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Editors—Helping You Answer Questions You Didn’t Ask

Before I start any editing project, I like to find out from the author who the target audience is. It seems like a very simple set of questions: Who will be reading this? What do you know about your readers?

In short, the question is “Who is your book’s audience?”

I cannot begin to tell you how many people, when asked, respond with “everyone who likes to read” or “anyone who is interested in X” or—possibly one of my least favorites—“I don’t know.”

Let’s be honest. No book is for “everyone.” No book is going to interest “anyone interested in” the book’s topic. (There’s a huge difference between cat-loving gay romantics from Sheboygan—who simply want to see cute pictures of kittens—and veterinary students who are interested in images of cancerous masses on feline livers. Both may be interested in cats, but it’s a fair guess that they won’t both want the same books)

If your answer to that question is “I don’t know who I wrote it for,” then, frankly, you’re lying. (No offense intended.) I don’t know any writer who doesn’t have someone in mind while writing. You just have to be honest with yourself and answer that question. It’s entirely possible that the answer is “I wrote it just for me”—and as long as you’re honest about that, at least you’ve got a place to start from.

Let’s say that you’ve written a family history which centers on your aunt, the medical physicist, and you’ve illustrated it with stick figures. Who do you think will read it?

  • Your family – because it’s a family history

  • Middle school physics students (especially girls) – because it’s about a little-known female pioneer in the field

  • Art students – because it shows the evolution of the stick figure as an illustrative technique

  • Some crossover of all three – because you’re amazing at marketing and will be able to talk everyone into buying it (Really? Are you sure that’s what’s going to happen?)

How you answer that question makes an immense difference in how your book should be focused—as well as who should edit it. This is why, when you’re editing—and, honestly, when you’re writing—you need to have your book’s audience in mind.

(For a full discussion of how I feel a book’s genre impacts who will be editing it, please see my earlier post on that topic.)

Let’s look at our family history about the medical physicist aunt illustrated with stick figures. If you’ve decided that your target audience is going to be middle school physics students (especially girls), here is what I would recommend:

  • Beta readers – a middle school girl you know (possibly your own kid, but I’d recommend a group of kids) who can tell you whether the book is—at its core—interesting, and what does or doesn’t work

  • Developmental editor – someone with a background in science, who will know what questions to ask. This could also be someone with a love of history, but should definitely be someone who has worked with middle-grade books, since that is a very specific market

  • Copyeditor – someone who has worked with books aimed for middle school kids, so that he or she can look for issues of word usage and sentence structure, to make sure it’s not over the kids’ heads, and also not talking down to them.

If, on the other hand, you really want to focus your book on art students, your breakdown would probably be more like:

  • Beta readers – one or more art students—these may or may not be people with backgrounds in art history—who will be able to discuss the merits of your arguments with you, while also discussing whether or not your manuscript truly appeals to them

  • Developmental editor – someone with a background in art. As above, this could also be someone with a love of history, but should definitely be someone who has worked with art books, since that is a very specific market.

  • Copyeditor – someone who has worked with art-heavy books, so that he or she can look for issues of layout and design, to make sure the endpoint has found a good blend between narrative and imagery, while still checking to make sure all of the punctuation is correct. (Like I said, editors who do this well are a pretty amazing group.)

As you can see from those two different breakdowns, your audience has a major impact on the editor you choose—at least as much as your genre does.

Oh—and if you’re wondering—I always have an audience in mind when I’m writing these columns. If you want to know what you look like in my mind, feel free to ask!

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