All writers quickly learn that getting a book or story published doesn’t end when they complete their first draft. There’s a lot of editing ahead before their work is considered polished. Since everyone’s drafting process is different, their editing process will likely vary as well. Some writers will undertake to edit themselves. Others will make use of beta readers to provide objective feedback. And some like me will hire a professional editor. Let’s look at the different options.
Editing on your own
Some writers are great at editing and might even operate their own editing business. I must admit I’m not one of those. Still, many writers can get by on their own with little or no outside help.
A writer needs to realistically consider how strong of an editor they are. I’ve heard some writers suggest that an agent and/or publisher will provide free editing services. That’s true but if their submission isn’t strong enough, they may not be afforded that opportunity. These days, agents and publishers do not want to invest a lot of time and money in editing. A writer’s best shot at getting published is submitting a polished manuscript.
Beta readers and critique partners
A beta reader is a person who will read a manuscript and provide feedback. They can be anyone who enjoy reading. The type of feedback one will receive will vary considerably. I use beta readers to gauge how others perceive my manuscript. I might ask readers specific questions about what they’ve read to help focus the type of feedback I’m looking for.
A critique partner is another writer with whom one has agreed to exchange work for feedback. Critique partners should be writers that can be trusted to be honest, timely and constructive. They should be familiar with the writer’s work and writing style. The feedback will be different than what one might receive from a beta reader.
What is it that editors do?
If I were to ask a writer what an editor does, I would likely get a wide range of responses. That’s because nobody out there is just an editor—there’s always a descriptive word that comes before (or instead) to describe where that individual sits on the continuum of the book-editing process. For both traditionally published and self-published authors, the continuum looks like this:
Developmental Editor → Substantive Editor → Copy Editor → Proofreaders
Generally speaking, individual editors will work in one or more of the four levels identified above—developmental editing, substantive editing, copy editing, or proofreading. It’s rare, and inadvisable, to work with a single editor through all four. Why? Not every editor is strong in all 4 levels. But if one wishes to run their manuscript past an editor more than once (eg., for developmental editing and later for copy editing), it is advisable to use someone different each time. Once an editor becomes familiar with your manuscript, it is harder for them to be as critical. A writer will benefit more from a new set of eyes.
Most new writers are told to just get it down on paper and then worry about the rest later. It doesn’t matter if their manuscript has holes. That’s what developmental editing is for.
Developmental editing describes a sustained, collaborative partnership between author and editor, during which an incomplete manuscript is transformed into a complete and cohesive book. A good developmental editor will coach the writer through the principles, best practices, and practical application of writing a book in a chosen category/genre, and to help maintain a writer ’s momentum and motivation all the way to the finish line. I have found developmental editing to be a critical step and rely on the feedback to ensure I’m on the right track. I want to know where the plot holes are, which characters are underdeveloped, whether the story moves at a suitable pace, and whether the story will be interesting to readers.
An experienced writer might be able to skip the developmental editing step. If one has already completed a solid rough draft, the next step is to engage a substantive editor to review the work as a whole. A substantive editor wants to see the entire manuscript, as good as it can be made. They want to know that the writer has done absolutely everything they can on their own, and that they see no other way to improve it before sharing it with the editor.
A substantive editor will be editing the complete draft from a global perspective. Like a developmental editor, they’re going to be focused on the big-picture stuff like genre, theme, character/point of view, structure, pacing, and depth of research. The difference is that they’ll have the writer’s whole best effort in front of them at once, and they’ll be making suggestions with a more concrete sense of how each of their suggestions will affect the rest of the book
Whether substantive editing is a better option for a writer than developmental editing depends on how they work as a writer. If they need feedback, course correction, and encouragement as they write, that will require a developmental editor; if they want to chart their own course and then be shown where and how to improve later, that works best with a substantive editor. As I’ve matured as a writer, I’ve found that I can get farther on my own and when I approach my editor, it is to complete a substantive edit.
Logistically speaking, substantive editing is less collaborative than developmental editing. The writer will share their manuscript with a substantive editor who will dive into it for a period of up to several weeks, during which the writer may or may not hear from them regularly about how the edit is progressing.
To facilitate that independent implementation process, a substantive editor will supplement their in-line edits with what’s called an editorial letter—a multi-page letter that explains and gives context to what one will see in the marked-up manuscript. Then it’s up to the writer to execute on all the suggestions and perhaps return the revision for another round. This may be repeated two or three times, with ever-narrowing lenses of detail each time, and you have yourself a complete substantive editing experience. The editor will price this out based on the number of run throughs they will provide. The editorial letter is an invaluable tool for a writer. I will do several runs through my manuscript. First, I’ll edit based on the mark-ups in manuscript and then move on to the letter.
Copy editors are laser-focused on the finer points of a manuscript, such as word choice, syntax, factual accuracy, repetition, inconsistencies, grammar, style, spelling, and repetition. Copy editors will notfix the big-picture things like structure, pacing, theme, or plot. Did I mention commas? I’m so bad at commas. I once chose the wrong person for copy editing and it was a disaster. If you plan to go the traditional publish, they still provide copy editing as well as proofreading.
Copy editing is not a thing one should leave to spell check or algorithm-based software.
Proofreaders are the final gatekeepers for a book. They’re the fresh pair of eyes every writer needs when neither they nor their other editors can see the typos anymore. Proofreaders are the last people to sign off on the text before it gets printed and distributed for all the world to read. Some people are outstanding proofreaders, but I wouldn’t necessarily want them for the earlier stages of editing. It’s a vastly different set of skills.
Do I really need a team of editors for my book?
No. More editors do not necessarily mean a better book. Many writers can’t justify the expense. The four kinds of editors reflect the historical process of traditional book publishing, but today, we recognize that very few writers (or even publishers) will put their books through this much work.
By way of compromise, a wrier could have one editor perform the developmental and substantive work, and a second to do the copy editing and proofreading. That’s what I do now. I don’t recommend publishing your book without having at least two professionals review it first.
How do I know what kind of editing I need?
When one contacts an independent editor, one of the things they may ask before agreeing to work with the writer is to see the manuscript. They need to see what they’re working with so they can accurately determine where the manuscript sits on the editing continuum. The kind of editing you need is not necessarily up to the writer. That said, here’s a summary guide:
- If you have a partially formed idea or incomplete manuscript that you don’t know what to do with, you need a developmental editor.
- If you’ve finished the manuscript and think it’s rather good, you need a substantive editor.
- If your manuscript has been through substantive editing, you need a copy editor.
- If your manuscript has been through the previous levels, you need a proofreader.
But what about my beta readers and critique partners?
Beta readers and critique partners can be great. Friends and family will know the writer well, and they can almost certainly add value to the writing experience. I encourage writers to share their work-in-progress with trusted confidantes, or even take the draft to a peer workshopping class. But do these things before hiring an editor. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that reader feedback is comprehensive editorial analysis.
The problem with blindly and broadly asking for feedback, I found, is that good, generous people then feel obligated to give it—even if they’re not qualified to do so, and even if they don’t have any vested interest in, or accountability to, the outcome.
Asa a result, I find the process to be of limited help. I’ve received some great advice but will also get a lot of conflicting advice based on personal opinion, individual backgrounds, past baggage, and reading preferences. I didn’t like the names of some of your characters. Without the training to separate what they like from what actually works, beta readers simply don’t have the tools to comprehensively edit a book, and it would be unfair to expect otherwise.
So sure, go ahead and bring beta readers into the process—just keep in mind what they can and can’t do. I once asked a romance writer to read over a love scene (not one of my strengths) in a manuscript. She didn’t get the entire manuscript, just that one chapter. It worked out marvellously.
Don’t editors come free with my publishing deal?
Writers who sign on with traditional publishing houses are indeed partnered with an in-house or freelance editor of that house’s choosing, and that expense is covered by the publishing house. That said, a writer needs to go into this with realistic expectations. A few truths for today’s writers:
- Having a manuscript developmentally, substantively, and/or copy edited before it is submitted doesn’t replace the work of an in-house editor, and the suggestions one gets from an independent editor can make your book a more appealing read for publishers.
- Once the book is under contract, the assigned editor may or may not be prepared to do a great deal of work on the manuscript. In-house editors are indeed devoted, caring professionals; they’re also overextended, and they’re more likely to go to bat for a book if it’s already good and doesn’t need major surgery from them. There are exceptions, but if a writer wants the promise of a dedicated, craft-based editing process, they may want an independent editor.
- Increasingly, publishers are outsourcing manuscript editing to independent editors, so there are a lot of qualified professionals available for hire.
How do I choose an editor?
Since the work is collaborative, a writer needs to ensure they and the editor are compatible. I have asked editors I am interested in working with to look over a chapter and tell me what they think. Based on the feedback I receive I will decide whether we can work together. I would not send a full manuscript to someone I’ve never worked with before without this step first. Keep in mind that if one is hiring a developmental or substantive editor who provide high level editing, the feedback will not always be that helpful but a writer will get some sense of what the editor is like to work with. Maybe a chat over the phone might be good enough to get a feel for the person.
Ask fellow writers for recommendations. Check out the editor’s experience. A lot of writers start editing on the side for some extra income. But being a writer isn’t necessarily sufficient experience to be an editor. How long have they been editing? Have they got experience with your genre? I write satire and humour and I ran into an editor once who just didn’t get the humour. Look for testimonials on their website. How many clients have received publishing contracts? I’ve also contacted other writers to ask what their experience was like with the editor. Finally, check out their prices. There’s wide range of prices out there and they don’t necessarily reflect the quality of their work. There are many inexpensive but excellent editors out there.
This post reflects my own personal experience. Others may have different perspectives, so I welcome comments to this post from other writers. And editors too!