to make assumptions and difficult to affect the detachment necessary to edit. The reader, on the other hand, relies solely on your words, so they need to be the right words, organised in the correct manner, if you are to communicate your message effectively. Enter the copy-editor!

A copy-editor brings a fresh perspective to your work. They will see the words, the sentences and the paragraphs for what they are and will tally them with what you want them to mean. Of course they will correct typos and remove the passive voice in places. But they also understand that the passive voice isn’t always bad, that split infinitives are usually fine and that the odd cliché never hurt anyone. The intention is never to make your writing generic but to allow it to shine by selectively applying rules and consistently applying style.

So, let’s look in more detail at what your friendly copy-editor can do for you.


This is the Holy Grail for copy-editors, and rightly so. In English you are often presented with two or more correct options, and you must choose one and stick to it religiously. For example, if you use ‘okay’ in Chapter 1, you shouldn’t use ‘OK’ in Chapter 6; ‘seventies’ shouldn’t suddenly become ‘70s’, and you can’t jump back and forth between ‘dramatise’ and ‘dramatize’. Copy-editors create a style sheet specific to your book, detailing the decisions that they make on spelling, punctuation, capitalisation, presentation of dates and numbers, etc. That style sheet can then be passed on to the typesetter and proofreader to ensure consistency and make everyone’s life easier. Yay!


Repetition comes in many different forms, most of them evil! Political rhetoric can stand a little repetition, but if you’re reading this I’m guessing your aim is not to write political speeches. Sometimes an author will deliberately repeat something to emphasise a point, not realising that most often the effect is to undermine rather than to underline. Most repetition, however, is unintentional. It can occur pages or chapters apart or it can even be contained within the same phrase (‘each individual person’, ‘various different’). If you use ‘wonderful’ five times in five paragraphs it sounds lazy and unprofessional; if you use the same words to describe a room twice in two chapters it sounds lazy and patronising. A copy-editor should also pick up on hidden repetition, such as explaining the content of dialogue when the message is already clearly conveyed in your characters’ words.


We all have words and phrases that we fall back on and use too frequently. Chief offenders are the meaningless little tags we add to sentences without even thinking, e.g., ‘basically’, ‘to be honest’, ‘let me begin by saying’, ‘at this point in time’. Buzzwords and jargon are also often overused. The effect can be to smother the meaning of your message and to leave your reader wondering if you know what point you’re trying to make.


We don’t always write exactly what we mean, and we don’t always mean what we write. Sometimes this can be as simple as a misplaced comma (‘Let’s eat Grandma’ is an entirely different proposition from ‘Let’s eat, Grandma’) or an adverb gone slightly astray (‘The road needs to be resurfaced badly’ is not the same as ‘The road badly needs to be resurfaced’).

Grammar and usage

There’s no short cut to good grammar: you just have to learn it, remember it and then apply it to your writing. But not always! There is an element of judgement involved here. Making a valiant stand against misguided prescriptivism, Winston Churchill (apparently) said, ‘This is the sort of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put!’ And he was right: sometimes your message is best served by a bent or broken rule. But be careful! You have to know the rules before you can break them with any confidence, and a copy-editor will be sensitive to just how far you should push it.


Obviously your copy-editor will look for typos, but I’m also going to shoehorn homophones (words that are pronounced the same but spelled differently) into this category. ‘Complement’ and ‘compliment’; ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’; ‘principal’ and ‘principle’; and ‘bare’ and ‘bear’ are all embarrassingly easy to overlook. A good copy-editor will seek out and destroy these. They will also make sure that foreign words are italicised and accented correctly and that hyphenation is correct and consistent.


Apart from the never-ending comma debate, you would think that most punctuation is fairly straightforward. But time and time again it turns up as a huge issue, especially when it comes to dialogue. I can honestly say I’ve never come across a manuscript with dialogue that has been punctuated consistently. I’ll give this topic a blog post all of its own very soon [Catherine: ooh, goody!] because it’s not optional, and it’s not OK to get it wrong, even if you get it wrong consistently. Copy-editors know these rules inside out. They also know that you shouldn’t use more than a single exclamation mark at a time and that even one should be used sparingly. F. Scott Fitzgerald said they are the equivalent of laughing at your own joke, and I tend to agree. If you’re in the habit of pairing exclamation marks with question marks you will be politely but firmly told to quit. [Catherine: But I love them?!]

Factual accuracy

Copy-editors are not researchers, but they will check dates, names, places, periods and the like so that fact and fiction tally. They will point out that your Victorian heroine couldn’t have taken antibiotics and that your hero was not in Zimbabwe in 1978 because the country was called Rhodesia at the time. If the Edwardian house your character lives in was built 200 years ago, it cannot in fact be an Edwardian house.


Most copy-editors have a basic understanding of libel law. They can’t guarantee that you won’t be sued, but they will flag anything that should be run past a lawyer. This is important not only for non-fiction authors, but also for writers of fiction, who often mention real people and events as well. If any of your characters are identifiable as real people, you need to be sure you’re not saying anything that will result in a costly court appearance.


Your copy-editor will rephrase ungrammatical or awkward sentences as a matter of course, but you will have to discuss with them exactly how much beyond this you want them to intervene. Some authors want minimal intervention so that their style is preserved, whereas others are happy to have a copy-editor make changes when it adds to the clarity, flow or readability of the text. The level of editing is always up to you as the author, but it’s worth remembering that Word’s Track Changes function allows you to reject a change with a single click, so an editor’s input is never anything more than a suggestion.

Copy-editing is more than correcting typos, and it’s also more than the sum of what I have detailed above. It will leave your prose clearer, more engaging and more readable, and to my mind it isn’t optional for any published work. Just to prove that I practise what I preach, I’ll share with you the fact that this very blog post was copy-edited by Liz Hudson of the, because I know better than to think my writing can’t be improved!”

Robert Doran works as a freelance editor and is Editorial Director at Kazoo Independent Publishing Services (, a one-stop shop for indie authors who want to publish industry-standard books. He has nearly twenty years’ experience in bringing books to market and has worked as an editor, project manager, sales manager, and bookseller in Ireland and in the UK. He is a big fan of the Oxford comma. Follow him on Twitter @RobertEdits or visit .

A note from Catherine: please do not make the mistake of thinking that American English is the only English there is. Thanks.

Structural Editing For Self-Publishers

Following on from last week’s very popular guest post, Why Hire An Editor?, Robert Doran, editorial director at Kazoo Independent Publishing Services, is back today to tell us about structural editing. While copyediting and proofreading are absolute musts, I don’t think a self-publisher’s money is always put to best use by getting a structural edit for their book. So today Robert gives us some tips on, first of all, what a structural edit is, and secondly, what we can do ourselves to ensure our book is structurally sound. Welcome back, Robert!


Structurally Sound

Structural editing (sometimes called developmental editing or substantive editing) is the most complex and time-consuming stage of the editorial process. As a result it’s also the most expensive. Nevertheless a structural edit is something that most manuscripts can benefit greatly from. So what’s a self-publisher to do?

I know you’re expecting me to say, ‘Hire an editor!’ and if you can afford to do that, it’s probably the best option. But if paying for a structural edit means you won’t be able to afford a copy-edit, you need to consider other solutions. A copy-edit, to my mind, really isn’t optional, and it will always be the most effective way to spend your budget.

We’ll come back to how you can best handle structural editing in a bit, but first let’s look at what it actually is. Structural editing is looking at the big picture. It’s evaluating a manuscript as a whole and analysing how well its constituent parts contribute to the central message or narrative. Whereas the copy-editor takes a micro view, drilling into the detail, the structural editor goes macro and asks, ‘Does this work as a book?’

In fiction, the main areas that a structural editor will address are:

  • Plot: Does the plot make sense? Is it believable? Is it satisfying or does it leave the reader frustrated?
  • Themes: Are the themes effectively handled? Are there so many that the book lacks focus? Do they interfere with the plot or complement it?
  • Characterisation: Are your characters well developed and believable? Are they cast in a role that fits their personality? Do they sometimes behave out of character?
  • Point of view/voice: Is the voice consistent or is it sometimes confused? Is the voice authentic? Are you using too many or too few POVs?
  • Pace: Does the plot move forward at an appropriate pace? Should you cut that preface? Should the action happen sooner or should the tension build more slowly?
  • Dialogue: Do your characters sound real when they speak? Is your dialogue cluttered with adverbs and beats? Do you use clunky dialogue to move the plot forward?
  • Flow: Is the narrative interrupted by dead-ends and tangents? Is there so much back story that the main plot is dwarfed? Are there missing plot points that would give the narrative greater integrity?

In non-fiction, the principle is the same, but the specific issues are slightly different:

  • Thesis: Is your thesis relevant? Is it clearly defined or is it lost among marginal issues?
  • Exposition: Are your arguments clear and cogent? Are they well researched and properly supported? Do they have a clear relationship with your thesis?
  • Content: Are all the necessary topics sufficiently dealt with? Are the chapters weighted correctly? Is there superfluous content?
  • Organisation: Is the information organised logically? Are tables and illustrations used appropriately? How many levels of subheads do you need and how should they be arranged?
  • Tone: Is the tone appropriate for the audience? Do you need to eliminate jargon? Is the text accessible?
  • Pace: Are there passages that are bogged down in detail? Do you spend too long on detail irrelevant to the main thesis? Are there areas that need further exposition lest they be skipped over?

Although a structural editor may do a little copy-editing as they work through your manuscript, that is not what they are being paid to do. Their focus is much broader, and they will return your manuscript marked up with constructive comments and suggested rewrites that will in any case render the corrections pointless.

So, if you’re saving your money for a copy-edit, what do you do about structure?

Leave it alone. Put your manuscript in a drawer for a few weeks and forget about it. When you come back to it you’ll see it with fresh eyes and you’ll be in a much better position to read it critically. Then cut ruthlessly. Strip it out. Spike anything that you think you might use later or rewrite. You’re likely to find that your cuts have resulted in a tighter, more readable, and more enjoyable book.

Join a writing group. Creative-writing groups provide a great forum in which to have your work critiqued by people who are as passionate about writing as you are. Some opinions may be more informed than others, and you may have to sift through some personal prejudices before you get to the useful pointers, but there are bound to be people whose opinion you value. Keep an open mind and always thank people for their feedback, even if it’s unjustified criticism. If you’re seen to react badly, people with a real talent for spotting problems might choose to keep their comments to themselves. Critiquing sites and internet author forums can also be a great source of feedback and support, especially if you’re the sort of writer who doesn’t like to leave the house. Harper Collins set up as a novel way of finding new talent, but it’s also a great place to connect with other writers. offers a similar service. You can read about Irish author Bob Burke’s experience with the site here.

Read books on writing. There are hundreds of books out there on writing. There are books on plot, dialogue, point of view, editing, and every other aspect of crafting a good book. The information is there for you to apply to your own manuscript if you’re prepared to spend fifty quid and a couple of weeks studying the texts. It might not be the same as having a fresh pair of eyes tackle your MS, but if you put a bit of distance between you and your work, you should be able to put your new skills to effective use.

Read the competition. It’s great to be original, but unless you’re Joyce or Kafka it’s best not to be too different. Your competition represents a good guide to what’s expected from you. You should aim to produce something better, extra or novel that adds to the canon, but don’t stray too far from the beaten track or your book won’t fit on any shelf. Read books published in your category in as critical a manner as possible. It helps if you’ve read a few books on writing first – you’ll find that issues to which you were previously oblivious suddenly come into sharp relief. Try to deconstruct the books and analyse how plot, characterisation, pace, etc., are handled, chapter by chapter. Many authors in your category will have faced similar dilemmas as you, and it helps to analyse their results.

It’s true that none of this entirely replaces a professional structural edit, but you can bring your manuscript a long way by investing just a few quid and some reading time. After you’ve done all this, it’s worth having a chat with your copy-editor to explain how you’ve edited. If you show them that you’ve put in the effort and, if you’re extra nice to them, they’ll be glad to watch out for any remaining structural issues. They may not deal with the problems in depth, but they’ll flag them, and, with all that reading under your belt, you’ll have no trouble sorting them out.

Robert Doran is Editorial Director at Kazoo Independent Publishing Services (, a one-stop shop for indie authors who want to publish industry-standard books. He has nearly twenty years’ experience in bringing books to market and has worked as an editor, project manager, sales manager, and bookseller in Ireland and in the UK. He is a big fan of the Oxford comma. Follow him on Twitter @RobertEdits.

[Catherine’s note: Back in February I got to listen to the lovely Sarah Savitt talk about editing at Faber Academy, and she said, ‘The editor’s job is to ask the questions.’ She gave us some editorial notes to look at, and they were things that would be going through a reader’s head in a few month’s time if Sarah hadn’t raised them. Like: Why would this character forgive him? She’s no reason to, and But two pages back he said he didn’t agree with that! and I don’t understand why she doesn’t leave the car there?? A structural edit means that these questions get asked—and answered—in private (among other improvements!), before the book hits the virtual shelves, and not on Goodreads and Amazon customer reviews. Haven’t we all seen reviews where readers said something like, ‘I just didn’t get why he/she did that’? It’s like an English essay I wrote when I was in Sixth Class (age 12). The teacher, who usually championed my attempts, made me read out my mysterious character-being-chased-through-the-woods-at-night story (I was big into The X-Files then), before saying in front of everyone, ‘Catherine, you are the only one who knows what’s happening in this story.’ It’s a lesson I never forgot!)