As a writing coach and developmental editor (some of you are already going – whaaaat?), I get asked this question often: What type of editor do I need?
I am going to give you my best advice as to who does what, or who is supposed to do what. But I will say right off the bat that many editors overlap in what they do. In other words, they may perform one or more editing tasks. This can all be highly confusing for a writer. Let me try to break it down for you.
Let’s start by walking you through the process.
STEP ONE: EDUCATE YOURSELF (Hey, Editor, what exactly do you do?)
STEP TWO: FIGURE OUT WHAT YOU NEED FOR EACH STEP IN THE PROCESS (Hey me, what do I need?)
STEP THREE: INTERVIEW THE EDITOR OR WRITING COACH (Are you the right person for me?)
STEP ONE: Educate Yourself
Most people will agree that there are three types of book editors. (As I said earlier, some may overlap in what they do.)
Each editor is needed in different parts of the writing journey. The first type is the developmental editor who looks at the big picture and the general substance. The second is the copy or line editor that looks at the nitty gritty before you submitty. The third is the proofreader, or the last point of contact before your work is born into the world (checks the copy in its entirety to make sure it is ready for publication).
Editor #1 Developmental or Content Editor – The “BIG PICTURE” Editor (Sometimes known as a writing coach.)
(This is the kind of editing I do, and I know it most intimately.)
A developmental or content editor (sometimes called a substantive editor) looks at the big picture. Many choose to work with a developmental editor before they begin the writing process (by that I mean the-words-on-the-page stage) to hone the idea and help craft the story. This type of editor sits down with you and looks at your idea, your dreams and goals, and your plan to execute your vision.
You may also seek out a developmental editor after you have completed a draft and before you start the query process, or if you have submitted and are not receiving the kind of response that you had hoped for. If you are receiving comments like “uneven” or “good idea but not well executed” or some version of “almost,” a developmental editor can be an invaluable asset to keep your work from ending up in the slush pile.
The developmental editor can do any or all of the following: assist you in creating and developing your core idea, plot, structure, characters, concept, outline, tone, theme, and general marketability of concept. In other words, they can help you develop the full plan (or story, or world) that you will use to write your book.
Once you have a first draft (or even a chunk of pages), a developmental editor can offer analysis and specific suggestions about the concept, plot, structure, characters, organization, style, flow, tone, and presentation.
For Fiction they look at:
- Core Idea or Premise
- Setting and/or World Building
- Scene Creation
- Point of View
- Writing Voice
- Marketability and Fulfillment of the Genre (not all editors do this)
For Non-Fiction they look at:
- Organization of Ideas
- Style of Writing
- Description and Detail
- Thoroughness of the Argument
- Effectiveness of the Argument
- Approach to the Thesis or Core Idea
- Target Audience (Are you giving them what you promised and what they need?)
Once the BIG PICTURE issues are solved, most of the time you can stay with your developmental editor and zoom in a bit on the material to check it out for style and flow.
With all of the above in mind, they look at the material and address questions like:
- Is this material clear and understandable?
- Does the information or story flow?
- Does one idea support the next? Or, in the case of fiction, does the tension continue to build toward a climax?
- Is the information presented accurately?
To improve the flow of the piece, they may write or rewrite sections, re-organize paragraphs, suggest changes to the order of chapters, and assist with introductions and conclusions of your material. They may also make suggestions as to places you can cut or trim or just get in there and revise any aspects that can improve the overall readability and clarity.
Some developmental editors get in there and assist with research, offer resources, and assist with the rewriting process.
Marni says: While most developmental editors assist with style and flow, some stop after the big picture and refer you to the copy or line editor for the paragraph and sentence structure issues.
Editor # 2: The Copy Editor (or Line) Editor – or – what I call “The Nitty Gritty Before I Submitty” Editor
When most writers think of an editor, they think of this person. The copy or line editor dives in and makes sure the document is in order so that it can be presented professionally. This is the last stop before submitting to an agent or publisher.
Copy editors will check and correct: spelling, punctuation, grammar, syntax, word usage (or over usage), consistency of style, and format.
The copy editor will read the draft as if they are a beta reader and offer notes or changes that will enhance overall clarity and flow.
A good copy/line editor will always try to respect the author’s voice and try to fulfill the author’s original meaning. In other words, your book should still say what you want to say, and it should still sound like you.
They may cross check your references, facts and figures, tables, quotes, infographics, and illustrations to make sure that the information in the text that points towards these is consistent and accurate. If they find copyrighted material, they may alert you to the need to gain permission for use. When completed, a copy editor will give you a manuscript that is ready to be submitted to a professional such as an agent or a publisher.
The Third Type of Editor is called a Proofreader or the “Are We Good to Go?” Editor
A proofreader looks at the formatted manuscript and makes the final assessment on how it looks. They pay attention to catching any of the errors or inconsistencies that the previous editor(s) or writers may have made (it’s hard to catch everything). They notice any typographical errors or any errors in typesetting. This editor looks at the last version that the copy editor and writer signed off on and they ask: Are there any discrepancies? Did the typesetter make any errors? How does the page look? Is the layout correct?
In my experience, some copy editors also offer proofing services.
STEP TWO: What do I Need?
Here you want to ask yourself where you are in the writing process.
If you are just starting out in the process and want some help developing your story or core idea, a developmental editor or a writing coach is a great place to start.
If you have a first draft and you are not sure what you have exactly, you may want an assessment or critique from a developmental editor.
With prewriting, you do not need the other types of editors.
AFTER 50 or so pages or THE FIRST DRAFT
At this stage, you can still work with a developmental editor. Since they do both assessments and reworking of the material itself, you want to figure out what you need. Ask:
Do I want a critique? (Where someone tells me what is working and what is not working and how to fix it.)
Do I want someone just to get in there and fix what is not working?
Marni says: My advice is to get a critique first as it is less expensive and you may be able to make many of the changes yourself. You can always move on to the “just fix it” phase where you have an editor smooth it out and make it all pretty.
Once you are clear on what you want, ask your editor if they perform that service. If not, ask for referrals. (A good editor will have referrals.)
STEP THREE: INTERVIEW THE EDITOR
Ask the editor what types of editing they do and be specific about it. (Don’t be afraid to ask questions, if they can’t take questions, they are not the right editor for you.)
Questions to ask:
What type of editing do you do?
How do you define the type of editing? As mentioned before some editors use different language—so it is entirely appropriate to ask for clarification as to what services they are offering.
How do you charge?
What will I receive as feedback?
How specific will your notes be?
How long will it take?
Do you have any testimonials or former clients I can speak to? (If this editor is a referral, you can skip this step.)
Can I speak with you if I have follow-up questions?
How would you like to receive my material?
Marni says: Each editor may have their own best practices for submissions. However, here are some general guidelines. Submit in a Word doc or rich text file. Your page size should be 8.5 by 11. 12-point font, double-spaced. One-inch margins on the top and bottom.
Remember that your editor does not need to be your best friend. One of my editors told me, “I’m not your best friend, I’m the best friend of the material.” You want them to tell you the truth. Still, it’s important to know if you tend to be pretty delicate with feedback. If so, you may want an editor with a gentler touch so that you will stay in the process.
Overall, my advice is: Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If this is your first experience with an editor give yourself time to become acquainted with the process and be patient as you stumble through it. Try to go with referrals from a trusted source. The best editors are known within their writing communities. Best of luck!
Photo Credit: Marni Freedman (She’s in the pink hat)