What Type of Editing do I Need?

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‘What type of editing do I need?’ – a question that isn’t as simple as it sounds, especially for new authors. Most of the time I turn away prospects is because they ask for a proofread without having their manuscript edited.

A response runs along the line of letting them know that while I’d love to get to work on their manuscript, it would go against my professional ethics and responsibilities to not first strongly recommend them have their work pass through the hands of editors before having a final proofread.

It’s a time-tested method in the publishing industry to have a book run the gamut of editorial services – developmental editing, line editing, copyediting, and proofreading. In that order (although, line editing and copyediting are sometimes merged).

If it works for traditionally published books, it’ll work for self-publishers. And if you, an independent author, want your book to be the best it can be, you need to give it the professional treatment it deserves.

The different types of editing

Below are some standard definitions of each role. But don’t stop your research here! A developmental editor may include some level of line editing, and a copyeditor may carry out some line-editing tasks while others won’t. Editing definitions get fuzzy from editor to editor. Once you’ve found one who seems to offer what you’re after, ask questions to be crystal clear of what their service entails (and get a sample).

Developmental editing

If you find yourself saying ‘I don’t think my story hangs well together’ or ‘my characters just aren’t believable and they sound the same’, a developmental editor is what you need. They deal with manuscripts that are completed but rough around the edges; it’s got potential but the story itself needs improving before prose- and word-level matters are addressed. Samples are less common for this type of editing, as this covers large-scale elements that can’t be judged in 2000 words.

Line editing

If ‘I’m happy with my story but the tone is off’ or ‘my writing lacks that emotional punch’, then it’s a line editor to the rescue. They focus on enhancing your writing’s mood, clarity, word choices, and more for maximum effect. This is less about grammar, fact-checking and consistency, and more about the artistic, subjective side (although they may carry out some copyediting tasks).

Copyediting

‘I want my writing to be “correct” and have it ironed out’ is what you’d say if you want a copyeditor. This falls on the mechanical end of the editing spectrum, and you would hire one when you’re happy with the story, characters, and setting, and you feel your writing’s style, tone and voice are up to scratch. Consistency, clarity, punctuation, and spelling will be the main focus of copyediting. They also ensure your book conforms to a chosen style guide such as Chicago Manual of Style or New Hart’s Rules.

Proofreading

This is it – the final step. Proofreaders aren’t out to take your story from a second or third draft to a polished state – that’s the copyeditor’s job! Proofreaders look out for punctuation, grammatical, and spelling errors, along with design issues such as double spaces and incorrect paragraphing. But these are the lingering errors left behind after an edit, and your proofreader won’t tighten prose or make rewording suggestions (unless a word’s meaning is mistaken). A book sent for proofreading should be the near-perfect version.

The difference in editing – an example

Below is a slightly tampered-with excerpt of a short story I wrote back at university (don’t judge too harshly!) along with some commentary on some things a developmental editor, a line editor, and a proofreader would pick up on.

A dank smell fills the room, laced with a sharp, bitter tang of citrus. It’s dark. God you’re thirsty. Your tongue rests limp on a bed of cotton. Were are you? You try to comb through the cobwebs of your scattered mind, untangle the mess of your thoughts. Slowly, memories trickle back to you in fragmented bursts: Your house call; Brigitta; Dipping in and out of consciousness as she sat across you, eyes blurred through the stream of hot cocoa. You straighten up, well, at least, you try – you cannot move. your muscles are slack, resinous syrup and no matter what, they won’t obey.

Shit. What’s wrong with–

Candescent light cuts through the blackness. Your meat-sack body stares back at you from a mirror that stretches the length of the red-stained wall. ‘Ah, awake now, are you? Sorry if I’ve kept you too long,’ Brigita said from the open doorway. A strained groan is the best you can manage. ‘I’m sure you now realise you cannot move, yes Mr. Detective?’ The last word dripping with sarcasm. Because that’s not what you are, are you?

Proofreading issues

Things a proofreader may pick up include:

  • typos such as the missing ‘h’ in ‘Were are you?’ and ‘stream’ which should be ‘steam’
    inconsistencies – is Brigitta with one ‘t’ or two?
  • tense slips, such as ‘said’ in a present-tense work
  • word choices that don’t make sense. A body can’t stare back at you, and so a query would be made to revise the sentence with as minimum intervention as possible
  • punctuation errors – changing the comma after ‘you straighten up’ to a full stop, and replacing the en dash to an em dash, which is the conventional dash to signal interruptions
  • departures from conventions. In British English, a capital letter doesn’t follow a colon (unless the word is something that always uses capitals, such as a name or proper noun)

Line-editing or copyediting issues

Things a line editor or copyeditor may pick up include:

  • redundancies in writing. The cocoa being hot is implied by the steam. ‘Trickle’ already suggests slowness, and the memories won’t be coming back to anyone else, so a rewrite for clearing redundancy might look something like ‘Memories trickle back in fragmented bursts’
  • awkward or inaccurate imagery. ‘Fragmented bursts’ doesn’t gel well with ‘trickle back’; the former gives off imagery of speed/flashes – the opposite of trickle
  • impossible or unlikely observations. How could he have known she was sipping cocoa (especially with fleeting consciousness)? Perhaps he could have smelled it, or not, but a query would likely be made
  • sentence length or paragraph improvements. Adding some white space between each memory will break up the text for readability and create a stronger impact:

Memories trickle back in fragmented bursts.
Your house call, Brigitta.
Dipping in and out of consciousness as she sat across you, eyes blurred through the stream of hot cocoa.

The editor may make the last line more concise, too.

Developmental issues

Things a developmental editor may pick up include:

  • jumps or distancing from POV. Second-person POV is a close, intimate experience, and phrases like ‘Your tongue rests limp on a bed of cotton’, ‘A strained groan is the best you can manage’, and ‘That’s not what you are, are you?’ seem to come from an outside narrator, rather than truly reflect the experience or thoughts of the character. A solution to the last one could be to have him question how she figured out his ruse – a more likely line of thought that keeps the POV distancing under control
  • both paragraphs begin with a setting description. And while this wouldn’t be a problem for this extract, the editor would look for a pattern throughout. If it becomes a common thread, the editor may suggest the author vary the way they begin paragraphs/scenes
  • line editing or copyediting problems that reveal developmental problems. Changing a verb + adverb to a stronger verb or cutting down on filtering such as ‘he felt’ and ‘she saw’ are common line-editing problems. But these can clue a developmental editor in to bigger problems. Overuse of adverbs (‘he shouted angrily’) or filtering may be a sign the author struggles expressing emotion effectively and is trying to guide the reader by telling, not showing

I hope this helps you when deciding the type of intervention you want when seeking editorial input. But whatever you do, proofreading should be the last step.

Can you skip a stage?

It can be daunting and overwhelming to be told all these services are recommended to get the best out of your book. We’re talking about a hefty amount of money here.

But skipping a service often leads to more money being sunk into the budget. You could go straight from finishing a draft into getting a copyedit, only to later be told of a gaping plot hole which a developmental editor would have seen, and so the extensive rewrite would require another copyediting round. Or you could hire a proofreader and, while the writing is error-free, it doesn’t electrify and resonate with the reader. So you hire a line editor just to wing it back to the proofreader afterwards. See the pattern?

Skipping stages can end up with you having to repeat them.

Of course, this all depends on your goals. If you want the biggest chance of commercial success – seeing your book on the shelves and making good money from it – then you need to invest in your book.

But if you want something to show your friends and community, or see it as a passion project (of course, you can be passionate about it and want commercial success), the full suite of editing and the financial setback may not be as appealing to you.

Looking to invest? Here are some tips:

  • exhaust your self-editing efforts before paying for an editor. Getting your story in its best shape gets you more out of an edit. Use tools like Grammarly and ProWritingAid (with caution)
  • get some beta-reader feedback or ask author friends to review your work, but remember to not take every suggestion abroad; recurring themes in the feedback are more suggestive of problems than one person’s pet peeves
  • if an editor’s fees exceed your budget, ask if they could tailer their services to meet your needs. For example, a line editor may be able to work on the first 10,000 words or the first few chapters to give you a taste of what you need to address
  • you don’t know what you don’t know. You may find no issues in certain story elements, and neither do your beta readers, but a professional likely will. Manuscript evaluations cost significantly less than a full edit and can pinpoint areas of improvement. It’s worth getting one before forking out on a full edit (psst, I offer such a service)

Final thoughts...

Aside from dying inside from sharing my writing online for the first time (and uni writing at that!)? Let’s move swiftly on from that!

Editing will probably be your largest expense in your book journey. But see it as an investment. If giving your book the very best treatment is your goal, going about it in the right order is vital.

And I hope this post helps clarify that order and what you can expect with each service.

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