It’s a sad fact of the writing life that no project is ever perfect the moment you get it down on paper. Some first drafts are better than others, but we all know it takes multiple revisions to create that final product. There’s a long road from inspiration to publishing—usually with a few detours along the way.
Because it takes editing and revision to create a final manuscript worthy of print, you’d think there would be some agreed upon set of rules for editing. But there’s not. If you Google “types of editing” you’ll find a lot of different answers. There are some common terms, but not everyone agrees on how to define them. It’s just confusing.
My take on all this can be summed up in two statements. One, it really doesn’t matter what you call it. Editing is just working out the bugs and making sure your piece is “practically perfect in every way.” Two, you’re going to need another pair of eyes to help you through the process—preferably more than one pair.
Let’s start with the other pairs of eyes. We’ll get back to the “working out the bugs” stuff in a minute.
You’re going to need a critique group. No matter how well you write, you need a group of writers who write at or above the level you do and can give you honest feedback on your work. That said, a good critique group is hard to find. It took me years.
A critique group should provide you with an HONEST evaluation of your work. That’s important. So many would-be authors just want a forum in which to have others read their work and tell them how wonderful it is. No one likes to hear the negatives about their “baby,” but it’s an essential part of the editing process. You can’t fix it if no one ever tells you what the bumps are.
In its best form a critique group should be a place to learn new skills, hone your current work in progress, and share information. When you find the right combination, you’ll know it. Hold on to it. A good critique group can, and should, make you a better writer. It’s worth the effort it will take you to find one.
As for that pesky editing stage—it doesn’t actually stop until a publisher prints the first run. If you’re one of those authors who resists changing anything or taking constructive criticism, you’re in the wrong business. And if you’re considering self-publishing, just know the ENTIRE editing monkey is on your back. You’re responsible for the whole thing.
Whether it’s your critique group, an editor from a publishing house, or you have to hire someone—it helps to know some editing terms. As mentioned earlier, the waters are a little murky about exactly what these terms mean, but here are a few about which there is general agreement.
Copy editing: A copy editor looks for errors in punctuation, spelling, and grammar. They make corrections as needed.
Line editing: A line editor looks at your book line by line. They study your sentence structure and word choice to make sure your sentences convey just the right meaning. They look for run-on sentences, fragments, and clichés. And they’ll help you clarify what you meant to say, eliminate unnecessary words or jargon, and generally make sure the sentence sounds right to the reader.
Developmental editing: A developmental editor looks at the “big picture” of your book’s organization and structure. They look at pacing, characters, plot, subplots, dialogue, point of view, order, flow, and consistency. They’ll let you know if you’re leaving out important information the reader needs. They’ll also let you know if there is something that needs to be cut. Developmental editors help you see your work as readers see it.
Content editing: (also called substantive editing) Content editing falls somewhere between developmental editing and line editing, although the term is often used interchangeably with both. Content editing involves tightening and clarifying each sentence, paragraph, scene, and chapter. It focuses on making sure the manuscript fits the tone needed for the target audience and stays true to the author’s voice. A content editor doesn’t move whole chapters around, but they may suggest you rearrange scenes or paragraphs within a chapter to improve flow and understanding.
Proofreading: A proofreader is much the same as a copy editor. The difference is a proofreader works with the final formatted proof of your book. In addition to the things a copy editor might be looking for, they look for typos, inconsistent headings or page numbers, line and page breaks, and the placement of tables and other visuals. It’s the proofreader’s job to catch any mistakes the copy editor missed as well as any problems with formatting.
The beauty of a good critique group is that they can potentially provide all types of editing for you. Different people in your group will likely excel in different types of editing which will benefit you in the long run. You, in turn, can provide editing help for your fellow writers and learn while you do it. It’s a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” relationship.
That said, if you insist on doing the Lone Ranger thing, don’t expect someone to provide these types of services for free. It behooves you to know what kind of editing you need (see definitions above) so you can discuss this with whomever you hire to make sure you’re both on the same page. That way there will be no unrealistic expectations on your part. If you are self-publishing, ALL the editing will be your responsibility. If you are publishing through a traditional publisher, some parts of the editorial process will be provided by the house. Still, it’s worth remembering, you have a greater chance of being published if you present a polished product from the outset.
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Disclaimer: The Nonfiction Ninjas are a group of writers with diverse ideas . The views expressed in each post are those of the author and may differ from others in the group.