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Everything you wanted to know about editing but were afraid to ask

Maybe there’s something in the water, but in the past few days I’ve encountered a lot of confusion over the question of editing. I’ve seen it from prospective novelists, on blogs, and even on a nascent freelancing website.

So let’s just answer what kinds of editing there are, when you need them—and most importantly—what they can and cannot do for you. I can’t stress that last point enough. You wouldn’t hire a painter when you need a plumber; in like fashion, it pays to know what kind of editing to ask for.

Developmental Editing

  • What is it? Developmental editing centers on the question, “is this story any good?". It is deep structure editing, answering that question in terms of the elements of story craft: conflict, stakes, pacing, et cetera. And note, the editor’s personal taste is irrelevant. I’m not into vampire novels, but I can still tell you whether you vampire novel is based on a compelling conflict, has meaningful stakes, moves with appropriate pacing towards a satisfying climax, and so forth. Developmental editing involves an editor taking a look at the building blocks of your novel and gives you feedback on what works, what doesn’t, and what you might do about it. You’ll get feedback on everything, including the premise, the storyline, the characters, their arcs, and even your writing craft. Be aware, though, not every editor can do this. Developmental editing demands a very different skill set than line editing and copy editing.

  • When do I need it? As early as possible. The great tragedy of developmental editing is that nobody asks for it early enough. If your premise has some tragic flaw in it, some logical inconsistency that makes the whole story fall flat but could be fixed easily enough, or if your storyline has a plot-hole in it that’s going to require you to re-write two thirds of the manuscript in order to fix it, wouldn’t you like to know about it before you write the whole manuscript? Of course you would. Yet, almost invariably, authors don’t look for editorial assistance until after they’ve finished their manuscript. That’s ok; I can still find all those issues and tell you about them, it just means more work for you in revision. It’s like building a house and then discovering you didn’t leave any place for the stairs. It’s laborious and time-consuming to retrofit stairs into the house; much better to find and fix those flaws in the blueprint stage. For developmental editing, earlier is always better.

  • What can it do for me? Ideally, a good developmental edit yields a roadmap you can use to turn your first-draft novel into something that is of publishable quality. Developmental editing helps you see your story from a different perspective, exposing issues you might not have seen and opportunities you may not have thought to take advantage of. But that’s not the most important benefit. Not by a longshot. There’s that old metric that most writers have to write about five manuscripts before they reach a truly professional level, or the classic million words of crap. By giving you what amounts to a Master Class in plotting, character development, and writing craft, with a curriculum that’s based on your work, developmental editing also turbo-boosts your own writing skill. If you’re willing to put in the work of fixing everything your developmental editor, you can cut that five-manuscript metric down to three, or the million words down to perhaps 600,000. That translates directly into extra productive years added onto your writing career, and how much is that worth? This is why, more than for any other reason, I always suggest new novelists start out by finding a good developmental editor.

  • What can’t it do for me? It won’t fix your story, clean up your prose, or address your mechanical issues. It’ll show you what you need to do, but it won’t actually do them in your manuscript. Developmental editing does not touch your words. A developmental editor will identify the problems—that’s the whole point—but it’s still your job to fix them. It’s your story, not your editor’s. If you want somebody to actually fix the problems for you, then what you really want isn’t an editor but a ghost writer.

Line Editing

  • What is it? Line editing centers on the question of “is it well written?". That is, regardless of the story being told, does the prose itself read well? Does it flow? Is it appropriate to the genre and target audience? Without laboring over definitions, if your basic concern is whether you’ve written it “pretty enough,” then you’re looking for line editing.

  • When do I need it? After you are 100% sure that you have addressed any structural issues—the ones your developmental editor found—in the story. After you’re absolutely certain that the story itself is what you want it to be, that every moment and action in the plot achieves the storytelling function you intended, then you’re ready for line editing. Not before. But, as you can only see issues that are within the scope of your present skill-level, and as most writers haven’t gone through their five manuscripts or million words yet, here’s a good rule of thumb: if you haven’t had someone developmentally edit the novel (and if you haven’t made the corresponding revisions yet), it’s not ready to be line edited.

  • What can it do for me? Bottom line, it can help you “write it prettier.” A good line edit will yield a manuscript of professional-quality prose. But as with developmental editing there’s a deeper benefit. A good line editor is someone who can help amplify your authorial voice. For writers who are still working to establish their voice, this is invaluable. A good line editor is someone who can absorb the voice of your writing and reflect that back to you in the edits. A good line editor is a literary chameleon, and is not always easy to find. But that process of reviewing a manuscript’s worth of edits that read like a better version of yourself can work wonders for helping clarify your authorial voice. When you find yourself reviewing the edits and saying, “yes, that’s what I meant to say,” then you know it’s working.

  • What can’t it do for me? Address any structural issues with your story. Line editing works at the level of words and sentences. It makes your words read better, but it does not change the underlying meaning of those words. Meaning is structural. Anything that would affect the plot itself, in any way, is the purview of a developmental edit, not a line edit.

Copy Editing

  • What is it? Copy editing centers on the question, “did I make any dumb mistakes?". This is superficial, fit-and-finish work. The scope of copy editing is somewhat variable, and there is some gray area between copy editing and line editing. Copy editing typically addresses errors in spelling, punctuation, and standard usage (i.e. whether to spell out numbers or leave them in numeric form). Depending on the editor and/or what you and the editor agree to, copy editing may also fix minor grammatical issues, involve some amount of fact-checking, et cetera.

  • When do I need it? After absolutely everything else is done. Copy editing should be the very last step before sending your manuscript to any other non-editor person in the publishing business. That includes agents, publishers, and literary contests. For the indie author, that includes your book designer, POD services like Lightning Source,, et cetera. Copy editing should be last, last, last, or else you’re just wasting your money.

  • What can it do for me? Copy editing brings your manuscript as close to perfection as possible with respect to mechanical errors. Errors somehow always slip through anyway, but this is your last, best line of defense against embarrassing typos, using the wrong homonym, leaving the period off of a sentence, et cetera.

  • What can’t it do for me? Anything else. Copy editing won’t help you write it prettier. It won’t come anywhere near to addressing structural issues. Think of it like getting your car detailed; it’ll come out clean as a whistle, but a detailer isn’t going to change the oil or give the engine a tune-up.

What does editing cost?

Now that’s a loaded question, isn’t it? Obviously, it’s going to depend on a whole lot of factors. You can see what I charge here, but the best rule of thumb I can give you is “time is money.” Developmental editing, although I think it is the most valuable to a writer’s overall career, is the least time consuming service I provide. Consequently, it’s less expensive. Line editing and copy editing, which are very meticulous arts, are quite labor intensive and you can expect to pay more for them.

Every editor will have his or her own price system. Some will charge by length. Some will charge hourly. Check their websites, which ought to at least give you a ballpark idea. And if you’re shopping around, by all means ask a prospective editor to give you a quote. They may need to evaluate a sample chapter or two, but by all means ask for an estimate. No surprises, right?

Finally, a word of encouragement

Sometimes I think learning the art of novel-craft is nothing more than an extended exercise in developing one’s humility. So many writers I encounter start off with a belief that there’s nothing to it. That writing a novel should be easy. I will confess that I was guilty of that myself, once upon a time. Discovering that there’s actually a whole lot to it, much more than you may ever have imagined, can be a very humbling experience. Yet, too often, those same writers seem to think they must struggle through on their own, or they aren’t real writers. That needing help represents some tragic failing within themselves.

Bluntly, that’s crap. There is no shame in getting help from an editor. Do it, and with pride! That’s how you will move most quickly towards becoming the writer you want to be. That’s not shameful, it’s just smart.

Writing novels is hard. It is. And everybody needs help doing it. Professional athletes still have coaches helping them improve. Presidents have advisors. CEOs have boards of directors. Everyone in the world who had a hard job has somebody helping them see how to do it better. Why should writers be any different?

April 30, 2012 19:21 UTC

Tags: writing, editing, developmental editing, line editing, copy editing

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