Ramona Richards

Ramona Richards started making stuff up at three, writing it down at seven, and selling it at eighteen. She’s been annoying editors ever since, which is probably why she became one. Twenty-five years later, she’s edited more than 350 publications, including novels, CD-ROMs, magazines, non-fiction, children’s books, Bibles, and study guides. Ramona has worked with such publishers as Thomas Nelson, Barbour, Howard, Harlequin, Ideals, and many others. The author of eight books, she’s now the fiction editor for Abingdon Press. An avid live music fan, Ramona loves living in the ongoing street party that is Nashville.

Yes, You Will Be Edited - Part I

"No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else's draft."
                                                                                                    —H. G. Wells

In 1981, when I’d been on my first editorial job for only a few weeks, I received a letter from a reader who noted a mistake in one of our books. I was horrified. The book had been out for several years, but no one had noticed that “Joseph had lead the donkey to the stable.”

I took the letter to my boss, expecting the same shock. After all, this was a children’s book. Maybe 1,000 words long. It had been through two edits, a copyedit, and two proofings. Five reprintings, each of which had been proofread. This should not have happened! I expected outrage from my boss.

Instead, she told me whom to send the correction to, and then she went back to work, calm as could be.

“But, but, but—”

A gentle smile lit her face. “Lesson number one in this business, Ramona, is that there’s no such thing as a perfect book. Once you accept that, your life will be much less stressful.”

I often hear from writers who have studied the Masters and read Deb Dixon books until the pages were dog-eared. They’ve paid to have their babies edited, or they had their former English teachers correct the grammar. They’ve worked years, making their books as perfect as possible. Obviously it’s perfect; after all, they’ve sold their manuscripts to publishing houses!

Needless to say, they’re a little stunned when they get the first edit.

The surprise comes from two assumptions about how editors work: 1) how editors choose what to buy, and 2) how editors edit a purchased manuscript. This column will look briefly at the first assumption. February’s column will address the second.

* * *

Assumption 1: Editors buy only manuscripts that are ready to publish.

No matter how often they hear otherwise, writers often cling to the idea that an editor buys a manuscript because it is perfect: perfect story, perfect writing, perfect for the line, perfect for selling. Therefore, it shouldn’t need much editing. After all, it’s perfect.

Uh . . . not quite.

We’re not looking for “perfect.” Editors know that perfect doesn’t exist. Humans are flawed, and even great authors get edited, as we recently found out with Jane Austen. Not even Bibles come out perfect because while the Word was breathed by God, mere humans wrote the notes and did the typesetting and proofreading.

What editors want most is a great story in a unique voice.

Memorize that. Print it out and put it on your fridge. Editors want to be wooed by your story, not the perfection of your grammar or plot structure. Enchant us on the first page with your storytelling capabilities. Only then do we ask the next level of questions:

• Does it fit our program? Do I have a slot for this genre?
• Can I sell it to the acquisitions and marketing team?
• Will it succeed in the marketplace? Can I make the P&L statement on it work?
• Is the author interested in a one-shot deal, or a career?
• How deep will the edit have to be? (This is where we take note of your ability to use a comma in the right place.)

“Is it perfect?” doesn’t even make the list.

Now, don’t assume I mean that grammar doesn’t matter; it does. In fact, it would be hard to enchant an editor completely with that first page if your grammar is truly lousy. And even an enchanted editor will reject a manuscript if she gets to the “deep edit” question and realizes it’ll be too hard or take too long to fix the issues. Excellent grammar and structure will help you sell, but it’s only part of the picture.

You don’t sell your manuscript because it is perfect and your work is finished. Selling just means you’ve hit that storytelling sweet spot that every editor longs to discover.

In fact, selling your manuscripts marks the beginning of the hardest part of your work.

Next month we’ll discuss how editors edit the manuscripts they’ve purchased.