5 Things Editors Know About Readers

by Carla Douglas and Corina Koch MacLeod
@CarlaJDouglas @ckmacleodwriter

This article first appeared February 4, 2014 on Pubslush.

If you’re planning to self-publish or if you’re thinking about it, you’re likely aware that you — and your book — will benefit if you work with an editor.

How do you know this? Well for one thing, it’s impossible to get near the subject of self-publishing in the blogosphere without someone telling you to hire an editor. This advice is hard to miss — like a flashing yellow light at a dangerous intersection. And self-pubs are getting the message and conscientiously seeking editorial services as part of the publishing process.

But beyond the fact that editors catch typos and fix rogue grammar mistakes, why should authors care about editing? There is one reason, and to overlook it is risky.

You care about your readers. You want to give them a good reading experience and leave a good impression by meeting their expectations.

What exactly do readers expect when they read a book?

Editors know what readers expect. Why? The publishing industry has established these expectations over time and readers have internalized them. As publishing professionals, editors are privy to these expectations.

Here are five things editors know about readers:

1. Readers are more likely to finish your book if they read it “in flow.” There is no longer such thing as 100 percent distraction-free reading. When readers read a book on a tablet or smartphone, they can be summoned off-book at any minute by a text message or a Facebook alert. Authors are competing for reader attention.

For this reason, authors need to know the secrets to writing in a way that grips their readers — that keeps them in flow for as long as possible. They need to know how to pace a story to avoid lulls, and establish POV in a manner that allows readers to track seamlessly with characters. They also need to know what style decisions to make, so they don’t distract readers from the meaning-making process of reading. Editors know what trips readers.

2. Readers like all the essential parts of a book to be there, such as correctly styled headings to guide them through large swaths of text, or images, tables, and charts to illustrate or explain difficult concepts. Readers like familiar signposts — such as paragraph indents, or a row of space between paragraphs, to break up the text.

Ebooks are different from print books, and they operate differently, too. Editors know which features are essential in ebooks, and which features belong in print books, or work better elsewhere.

3. Readers like things to be where they expect them to be and to act as they expect them to act. If you like to get a sense of the topics in a book before you read it, you’ll likely consult the table of contents at the front, where you expect it to be.

In ebooks, a properly designed table of contents can always be accessed from the table of contents menu on an e-reader from anywhere in the ebook. If it isn’t there, readers have no options for navigating your book. There are other features that need to behave in predictable ways in ebooks, too, and editors know what these features are and how they’re supposed to work.

4. Readers don’t want to work harder than they have to. There are many things that authors inadvertently do to make readers work too hard, and some readers will just give up. Editors know that readers hate having to stop and figure out who is saying what in dialogue. Sometimes authors use style features (italics), or apply style rules (capitalization), in unconventional ways. These features and rules mean something to readers, and when they are used in unexpected ways, it can cause readers to pause and lose reading momentum.

Your writing and style choices should be clear, predictable, and consistent, and at their very best, completely transparent. If readers forget they are reading, you have done an exquisite job as a writer.

5. They may not say it in this way, but your readers will expect your book to have style. Editing is all about style — the decisions you need to make for the best possible reading experience. Editors are stylists who can show you how to make those decisions.Addressing reader expectations can make for a satisfying read and a satisfied reader. How do you find out what these expectations are so you can meet them? You can read lots of style guides, or you can ask an editor to help you.

Image by Living in Monrovia

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