“My Writing Needs Help … But What Kind?”

Nov 24 2014

Seeking the help of an editor can be a lot like taking your car into the shop: you know enough about your work to realize it doesn’t sound quite right when it starts, or the shimmying in the middle is a sign of trouble, or it flat-out breaks down at the end. Or maybe it’s polished to a high shine in your eyes, but every time you take it out into the world, warning lights come on.

In other words, you know something’s up, but you have only a vague idea (or, it’s okay to be honest, absolutely no idea) what to do to fix it.

Stereotypes about women and mechanical things aside, I always feel more confident calling my mechanic when I at least know the right jargon. There’s dignity in saying, “I think my fan belt is loose” rather than “When I hit the gas, it goes squeeeee, like a pig is being jabbed by something really sharp under the hood.”

Though I’ll leave car diagnosis to reruns of the Tappet Brothers (RIP, Tom Magliozzi), I can clarify some editorial jargon. Before you approach an editor for help with your manuscript—or before you embark on the exciting publishing journey with the editors at your publishing house—here’s what you need to know about what he or she can do for you.

Developmental edit: Think of this as the “big picture” edit. A developmental editor is concerned with issues of content: Is the manuscript complete and organized logically? Is any material missing, out of order, or repetitive? Is the overall work uneven—with some sections weaker (or slower, in terms of plot pacing) than others? Are the plot and characters fully developed? Does the book achieve the goals it sets out to, or deliver what it promises the reader?

What will I get from a developmental edit? At this stage, the editor reads through the entire book and makes detailed notes, which are presented to you in the form of an editorial letter. In this letter, your editor asks very targeted questions, which attempt to draw additional material out of you or guide you to clarify or refine existing material, and makes specific suggestions for moving, expanding, or combining content (be it paragraphs or chapters). You may also receive a copy of your manuscript containing some higher-level edits (using Word’s Track Changes feature) as well as marginal comments and queries.

Is this what I need? If you have concerns about your manuscript’s organization or the completeness of its content, or if your story feels stalled out or just “not quite there” and you don’t know why, this is the edit for you.

Line edit: Once a manuscript’s been developed to the satisfaction of the author and editor, the next step is the line edit. In this stage, all or most of the content should be in place; the line editor is looking for consistency of tone and style and for inconsistencies in plot or character.

Because things may have moved during the developmental phase, the line editor’s “fresh eyes” can catch any errors that may have been introduced—like the same paragraph appearing more than once—or details that may have been overlooked (e.g., the main character is sometimes Rachel and other times Rachael, or her eye color is blue in chapter 1 and green in chapter 7) while bigger issues were being addressed. The line editor also makes fixes to things like grammar, punctuation, and style (usually according to the Chicago Manual of Style, though every house has their own preferences) though this is still not the primary focus of this round of editing.

What will I get from a line edit? At this stage, you’ll certainly get a manuscript that’s been edited using Track Changes and that contains many queries and suggestions in marginal comments, along with an editorial letter that outlines (and elaborates on) those queries and comments.

Is this what I need? If you’ve already been through several drafts of your manuscript and you feel confident that it’s complete but you need a comprehensive read-through and feedback for tightening up, this is the edit you need.

Copy edit: Now we’re starting to get to the nitty-gritty. The copy editor is your eagle eye for matters of grammar, punctuation, and style, and she also fact-checks all proper names, places, dates, and other areas where a simple typo could cause major embarrassment.

What will I get from a copy edit? A manuscript that’s been edited using Track Changes, and may also contain some queries and suggestions in marginal comments, if she catches something the others missed. (Never underestimate the power of fresh eyes!) Copy editors also typically create a style sheet that records character, place, and brand names and any exceptions to the style guide that were retained in the manuscript; this is so the proofreader doesn’t come along and, say, change every instance of “okay” to “OK” (in keeping with Merriam-Webster preference) after the author has already expressed a preference for the former.

Is this what I need? If your manuscript’s already been edited and all beta reader feedback is positive and you just need that final polish before sending it out into the world, this is the edit for you.

Proofread: Generally speaking, this stage is only needed for books that are about to be published; the proofreader looks at a PDF of the typeset galley or, for an ebook, a type-styled Word document. The proofreader is looking for typos (repeated words, missing words, duplicated or dropped punctuation, miskeyed words that spell check won’t pick up [like “no” for “not” or “know”]), grammar or spelling errors that might have slipped by the other editors, and inconsistencies between the galley and the style sheet, and is checking the elements of the book’s layout (column alignment, type styles applied, correct headers and footers, correct page references, proper line and page breaks).

Because the book is pretty clean and ready to go at this point, the proofreader’s eye is free enough that it can often catch content mistakes, too. While doing proofreads for reprint editions, I’ve found mistakes that slipped through and were published in the original editions—inconsistent character name spellings, illogical action (like a character closing a car door twice in the same scene between lines of dialogue), and misspelled brand names. Again, fresh eyes are invaluable!

What will I get from a proofread? A book that’s ready to enter the world!

Is this what I need? Only once all other edits are complete and you’re preparing to publish the work.

I hope this breakdown has helped to take some of the guesswork out of finding the right kind of editor for your manuscript. While it’s certainly not as complicated as the inner workings of the combustion engine, at times it can feel every bit as intimidating. But it doesn’t need to be. The successful editorial process should begin with a conversation in which all expectations are clarified and recorded, and that’s the key to ensuring your editorial partnership works like a well-oiled machine.

If you’re an editor at a publishing house and there’s something that works differently on your team—or something I forgot or that you would like to add—please post a comment or message me so I can make this post as accurate as possible. If you’re a writer and this post inspired additional questions about the process or terminology, please let me know what you’d like to know and I’ll address it in another post. Thanks!

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