The Making of a Cookbook: Editing (Everything I Wish I Knew!)
Really Big Thing I learned writing The Well Plated Cookbook: book editing is an inside joke.
I was not, however, prepared for the way editing would fully and completely take over my life. One phase caused me to recoil at the sight of sweet potatoes which, prior to editing my cookbook, were my favorite vegetable. (The two of us have since made amends, but it took months.)
I call editing an “inside joke” because no one can possibly prepare you for it. I’d heard it mentioned in passing with no amount of enthusiasm from fellow cookbook authors, but without any level of detail.
My publisher had warned me that when I had an editing deadline, it would be best to clear my schedule, but I didn’t know that “clearing” would necessitate creating a near-permanent office at our neighborhood coffee shop, hauling hundreds of pages of print outs of my book all over New York City, and working on it while on assorted vacations.
^^Book editing while on vacation in Deer Valley, UT.
As with every aspect of the cookbook writing process, I learned A LOT while editing, not least of which includes what “editing” even means and how the process works.
Before I go farther, I find it important to tell you emphatically that when I turned in my manuscript, my book was in very good shape.
The recipes were meticulously tested and I’d put a good deal of time into writing other aspects of the book, like the introductory chapters and recipe headnotes, to make them personal and entertaining.
As someone who reads her cookbooks the way other people read magazines, I wanted you not only to cook from my book but to enjoy reading it too.
At a high level, my book was in good shape (and I am not just saying that—my editor would agree).
As I discovered once I dove down into the following phases, however, when you are as committed to making a book as useful and as detailed as I was, you create an unbelievable amount of extra work.
You also might make yourself go crazy.
Many of the following photos have been pulled from the cookbook highlight in my Instagram story. It’s a fun trip down memory lane and there’s a lot of interesting behind-the-scenes shots if you’d like to check it out.
^^Our living room from November 2019 onward.
BOOK EDITING: An Overview
Let me preface this by saying, this is how the editing process went down for me, a first-time cookbook author.
If other authors are reading this, I can’t promise your experience will be the same. I also highly encourage you to keep your favorite snacks on hand.
^^Colectivo Coffee became my default office (one of the photos in the book is even taken on their patio!).
Step 1: Submit the Manuscript
This is when I emailed all 400-ish pages of my book to my editor as one monster Word document.
I also submitted a link with all of the book photos. It was roughly 1 p.m., and I poured myself a glass of champagne.
At the end of Step 1, I’m thinking, “Great! We’ll just fix a couple of typos and I’m good!”
Step 2: WAIT
Waiting is a very VERY big part of the book editing process, which I am not going to lie, is incredibly frustrating as an author.
No matter how early you turn something in, it will come back to you at the last second, and you will have an outrageously tight deadline to review it, with little flexibility.
From other authors to whom I have since vented this frustration, I am not unique in this experience. I don’t know why exactly, but it seems to be “the way publishing is.”
My best guess as to the cause of the “wait, wait, wait, DO EVERYTHING NOW” effect is that a book needs to pass through many hands at the publisher for review and that publishing teams have a lot of other book deadlines to juggle.
For the record: I adore my publishing team and am going to be more prepared next time. And have more snacks.
^^I think I ate every cookie at every coffee shop in the city of Milwaukee while working on this book. Kickapoo’s (above) are on point.
Step 3: Global Edits
The first person who reviews your manuscript is your editor. I had thought that I’d be going back and forth with my editor the entire time, but after this initial review, the editor is more like a quarterback for the book. She gets it to the right person at the right time and is there to advise on big decisions and strategies.
Lucia, my editor, had great feedback for me. My biggest problem in this phase was that my book was WAY TOO LONG.
I wanted every recipe to be as helpful as possible, so I included all kinds of extras like how to reheat and reuse leftovers, ingredient swaps you can make, and much more.
Our options were to take out some of these “extras” or cut recipes.
I opted to cut recipes. It was heartbreaking. I loved every recipe in my book, but it was more important to me that the recipes we did include (which is still A LOT OF RECIPES) were as complete and helpful as possible.
This cookbook is better because of Lucia’s experienced eye. I’m so pleased with the 130+ recipes we did keep and all of the wonderful resources I was able to include with each and every one of them.
^^Look for this patio in the finished book.
Step 4: Copyedits
Once the author and editor have the book trimmed up, it’s passed along to the copyeditor. The copyeditor’s job is not only to look for mistakes but inconsistencies.
This is the part where I lost my mind.
Making this cookbook as useful and practical as possible was a MEGA priority for me. I wanted to eliminate everything that drove me nuts about other cookbooks I’d owned.
An issue I often have with other books is produce amounts. Ever made a recipe that calls for “2 medium carrots” and had no idea what exactly “medium” means? <—THAT. It’s too subjective.
Sometimes it doesn’t matter (like in a stir fry, where you can error on more or fewer vegetables), but sometimes—like when you are baking carrot cake—too much or too little can ruin your results.
This is why my cookbook lists produce amounts by volume, number, AND in most cases, by weight. For example, if a recipe calls for “2 cups shredded carrots,” it will also state “about 10 ounces or 4 medium,” so you know exactly how much of each ingredient to buy.
I’m so happy I did this because it makes the book amazing for you, but it also made it absolutely brutal to edit.
I realized that in some recipes I’d listed “2 cups shredded carrots” as “3 large,” where others said “4 medium,” for example. Or, I’d forgotten to measure exactly how many cups 1-inch-diced sweet potatoes yielded; I’d only measured the ½-inch-diced.
It might not have mattered to anyone else—I could have listed 3 large carrots in one recipe and 4 medium carrots in another—but it mattered to me. I wanted consistency across EVERY recipe. A carrot in a stir fry needed to be the same as a carrot in a cake.
The copyeditor caught a few of these inconsistencies, but I was the one who became obsessed with every piece of produce. At one point, I spent an hour in the grocery store weighing bunches of kale and counting their stems.
P.S. CANNOT WAIT for you to see the Killer Kale Salad (3 Ways!) on page 110!
^^Did I mentioned I lived at coffee shops?
Steps 5, 6, and 7: The First, Second, and Third Pass
A “pass” is when you see the book laid out the way it will be in print. There are three versions, called the first, second, and third pass. By the time you reach the third pass, you can only make teeny-tiny changes.
The first pass was especially exciting, because it was the first time I got to see my book’s design, including all of the formatted recipes and photos. During the edits and initial copyedits, I’d just been using a massive Word document.
^^The very first time I saw my book laid out the way it would be in print.
I cannot overstate what an incredible job the book’s designer Ashley did turning 400+ pages of recipes and just as many photos into a useful, gorgeous cookbook. I can’t wait for you to see the inside!
Each pass, I essentially was copyediting the book in its visual, laid-out form. I scoured every line, looking for typos (which there were few of) and inconsistencies like the ones I mentioned in the carrot example above (which there were a lot of).
By the end of each review, I had hundreds of notes scrawled on the pages. I typed these notes into a Google doc, specifying the recipe, page number, line, and exact word that needed to be updated. From there, they’d then go back to the copyeditor and designer to incorporate into the next pass.
^My faithful editing buddy.
Between each pass, there was more waiting, followed by another intense deadline. I had almost a full week with the first pass but was down to as little as 48 hours with the third.
I’d estimate that the first and second passes were about 50-60 hours of work. The third I worked on every living second it was under our roof, and Ben helped give the headnotes a once-over too.
^^The triumphant feeling of making it all the way through a pass.
The pages from the “passes” have traveled with me to NYC, Kansas City, Wichita, the Utah mountains, and every coffee shop in the Milwaukee metro area.
Where do I keep these pages now? Three feet from my desk. Even though I now have the final book, they are streaked with far too much tears, ink, and passion for me to bear recycling them, at least not yet.
^^At the end of the third and final pass.
Step 8: It’s a Book!
OK, I skipped a lot of steps in there, like soliciting positive reviews from best-selling cookbook authors, bloggers, and even a Food Network star to run on the back of the book and its inside cover (you can read them in the Amazon listing and here), and getting the book index written (also brutal).
There’s also an incredible amount of work that goes into bringing a book to life that never crossed my desk—figuring out how the book is printed and imported from overseas, for example.
Here I am the day my finished book came in the mail. It was so emotional, I almost couldn’t open it.
^^About to open this package and see my final book in print for the first time.
Buttt…eventually I came around. It’s everything I dreamed it could be and more!
^^I can’t wait until YOUR copy arrives!
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