Recently on a writers group’s Facebook page, an author started a thread stating she needed to hire an editor and asked for suggestions from the group. A number of people offered a few names before one insightful writer asked, “What kind of editor do you need?”
Before you start looking to hire a professional editor, it’s essential to know the different types of editors and the services each offers, and which one(s) you may need at what stage of the writing and publishing process.
(And for a refresher on what a professional editor is and why you might need one, see last month’s post in this series.)
The 6 Main Types of Editing
Authors hiring an editor directly will generally be looking for one of six types of service:
These terms are often used interchangeably, and refer to the most comprehensive type of edit. A developmental editor will consider every element of your finished manuscript, from the story itself to the “macro” elements like character, stakes, and plot; to the essential supporting elements like suspense and tension, momentum and pace, structure, point of view, setting, voice, etc., and often right down to the prose itself.
A good edit will offer a clear-eyed assessment of how well the story is working as a whole, as well as considering the nuts-and-bolts of each individual element—the satellite view as well as the street view.
Thorough developmental edits will include an overview letter, the 30,000-foot view summary of your story: What’s not working as effectively as it might and could be strengthened, along with what’s working well. It’s as useful for an author to know her story’s strengths as well as its weaknesses (and it can help the sometimes bitter pill of constructive feedback go down a little easier).
It should also come with more detailed observations embedded in comments in the manuscript. These generally point to specific places where the editor gleaned the observations she made in the overview, and often offer her reasons for making a recommendation and sometimes even suggest ways the author might address the issue—though a good developmental editor doesn’t impose his own vision on the author’s intentions.
When you’ve finished a complete draft of your manuscript and have developed and honed it as well as you’re able to do on your own or with beta readers/crit partners, and yet you know it’s not fully “there” yet—whether because of feedback, lack of agent/publisher interest, or just your own assessment—you’re probably ready for a developmental edit.
Like a full developmental edit, this type of edit considers the story as a whole, along with its component parts, in a thorough assessment of its relative strengths and possible weaknesses.
Generally, though, it comprises only the big-picture overview letter mentioned above, but not the more detailed embedded notes—the map view but not the turn-by-turn GPS directions of a full developmental edit.
Many people use this term to refer to just the embedded notes of a full developmental edit—which are often called in-line edit notes.
But a line edit is actually one that considers only the prose itself and how efficiently and effectively the author has used it to convey her intentions. It generally doesn’t address the elements of the story or how well it holds together.
A line editor examines a manuscript sentence by sentence, helping to fine-tune consistency of voice, tone, awkward or clunky narrative or dialogue, organization, syntax, extraneous or echoed words/phrases, etc. It takes a microscope to your prose to help you make it elegant, eloquent, streamlined, and polished—and as effective as possible.
Because this term is often misused, make sure you clearly understand what service the editor is offering and what you need before you sign a contract.
Not strictly speaking an edit, this is an increasingly popular service involving a professional reader who is expert or has a personal background in an area of story that the author may not have, in an effort to ensure accuracy and avoid stereotypes or other mischaracterizations readers may find offensive. It may encompass issues of culture or race, gender or sexuality, mental and physical health conditions, or any area where an author may worry he isn’t sufficiently conversant with a topic.
A copy edit is the final type of edit you may need while your story is in manuscript form, and considers the mechanics of the prose itself—grammar, spelling, punctuation, hyphenation, etc.—as well as ensuring consistency in everything from character and place, descriptions and plot, word usage and much more. A good copyedit will also include fact-checking of things like trademarks, historical details, dates, settings, etc.
If you’re planning to self-publish, copyediting is essential; nothing makes a book seem less professional (or risks alienating readers) as much as sloppy grammar, spelling, and factual mistakes. If you’re seeking representation or submitting to publishers, a copy edit is likely unnecessary (unless you know you have exceptionally poor linguistic skills…in which case, as a writer it’s time to polish those most essential tools in your toolbox!).
Make sure your copy editor knows and uses the industry standard style and reference books (the most recent editions of the Chicago Manual of Style and Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, not MLA or AP).
Back in the day of printed galleys typeset from the author’s original manuscript pages, a proofreader compared the former against the latter word by word to ensure complete accuracy in the final published pages.
In today’s digital environment, “proofreading” is most often used to refer to the final check of a manuscript’s formatted file prior to publication to make sure there are no dropped or garbled sections of text, that all running heads and folios (page numbers) are in place and printed correctly, that chapters are numbered and titled properly, and that the formatting is otherwise clean and consistent.
Knowing What You Need—and Who Can Provide It
The author looking for an editor in the above-mentioned Facebook post replied to the query about what type of edit she needed ,that she was looking for a copy edit with some developmental edit notes too—two very different skills an editor may not be equally expert in.
Each type of edit is a specialized skill, and not all types of edit—and editors—are created equal. It’s vital that you know what you need at what stage of your writing process, and who is qualified to provide it, a topic next month’s post in the series will examine more closely.