Part 1: What does an editor actually do? (AKA – Do I really need an editor?)
You’re writing a book. Or maybe you’ve finally typed The End on your manuscript. Congratulations!
Now, it’s time to find an editor.
You can actually do this at any point in the process. You don’t have to have a finished manuscript (MS) to research, communicate with, or even schedule an editor. Though I do recommend being self-aware enough to know whether you can stick to a deadline if you book that editor before your MS is done.
So, what’s the first step to finding an editor?
You must understand what the different editing passes are, how they affect your MS, and who performs them. Editing skills come in all shapes and sizes, and many editors prefer to specialize in a certain type of edit or even a particular type of story. Take me, for example – I only work with romance authors.
The first type of edit a book needs is focused on content.
A content editor reviews your story as a whole. In general, they don’t care if you have typos or your character changes eye color in chapter five because they are making sure that you have strong characterization and dire stakes, a clear goal and ever-rising conflict in your book. They ensure your plot makes sense and follows the guidelines of your genre – if it’s romance, the people fall in love by the end; if it’s mystery, the crime is solved and the bad guy is caught; if it’s thriller, the pacing stays fast and keeps readers on the edge of their seats.
A content editor may advertise their services as a content edit, a developmental edit, or a substantive edit. These three terms mostly mean the same thing, but request clarification if you’re not sure exactly what an editor is offering.
And before you ask…
(Warning: soap box)
Yes, you need a developmental edit. This is where cranky Editor Jess comes out, because I see new authors needing to save money on the production costs of their book, and I totally understand that, you guys, but if you’re not putting out a quality story, you’re not going to get the sales you need to be able to afford to keep writing. Yes, some people (like the old Amazon scammers) released not great books that made lots of money, but that was because they also paid thousands of dollars in advertising to make sure they were casting the widest net in finding readers. If you can’t afford a developmental edit, you likely can’t afford $10,000 in advertising either.
There are ways to make a dev edit more affordable if you have a tight budget. I’ll write a post on that one of these days too. But please don’t skip this step in your production process!
(/end soap box)
Because a content edit deals with the whole story, it doesn’t make any sense to edit the actual words on the page until you know your plot is solid. That’s why content is step one. It’s a waste of time and money to check the spelling in Chapter 1 when you might end up removing that whole chapter.
As we go deeper into the manuscript, a line edit is the next level. This is also sometimes called a substantive edit, so again, ask your potential editor for specifics on what their services are. Line edits are still looking at your story, but this time it’s more about writing style and how you convey the story. At this point, the editor is considering your pacing – do you have a lot of white space on the page for a fast-paced scene? Do you slow down and give the reader a chance to breathe after a particularly thrilling scene? Are your characters interesting or relatable? Does the voice of the writing match the character you’ve created, their life experience and education and career? Are your chapters ending on hooks that entice the reader to keep turning pages rather than set the book down?
After the line edit is the copy edit. Now, we’re finally at the step that many people think of when they hear the word “editor.” The copy edit is all about the technical stuff – grammar, syntax, punctuation, and spelling – plus consistency and sometimes fact-checking. The copy editor has an ear for repetition, so if you’re repeating words or phrases or even sentence structure too often, your copy editor will point it out and may offer suggestions or simply edit the document to make changes. The copy editor is also on the lookout for that eye color change in chapter 5 and other story inconsistencies as they correct misspellings and misplaced commas and confirm the dates of real-life events you mentioned in the MS.
And finally we get to the proofreader. I always always always recommend that this be a new person, regardless of how many other people have worked on the MS thus far because you want a fresh set of eyeballs looking at your writing for this last step. No editor is going to guarantee they will catch all the typos in your MS, so having more than one person looking for those typos is essential.
Some editors offer manuscript critiques or assessments as well, and those are often similar to a developmental edit – they are focused on story, not grammar – but in a lighter style. My critiques, for example, are usually a scaled-back version of an editorial letter that outlines the two or three aspects of the story that are working really well and the three or four that could use some additional strengthening.
Keep in mind that not all editors perform each type of edit. It’s not uncommon to find people who only work on content edits, or only on copy editing and proofreading. Some editors may also decline to do more than one or two passes on an MS. I usually max out at two – a dev and maybe the copy edit after the author revises. I know that if I try to go through the MS a fourth time (because I do two rounds on the dev), that I’ll miss glaring typos because I’ve seen the document too many times already. My brain will automatically fill in correct information where it’s actually typed wrong or simply missing.
And there we have the different editing passes. This has turned out to be way longer than I expected, so check out part 2 for where to find editors in the wild.