You’ve probably been advised that before you contact an editor, you should determine what type of editing you’re looking for. If you’ve searched online for definitions of the different types of editing available, it’s possible that you’ll be more confused than ever – even editors can’t agree!
What matters most is that you’re clear about what services are being offered and what you’ll be getting. With that in mind, here’s an explanation of what I mean when I talk about the different stages of editing (listed in the order in which they should take place).
Developmental editing, also known as structural or substantive editing, addresses the big-picture storytelling issues such as structure, theme, audience and genre expectations, plot, characterisation, narrative distance, point of view, tension, pace and narrative shape, opening and closing chapters, timelines and settings, scene and summary, dialogue, voice and tone, and more. That’s a lot to consider!
A full developmental edit is the most in-depth option and, unsurprisingly, the most expensive. It includes an editorial report or assessment, as well as notes and comments throughout the manuscript itself to highlight specific instances where storytelling technique or narrative structure could be improved. In-text edits and comments also illustrate suggested solutions to issues which are covered in a broader, more general manner in the report. A developmental edit is usually conducted in rounds, and in the first round I would expect to do three passes. Subsequent rounds are at an additional cost to be agreed.
The report itself, often called a manuscript critique, is an 8–15 page document offering constructive and honest feedback on storytelling elements such as those mentioned earlier, and suggestions for how to make improvements. It’s a detailed summary which will act as a reference guide as you revise your manuscript.
So, you’re satisfied with your story – all the big-picture elements are working together, and it’s now time to stop fiddling with your manuscript and hand it over to someone else. The next stage is a line and copy edit.
Put simply, line editing – also known as stylistic editing – focuses on improving your writing by ensuring that it’s artful in the way that it flows, and correct and consistent in the way that it’s presented. Copy editing aims to correct your writing by making sentences and paragraphs clear in meaning and consistent in style. So, you can see that the lines between the two are somewhat blurred.
In traditional publishing these are two separate processes, with line editing taking place before copy editing. For the independent writer this is likely to be financially prohibitive, so I offer a combination of line and copy editing, balanced according to the individual needs of the manuscript. This involves an in-depth treatment of the text at word and sentence level, fine-tuning your language, enhancing your voice and showing you how to make your writing more elegant.
Line and copy editing focuses on improving style and flow; the way language is used and the rhythm of how it’s presented. It’s about connecting with your reader. It also ensures that the choice of language is appropriate for your audience. A line and copy edit looks for any plot, timeline, setting and character inconsistencies, such as a seven-year pregnancy (it happens!) or a house where the rooms keep changing position in relation to each other. I try to get under the skin of the characters, so if one of them speaks, behaves or reacts in a way that seems out of character, I’ll notice – or equally, if they don’t react when they should. This type of edit will also tackle any problems with dialogue, beats and tagging, and instances of too much explanation and telling the reader rather than showing them.
It’s also about clarity, comprehension and consistency. You may know what you intended when you wrote that scene, but is it clear to the reader? A line and copy edit will eliminate any ambiguity or confusion. All writers develop crutch words or writerly tics which can become irritating to the reader and draw them out of the story. This stage of editing will fix this repetition, along with any redundant language and awkward syntax, and incorrect grammar, spelling and punctuation. In addition, it includes checking for accuracy and correcting basic factual errors, as well as flagging up any potential legal and sensitivity issues. It will also make sure that formatting and presentation choices are consistent and conform to a style guide, such as Oxford New Hart’s Rules, Chicago Manual of Style, or whatever your personal choice may be. If this is an area you haven’t previously considered, I can advise and make appropriate suggestions.
Proofreading is often used as a generic editing term, so many writers think they want their work proofread when in fact they want a copy edit. Essentially, proofreading is the final polish that takes place after line and copy editing, usually on a formatted PDF version. It’s the last thorough review before publication, so the final chance to catch any errors that have slipped through or been more recently introduced, which is common during formatting. To put it simply, a proofread looks for typos, formatting inconsistencies, and errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation.
You may wonder why you need a proofread as well as a line and copy edit – doesn’t that also deal with spelling, grammar and punctuation? Well, yes, it does. But bear in mind that, as you’ve read above, the editor has to focus on many different aspects of the manuscript; so while in a line and copy edit I always correct every error I see, it’s inevitable that some will slip through. In addition, formatting and design will have a major impact on your finished product. If your budget allows, I always recommend a final proofread of the formatted version prior to publication, especially if your book includes photos, illustrations or other more complex design features. It’s not a service I offer, but if I’ve edited your manuscript, I’ll be happy to help you find the right person for the proofread, and they may be able to help with formatting too.
All editors and proofreaders are human, and no matter how diligent we are, we can never guarantee error-free perfection. But the fewer distractions there are at this stage, the more successful the proofread is likely to be. This is why it’s especially important that the manuscript is ready. If the proofreader has to make corrections which should have been done in the edit, their concentration – and it is a task that demands exceptional focus and attention to detail – will be diverted.
Some writers know exactly what stage their manuscript is at and what input they want, or need. Others might not be so sure. Perhaps you’re too close to your work and unable to judge what it now requires? If so, how do you know if you’ve made the right choice? And what if you haven’t?
Deciding what level of editorial input a manuscript needs is not an exact science. Sometimes it’s evident from the samples provided that some developmental help is necessary before the line and copy edit takes place, and I’ll always recommend accordingly – after all, there’s no point in paying for copy editing if you’re then going to do major revisions; it’s a waste of both of our time.
If more fundamental problems become apparent once I’ve completed the initial read-through, I’ll recommend a change in the type of editing, and any payment already made will be taken into account. This can work the opposite way too, although it’s less common. If a writer has booked a combined edit and it becomes apparent that it’s ready for a line and copy edit, then I will advise accordingly.
The bottom line is that flexibility and trust are key to a successful editor—author relationship.
So you’ve completed your draft manuscript, you’re aware of the different stages of editing, and you’ve decided to take the plunge and invest in a professional editor. Congratulations! But before you get started on your search, how do you know you – or your manuscript – are ready? And how do you even find a reputable editor? Here’s some advice to set you on the right path: How to find the right editor for you.