by Bethany Brengan
First a little background. I am currently a freelance writer and editor and have been for several years. Before this, I worked at a small independent publisher—first as a copyeditor, and later, as Editorial Director (a.k.a. “Person Who Deals with Author Meltdowns”).
I find that writers are often uncertain about what exactly an editor does and whether or not they need one. If you are in that boat, here are some questions to ask yourself.
- Where are you in the process? An editor doesn’t need to see your manuscript until you’ve done at least three thorough revisions yourself. I have worked with early versions of books before (because of time constraints or as part of a developmental edit), but it’s very time-consuming, and therefore, expensive. And usually, the advice that I end up giving to early birds is “Go back. Fix [specific things] and then contact me again.” You can save yourself some steps (and money), by vetting your own work as much as possible. Have you joined a writers group? Have you pawned off your novel on “friend who reads a lot and whose opinion I trust”? Let the work sit a little between revisions so that you can come back to it with fresh eyes. Professional editing, if you need it, comes later. Don’t let it distract you from writing.
- What are your publishing goals? If you plan to self-publish (and charge readers for the publication), I can almost guarantee that you will need an editor. (Some POD, hybrid, or self-publishers will offer a copyediting service. A handful offer more complex edits. The quality of and the amount you will pay for these services will vary. If possible, look through some of the edited books put out by the company before signing on.) One of the major hurdles to marketing a self-published book is to overcome the negative “vanity press” image a lot of readers still have. Poor editing is part of this stereotype. And sometimes, unfortunately, it’s earned. If I had a dollar for each time an author told me, “Oh, it’s almost ready to print” of a manuscript that then required moderate to heavy copyediting (never mind the content editing). . . well, I still wouldn’t be rich, but I could definitely throw a lavish tea party.
Most traditional publishers have in-house editors. This leads some writers to shrug and say, “Oh, well. . .they’ll fix that in editing, right?” Only if you make it that far. Publishing is a business. And every book is a risk. No matter how promising “the bones” of a manuscript are, a publisher won’t accept it if the cost of the editing hours required to clean it up is too high. I worked briefly in acquisitions at my small publisher, and since I was also the main editor, sometimes I’d look at a submission and see the months and months of work ahead of me and think, Nope, not worth it. That said, many traditionally published writers didn’t hire editors before submitting their manuscripts to publishers or agents. But they did make sure their work was in the best shape possible. And that should always be your goal.
- What type of editing do you need? Editing comes in a lot of flavors. Keep in mind that the following definitions are not strict categories and they often bleed into each other.
- Proofreading. This is mostly for catching typos. This is usually what people mean when they say, “Oh, my great-aunt’s sister helped me edit my novel.” It’s an important step, but it’s considered the very lowest rung of the editing ladder (i.e., unpaid interns who also have to clean the office microwave do this). And it’s usually a last step rather than a first.
- Copyediting. The editor catches typos, punctuation errors, bad sentence structure, confusing word choice, grammatical problems (e.g., subject-verb disagreement, changes in tense, dangling modifiers, etc.). The editor will also decide on more subjective areas of English (e.g., copy editor vs. copyeditor). Signs of a good copyeditor include: a well-thumbed copy of The Chicago Manual of Style and knowledge of several style guides and grammar texts. Copyediting may also include basic fact-checking.
- Line editing. This is copyediting on crack. Not only will your grammar and punctuation be on point and your meaning clear, your sentences will sound good. Not just “correct” or “good enough.” A good line editor makes you sound like a smoother, more articulate version of yourself. This is about tweaking sentences that are correct but verbose and challenging descriptions that are clear but boring. This is about making your sentences sparkle. (Some editors will simply refer to this as a form of copyediting.)
- Content (or structural or full-manuscript) editing. This is where you really get your money’s worth. Correct comma placement means nothing if your plot has the structural integrity of cooked spinach. Content editing covers everything a manuscript is about and made of. This might be as simple as moving a couple chapters and revising the introduction. It might be as intense as rewriting the protagonist’s motivation and character arc. It’s simply whatever the book requires to be its best version. Good content brings readers (and sells copies) in ways that great punctuation can’t. (Content editing is sometimes done as a separate process from copyediting, especially if intense revisions are expected.)
- Developmental editing. I’ve heard content editing also referred to as this, but generally developmental editing is when the editor helps you develop your book. It’s sometimes just helping you work out your ideas before writing, and other times, it’s a close cousin to ghostwriting.
- What should I look for in an editor? Does the editor come recommended by another writer? That’s usually a good sign, especially if that writer can give you specific examples the editor’s skill. Many freelancer editors will give you a small sample edit for free or a minor fee. I find this sample to be the strongest indicator of quality. Are the comments on the sample edit clear and insightful? If there are line edits, do they make your work more concise? Do you sound like the best version of yourself? You want an editor who will be honest with you, who respects your voice as a writer but also pushes you. Especially if you hire a content editor, you need to pick someone you can question. (I love when authors challenge me on edits or ask for explanations. My family is tired of listening to me rant about semicolons.)
- I can’t afford editing. Am I doomed? No and yes. Kno-Pub the Terrible is not going rise from the Pit of Obscurity and curse your manuscript to the Eternal Slush Pile. You are doomed to be creative and work hard. But you’re a writer, so this is the fate you’ve already chosen. If grammar and punctuation are your weaknesses, start brushing up. Sites like Grammar Girl offer grammar advice in digestible bites. If you struggle with plot, I often recommend Story by Robert McGee (even though it’s technically about scriptwriting; I’ve yet to find another book that tackles essence of story structure so well). If your prose is clunky or overwrought, consider reading Beyond Style by Gary Provost. (I don’t agree with Provost on everything, but he’s great at explaining how to build pacing into your sentences.) Bribe beta readers with coffee and chocolate. If you’re truly desperate for an editor, find someone who is starting out (there is a group on Goodreads for connecting writers with editors). Sometimes, beginning editors will work for reduced fees in exchange for recommendations, but be warned, the quality of these edits varies widely. Also consider paying for a small section of edits (your first chapter or a query letter) from an editor you trust and gleaning as much as you can from the notes.
If you had questions about editing, I hope that begins to answer them. Now here’s some free advice for the road: You can end a sentence with a preposition (but that doesn’t always mean you should). In American English, commas and periods go inside quotation marks. It’s okay to break any of the rules, but only if it gives the readers something.
Bethany F. Brengan is a freelance writer and editor who reads too many comics. She is a contributing writer to Dick Grayson, Boy Wonder: Scholars and Creators on 75 Years of Robin, Nightwing and Batman (McFarland Books). Her poetry has appeared in The 2015 Poet’s Market, Poetry Quarterly, and The Crucible. She can be found at www.brenganedits.com andwww.readingwritingraptures.