E Is for Editing

Me editing in my EDITOR T.

What did you expect E to be for? 😉 As an editor, I don’t exactly breathe editing but I spend a lot of time doing it, thinking about it, and writing about it in this blog and elsewhere. In fact, just yesterday in my new T-Shirt Chronicles blog I posted about my first staff editor job and how I got my orange EDITOR T-shirt.

Editing is a big topic so here I’m going to focus on two questions that writers often ask: (1) Do I really need an editor? and (2) What kind of editing am I looking for?

Do I really need an editor?

Many editors insist that any writer who aspires to any kind of publication needs an editor. This is not surprising, because editors need paying clients to make a living. They have a point. Every writer, and every piece of writing that aspires to be read, could use or would benefit from good editing. That includes the editor-writers among us: no matter how much experience we’ve got, we can’t bring a fresh eye to our own work.

I part company with these editors when they emphasize the necessity of editing by likening editors to plumbers or car mechanics. You need a plumber when a pipe bursts in your basement. You need a mechanic when your rear brakes start to fail. You don’t need an editor with quite the same urgency. In the real world where funds are not unlimited, the flooding basement and the failing brakes, not to mention the groceries, rent, and utilities, take precedence over the unedited manuscript.

One-on-one editing is time-intensive. It does not come cheap. It does pay for itself, but rarely in hard currency. Even if you get your book, essay, or story published, the financial returns probably won’t cover what you shelled out for editing. Unless your book is very popular, it won’t begin to compensate you for all the hours you spent working on it either. But consider it this way: If you were looking primarily for a tangible return on your investment, you probably would have gone into plumbing or car mechanics, right?

If you’re serious about your writing, and especially if you self-publish, the time will probably come when the value of good editing will be worth the money you spend on it. Worth it to you.

I encourage writers to learn as much as they can about editing. It makes us better writers. It gives us more control of our work. It saves us money, because the more we can do ourselves, the less we have to pay others to do. And when the time comes to hire an editor, we’re better able to find one who will do justice to our work. Join a writers’ group or workshop. Attend a writers’ conference. Find a couple of fellow writers to share work with. Read widely and read critically; pay close attention to how the writers you respect do what they do. (Keep in mind that they’ve probably had editorial assistance along the way.) And by all means keep writing.

What kind of editing am I looking for?

Like many of the editors I know, I’m sometimes asked by novice writers what it would cost to “proofread” their work. Aside from the fact that to give a good estimate, it’s best to actually see the work, what these writers are looking for is invariably editing, not proofreading.

So what’s editing, beyond messing with something that’s already been written? Here’s where it can get confusing. “Editing” can involve anything from correcting typos and grammar gaffes to rearranging paragraphs and even helping a writer build a book from scratch. So we talk about “levels of editing.” Here’s a rough guide to the levels, starting with “big picture” editing and moving down to what I call the “picky bitch stage”: catching spelling and grammar errors.

Ghostwriting. Ghostwriting is writing, not editing. I include it because I’m not the only editor who’s heard this question: “I’ve got a great idea. Can you help me turn it into a book and we can share the royalties?” The answer is no. Ghostwriting is even more time-intensive than editing and even more costly. The chances that the resulting product will earn any royalties are close to nil. My standard answer is “Sell your proposal first and then we can talk.” None of the querents has ever come back.

Developmental editing. Like ghostwriting, this involves building the manuscript from the ground up. For big projects, like textbooks, it can involve multiple authors, researchers, designers, and more. For the individual writer, it’s all the work that goes into creating a coherent complete draft. Most of us do our own developmental editing, often with assistance from writers’ groups and those generous people who volunteer to read our work and give us feedback.

Rewriting. Most of us do our own rewriting too. From the individual writer’s point of view, it’s close kin to developmental editing.

Structural editing. The structure of a work is its skeleton. When the wrist bones are connected to the thigh bones, the body doesn’t work too well. All written works have structure. Structure is what guides readers through the story or the essay. When you decide that a scene in the middle of the book has to come near the beginning or a certain character’s motivation won’t make sense, you’re messing with the work’s structure.

Stylistic editing. This is called all sorts of things, including content editing, line editing, and copyediting. Here you go through the work line by line, asking whether each sentence, phrase, and word says what you want it to say, and in the best way possible. English is a wonderfully flexible language. Choosing the right word and putting it in the right place can make a big difference. Writers’ groups and volunteer readers (aka “guinea pigs”) can be invaluable here. You know what you meant to say, but until you get feedback from readers it’s hard to know how well it’s coming across.

Copyediting. I hire out as a “copyeditor,” but my work includes plenty of stylistic editing so I have a hard time distinguishing one from the other. Let’s say here that copyediting focuses on the mechanics: spelling, punctuation, grammar, formatting, and the like. With nonfiction, it includes ensuring that footnotes and endnotes, bibliographies and reference lists, are accurate, consistent with each other, and properly formatted.

Proofreading. This level is the most mechanical of all. It means catching the errors that have slipped through despite all the writer’s and editor’s best efforts. (No matter how expert the writer and editor are, there will be errors. Trust me on this. I just caught one in this sentence. No, I won’t tell.)

Before the digital age, edited manuscripts had to be typeset, i.e., completely retyped, and printed out as a galley proof. Proofreaders would read this proof against the manuscript to make sure the manuscript had been followed exactly and also to flag any errors in the ms. that the typesetter had missed. Nowadays the proofs are prepared from the edited manuscript. Because nothing has to be reset, each version is cleaner than its predecessor. Most proofreading is “cold reading”: reading the page proofs to catch any errors that slipped through in earlier stages.

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