All writers need an editor. Stephen King needs one. JK Rowling needs one. You and me? We DEFINITELY need one. But this is where it gets confusing…because there are many types of editors. How do we know what we need?
Well, Jennie Nash, super smart woman that she is, had a smashing idea: to show what the different types of editing looks like on the page. Please read on!
Talk to almost any happily published writer about their editor, and you will likely hear gushing praise. Recent Newbery award winner Kelly Barnhill, for example, has this to say about working with her editor: “I changed lots of things and rewrote lots of things and the story I wrote became the story it could be, and that has made all the difference.”
Barnhill is speaking here about an editor employed by her publishing house, whose job it is to make each manuscript the best it can be. Having these kinds of professionals pay close attention to your work is indeed one of the great pleasures of the writing life, but unless you land a publishing deal, you will not have access to them. That means that anyone self- publishing, using a hybrid publishing option, or trying to break into traditional publishing will have to navigate the universe of editors on their own.
There are so many different kinds of editors offering different services to writers at different stages of the process that it’s hard to know what they each do and whether or not you need what they do. I’m going to break it down for you.
Let’s start with a simple creative act. Here are some lines I made up in order to illustrate the different kinds of editing:
“Hey jill do you want to hve lunch” ?
“Sorry I’m busy.
A good proofreader is essential to a good book. They will fix typos and grammatical errors, standardize the presentation of things such as names and numbers (often according to a “style” such as AP Style or the Chicago Manual of Style) and make sure you are using the language clearly and correctly. Even though I am introducing it first, a proofreader is usually the last person to suggest changes on a manuscript before it goes into production; they review the pages or “proofs” for mistakes and typos. When an author is responding to a proofreader’s comments, there is usually not a lot of time or tolerance to make changes in the text. The only goal is to correct errors and clarify meaning.
Proofreading is a very particular and high-level skill. Traditional publishing houses either employ proofreaders or contract out with freelancers to do the work. Writers who are self-publishing must budget for this skilled professional.
Note that the work of a copyeditor is often nearly indistinguishable from the work of a proofreader. According to Wikipedia, copy editing is “the process of reviewing and correcting written material to improve accuracy, readability, and fitness for its purpose, and to ensure that it is free of error, omission, inconsistency, and repetition.” There is a great deal of overlap between this kind editing and proofreading. It would be unusual for a writer to have both a copyedit and a proofread of the same manuscript.
Example lines, again:
“Hey jill do you want to hve lunch” ?
“Sorry I’m busy.
A line editor will concern herself more with the content on the page and the writing itself – word choice as a stylistic concern rather than a technical concern. This kind of editor will point out places where you are using clichés, where the pacing slows, where the meaning is obscured, or there is a problem with logic or consistency.
The kind of editing that most editors at publishing houses perform is line editing. In the self-publishing world, this would be the kind of edit typically offered by a hybrid publisher.
The key thing to know is that line editors generally work on a line-by-line basis. They assume that the big picture elements of the work are in place and will probably not question the narrative design or structure of the work. The time for a line editor is when you believe your manuscript is solid and whole.
A developmental editor is thinking on a bigger scale than the line or paragraph. She is thinking about the impact of the story on the reader, the logic of it, the interior lives of the characters, the world of the story, the demands of the genre, and the flow of the argument (in non-fiction) – among other things. This is big picture editing, big idea editing. You might sometimes hear people use the phrases “structural editing” or “substantive editing” in place of developmental editing – but it’s the same thing.
In most cases, a developmental editor is going to do one round of edits on the pages, all at one time. They read the full manuscript, make their comments and suggestions, and send it back to the writer for revision. The writer makes the changes they wish to make, and the result is a revised manuscript that is ready for a line editor or a copyeditor/proofreader.
A good developmental editor will understand the genre conventions and will be up to date on industry standards on word-count. She will also likely have her finger on the pulse of the marketplace in terms of what is selling well, which markets might be saturated, etc.
The time to bring in a developmental editor is when you are ready to take your book from good to great. This usually happens before you are at the publication stage; it’s when you want to invest in writing the best book you can in order to land an agent or begin production on a self-published book.
A book coach does exactly what a developmental editor does, but with two important additions: the coach is guiding the work and the project forward in real time as it is being written, and she is supporting the writer from not just an editorial standpoint but a project management and emotional standpoint, as well. You get editorial feedback plus deadlines (i.e.) accountability and support on the journey. There tends to be a lot of back-and-forth between a writer and a book coach, and often a coach will ask to see a revision of a scene or a chapter before the writer writes forward, thus keeping the project on track.
In this instance, when a book coach saw the revised lines, above, she might have gone back to the writer a second time with directives something like this:
Each time the book coach saw the revision, she would comment on the changes. This is a powerful step for many writers – the teaching, the reflecting back to the writer as they write forward, the strengthening of skills. Based on the feedback, more revision is required.
The time to bring in a book coach is either at the start of the project when you desire guidance all the way through, when you are stuck and can’t get to a finished draft on your own, or when you want professional support for a revision.
For more information on when and why to hire an editor, see this post from Jane Friedman.
Jennie Nash has worked in publishing for more than 30 years. She is the author of four novels, three memoirs, and The Writer’s Guide to Agony and Defeat. She has been an instructor at the UCLA Extension Writing Program for 10 years and is the founder and chief creative officer of Author Accelerator, an online program that offers affordable, customized book coaching so you can write your best book.
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.