WMW Introduces Nancy Burke

We're doing something a little different this week.  Not only is this an interview-style post, it's also "live".  This means that if you have any further questions, and leave them in a comment, Nancy will answer them for you here.

Nancy Burke has been an editor for twelve years now.  She works for a small academic publishing company.  She has agreed to answer questions about what an editor does, and what their exact role is in the publishing industry.

Ask the Editor

What is the role of the editor?
My job as an editor is to prepare manuscript for publication. Anything you can imagine that falls into that very blanket statement can become part of what I do. I’ve gone so far as to take pictures of a location so we had a photo to include in a book. Mostly I split my time between project management and manuscript development – everything from serving as a sounding board for authors (and strict task mistress!) to overseeing the design of the book’s cover to making sure the book’s content is everything the author and the publisher want it to be.
Do most agencies have an on staff editor, or is it mostly the publishing houses that do?
Can’t be much help here. Since my place acquires and produces its own books, I have nothing to do with agencies.
What part of the publishing process does your job fall into?  For example, how much say does an editor have over whether a book is accepted or not?
I can’t say how it may pertain to agencies, but in my little area of publishing, I develop manuscript, making sure the content, organization, structure, and coherence that's needed is there. I will work with an author to get the book into the best possible shape. Once it’s signed – which (again, in my area of publishing) is prior to it being written – it’s unlikely not to be published. When publication happens will vary though. One book on my plate was signed over ten years ago, and we’re all still waiting.

Do editors normally work directly with the author to make modifications to the work, or does the communication go through a third party, ex. the agent?
I work directly with authors, and I believe the process is the same for fiction. The agent may be copied in, but the author and editor communicate directly.

Would editors suggest changes, such as plot points in fiction or theories in non-fiction?
I would. If something's not working, whether it's an academic's argument in support of his new theory or a fictional plot development/character, it's a weakness in the manuscript that needs to be fixed. In some cases, I'll make suggestions for the author to consider (usually in the way of questions to get them thinking). In others, I'll say what's not working, why, and explain why I feel it needs to go. It's never a dictate, however, always a suggestion. The editor-author relationship I strive to create is one of cooperation. We can't publish your book if you're too unhappy to write/revise.

When editing non-fiction books, what are you looking for?  Verification of facts or simply wording, grammar, wrong word choice by way of example?
Well, my nonfiction books are written by subject area specialists. I can't hope to match them on the facts, but we do send manuscripts out to others with similar expertise for their feedback. This helps us to identify early on where the flaws may be when it comes to facts and breadth of knowledge presented - is the author focusing too narrowly or too broadly? This reviewer feedback helps both the author and the editor. The author knows what her (anonymous) peers have said, and we work together to determine which parts are most valuable for us to move forward with.

I look at a manuscript and ask, "What is this chapter/book supposed to do?" Each chapter has a purpose. Each word does as well. Tight prose makes for easier reading and understanding (this last bit is especially helpful if your book's intent is to teach readers something). I look at everything from organization to sentence structure. Translating this to fiction, I like to say every scene serves a purpose. The reader has to learn something from it or it shouldn't be there – no matter how much you like it. Look, it may hurt to cut out that scene of entertaining dialogue that everybody loves, but if nothing in that scene moves the plot forward (you’ve got to be able to pinpoint it) then you don’t need it. Close your eyes if you have to, but hit delete. Your prose will be stronger for it.
What is the day of an editor like? 
Full of so many details and deadlines it can make your head swim. I like to start with my email, see what’s exploded since I left the night before. From there, it varies by deadlines and meetings. I might spend my day working on manuscript or looking for photos, thinking up ideas for book covers, writing up book features to help the sales reps, or discussing new processes that aim to increase efficiency. There is always a stack of manuscript waiting for attention. Mostly I’m hunched over my desk, racing to complete as much work as possible before hunger or lack of coffee drives me to look up, blink, and realize I should have gone home an hour ago.
Do you work on one project at a time or several?  How many could you be involved with at one time?
Let’s see, I currently have… seven books at various stages of development. Some are late (most by months, not years); a couple are almost done; and the rest fall somewhere in between. They’re also of various sizes. The big books usually require more time. On average, I work on two to three projects a day in some capacity. It could just be answering email for one project, but that “just” is important to keeping schedules running smoothly. It’s a lot of detail coordination and communication.
How long does it take to edit a complete book?  What was the shortest length of time, and the longest?
Shortest length of time: Three weeks. The author didn’t need much assistance from me and the deadline got crunched very short. I didn’t sleep much. Longest: a year. I usually receive a book’s manuscript in batches. A chapter here, another couple there, and the plan is to work on it as it comes in and avoid backlogs later. There are always delays. I like to control for those where I can, and the best way to do that is by staying on top of the editing. (Easier said than done, but it’s my sparkly rainbow dream.)
In the case of the book that took the longest, what were the factors involved that made it require more time?
Author delays, and its sheer size and complexity. There were lots of figures and photos and other fun stuff, and author delays. Some books have taken longer because I’ve first had to finish off other books with earlier publication dates.
What would an editor’s dream writer be like?
It’s great to work with a writer who respects the schedule and keeps me advised when a deadline’s going to be missed. Someone with a grasp on the market and who can write to it. A writer who can digest a heavily edited manuscript, riddled with questions/critique, and come back with something better.
Now, in regard to the schedule, I feel compelled to add that life often gets in the way. I understand, and I appreciate when authors show me equal patience when I’m late. Because I am. It happens despite everyone’s best intentions. How you handle those delays is important. Professionalism and direct communication are far better for a relationship than radio silence. 

Remember, if you have any questions for Nancy, leave them in the comments and she'll be back to answer them for you.  Of course, if you just want to comment on the post, that's always welcome as well :)
Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions I had about editors, Nancy.  For more information on Nancy or to visit her blog, click here.


  1. Great interview, both! So, to sum up, an editor's job is easy, rewarding, and never stressful. Did I get all that right?

  2. What would be your advice to someone self-publishing and editing their own work? What's something to look out for? How can someone become better at self editing?

  3. Absolutely never stressful, Jennifer. ;)

    Todd, if you're editing your own work, I'd suggest several passes through the manuscript. One to look purely for technical stuff: proper punctuation, grammar, clear dialogue tags where needed, appropriate scene and chapter breaks. Another to look critically at each scene. For instance, that entertaining dialogue I mention up above might be part of a scene in which the reader really does learn something, but the dialogue may still be a tangent.

    Be aware of your weaknesses/tendencies as a writer - use a lot of adverbs? tend to gloss over details when they should be explained? Look specifically for those types of things. Remember, too, that after working on your manuscript for months, you're overly familiar with it. Put it away for a month or more. When you come back, your perspective will be a little removed, making it easier to see spots in need of help.

    Don't rush the end process. It takes months for a book to go through copyediting and proofreading before its publication. Give the fruits of your labor the time it deserves!

  4. Thank you for sharing! It's nice to see what goes on after the manuscript leaves my hands. :)

  5. Glad it's informative! Thanks for stopping by, Alex. :)


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