Hiring an editor seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? You wrote some words, and now you need a professional to tell you what needs fixing.
You open a new tab, type in ‘Editor needed’, and hit ‘enter’. And that’s when it hits you.
- There are an awful lot of editors out there,
- who offer an awful lot of different things,
- for wildly different rates.
I won’t go into the third one today, but the first two are partly related. One of the reasons there are an awful lot of editors out there is because editing is an umbrella term for different kinds and levels of editing.
That, however, is not what makes the process complicated. So, what does?
First of all, it’s not always easy to determine the kind of editing you need. Understanding the different kinds and levels will go a long way, but that doesn’t take away the fact that it can be difficult to judge your own work and where you are in the process.
Secondly, different editors use different terminology for the same kind of editing. To make matters even worse, not every editor agrees on where one kind or level ends and the other begins.
Don’t let that discourage you though. In this post, I’ll give you some solid tips to stay afloat as you wade your way towards the type of editor perfect for where you are.
First things first
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of editing. There’s the edit that focuses on the content, and there’s the edit that focuses on the language.
The content edit always comes first. After all, what’s the point of doing a language edit if the content isn’t there yet?
After content comes language. These days, most editors differentiate between only two kinds, or rather levels, of language editing, but there are actually three. There’s the line edit (also called the stylistic edit), the copyedit, and then there’s proofreading.
The line edit and copyedit are often lumped together, and the copyedit is often confused with proofreading, but I’ll explain the difference between the three below.
Traditional publishing versus self-publishing
In traditional publishing, a manuscript goes through all these steps, and in this order: content edit, line edit, copyedit, proofreading.
I would love for things to work the same way in self-publishing, or indie-publishing, but they currently aren’t. Many authors skip the content edit altogether, and quite a few only do one round of language editing.
There are self-published books out there that are absolutely wonderful reads, and there are self-published authors who take the editing process very seriously, but there’s a reason some readers are sceptical when it comes to self-publishing. Most self-published books simply aren’t as thoroughly edited as traditionally published books tend to be (let’s face it, not every traditionally published book is of the same quality either).
As an editor, it pains me to come across work like this, but I get it at the same time. As a self-published author, you have to fund your book upfront all by yourself. Of course that means you’re going to find ways to save money, and there are successful indie authors who would argue you don’t need an editor, as long as the story is good enough. Some readers are very forgiving. Others are not though, and I would argue it depends on the genre you’re writing in what you can get away with.
The different kinds of editing
The content edit
The content edit knows many names. I tend to call it the development edit, but others might say substantive or substantial edit. Some simply call it the content edit.
The content edit looks at your story and your story alone. It’s not concerned with the language you used to write it, it only cares about what you wrote. As such, it takes into consideration how the plot, characters, and setting develop, the pace of the story, the voice you use, and whether all of it matches your intended audience.
For non-fiction, it looks at the structure, argumentation, and examples used, as well as pace, voice, and audience.
The language edit
As I mentioned earlier, the line edit is also called the stylistic edit. Its purpose is not to rid your text of errors. Instead, it focuses on how you use language.
Does it convey your message in the best possible way? Is it clear, does it make for a nice and easy read? Are there any words or phrases that can be cut? Sentences that need to be rewritten for better flow?
In other words, a line edit ensures that your work’s prose improves.
The copy edit’s purpose is to rid your text of errors. Aside spelling and grammar errors, a copy editor also looks for inconsistencies, from a sudden change of hair colour to your use of hyphens and capitals. If you’re writing in a language with different varieties (think British versus American English or Greek versus Cypriot Greek), they will localise your spelling.
Copy editors also point out statements that are or might be incorrect. They’re a bit like fact checkers, in a way.
Proofreading has the same purpose as the copy edit in that it removes errors from a text. But, it always comes after the author’s revisions of the copy edit.
A copy edit usually doesn’t include major revisions (if the text underwent a content and line edit first), but where changes are made, errors will occur. It is the proofreader’s job to check and fix those final errors, plus anything the copy editor might have missed.
What? Is the copy editor allowed to miss something? Yes. If a copy editor finds 95% of the existing errors, it’s considered an excellent score within the industry. To compare, most professional editors score around 70%.
Lump it together
The copy/line combo
As I mentioned, line and copy editing are often provided together. I want to say there’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not how I was taught the trade. As you now know, line and copyediting concern different levels of editing, and my teachers have always stressed that you shouldn’t address those two things at the same time.
One reason for that is that one is creative and the other technical, and it begs the question whether you can do both simultaneously. The other reason is that it doesn’t make sense to correct errors in a text that might need major language revisions.
Copyediting versus proofreading
It’s no surprise these two get mixed up. After all, they serve the same purpose. Copyediting is intensive though, where proofreading is not.
There are two reasons why copyeditors get requests for proofreading when the text actually needs a copyedit. The first is simple, and one of the reasons I wrote this post: it’s not easy to differentiate between the two. They do have the same goal.
The second is more complex: it’s hard to judge your own work. Then again, if you’re wondering whether you need a copyedit or proofreading, there’s a simple rule: if you haven’t had a copyedit done yet, a copyedit is what you need.
Proofreading is much less expensive than copyediting, so hearing your work needs more than a proofread can be a blow. Just keep in mind a good copyeditor will be honest with you, and they want what’s best for your text. They’re not charging different rates for copyediting to rip you off: it’s truly an intensive process that comes with a certain responsibility.
Other editing services
Next to content and language editing, which are all line-by-line processes, there are a few other editing services.
The outline critique
Unsurprisingly, outline critiques go by many names—some editors use rather catchy terminology—but they all focus on the same thing: the outline.
It’s a popular service because it helps authors flesh out and fine-tune their outlines before they start the actual writing process. As I’m sure you can imagine, this speeds up the writing considerably (if you’re a plotter).
Do be careful when hiring someone to look at your outline. There are many different ways of going about it, so you want to make sure what exactly an editor is offering.
The beta read
Alpha and beta reading are another set of services that are confused a lot, but since most people stick to the term beta reading, I’ll do the same.
Beta readers are people you have come to trust to be honest with you. They are friends or acquaintances who are ferocious readers and who support your career and love to give you some free feedback in exchange for being part of your writing journey.
The beta read is meant to tell you whether, to put it bluntly, you’ve been wasting your time or not. Is there an actual story or message there, and is it good enough to develop further? A good beta reader gives you pointers on what they liked and didn’t like and might even give you suggestions on how to improve certain aspects before you go back in and prepare your manuscript for a professional edit.
Do you need beta readers? No, but having a few solid beta readers in your life will teach you so much about your storytelling abilities. It will also allow you to improve your work as best as you can before hiring a professional or submitting to an agent or publisher, if that’s the route you want to take. In the end, the readers are what’s important, and beta readers will let you know exactly how they read your work. So, no, you don’t need them, but you shouldn’t want to go without.
Due to supply and demand, some editors also offer professional beta readings these days. The thought of someone you know reading your work can be terrifying, so authors have turned to professionals to perform the service instead.
As with the outline critique, pay attention to what an editor actually promises when offering a beta read. If their website doesn’t provide a clear description, just ask them to elaborate before you go on to hire them.
The manuscript critique
Also called the editorial assessment, the manuscript critique offers an overall assessment of your work. It doesn’t provide any line-by-line comments or edits, but will sum up (usually in an assessment letter) what works and what doesn’t work, and suggests what are the next steps to take.
For me, the manuscript critique is the lightest edit I provide that takes into account the whole work, and it can be likened to a professional beta read.
Now let’s face some facts
Not all editors work the same
Like I said before, not all editors agree on where one type of edit ends and where the other begins. At the same time, not all editors provide the same level of depth when it comes to editing, which is why it’s always a good idea to ask for a sample (just note that some editors will charge you for that).
Some developmental editors will pick up on language issues as they scrutinise your content, while line or copy editors might throw in some developmental comments. Lucky for you, most editors explain on their websites what they call what and what each particular service includes. If they don’t, or if their descriptions leave you unsure, just ask them to clarify, especially if it looks like they are lumping different parts of the process together.
Editing is expensive
Obviously, I wrote this piece as an editor, but the writer in me gets why authors try to skip some of the stages outlined above. Knowing what we should be doing doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to do it.
What can I say? We can’t spend money that we don’t have, no matter whether it’s worth it. The best we can do is become aware of our shortcomings and do the best we can to address those with the funds we have available.
Find and editor who understands what you need. If you don’t have the money to go through all the steps, but you, for example, want to get at least one language edit done, make sure you find yourself an editor who knows their stuff. If they provide line and copy editing together, ask them about the differences and how they combine the two in the editing process. A good editor will be able to explain how they work, why, and what the limitations of that process are. If you can live with those limitations, give it a shot.
Editing becomes cheaper as you go
This isn’t the case for all authors, but, generally, the longer we’ve been writing, the less editing we need. That doesn’t mean we can start skipping any of the stages, but they will get cheaper as we go.
I know it sounds unfair, but that’s how it goes. When we start doing something and want to become good at it, we need all the guidance we can get. Hiring an editor and taking the editing process seriously should be seen as an investment.
Each time you get something edited, no matter what kind of editing it is, you should learn and improve. If you’ve worked with an editor before and you haven’t felt like you have, find an editor who does work in a way that makes you learn from their suggestions and corrections. If you like your editor and want to stay with them, ask why they made this or that change and how you can prevent yourself from doing it the next time.
Take your time
Figuring out where you are and what you need in an editor takes time. Finding the right kind of editor for you does too.
Allow yourself that time. Like writing a good book, finding a good editor you click with can take some trial and error. Hopefully, knowing the different kinds and levels of editing will get you off to a great start.