A Book Editor Can Make You Look Good

A client recently sent me a book to format for publishing. I’m primarily an editor, but I love to do bookcraft and simply because I enjoy it. However, as I looked at this woman’s manuscript in preparation for the file interior design and composition process, I noticed it was filled with errors of all kinds.

On the one hand, I was reluctant to mention it to her because I saw that she had profusely thanked two other copy editors in her acknowledgments. On the other hand, I’m the kind of person who cannot let a person throw away money when a manuscript is not ready to publish. I identified a few dozen issues for her and asked how she wanted me to handle the situation. I told her I thought the book was riddled with problems. Based on the examples, she hired need to do a fresh copy edit of her 59,800-word book.

You may wonder about my definition of an “edit point.” That’s my polite euphemism for an error of any kind that diminishes the readability of the book.  It may be spelling, grammar, punctuation, or a thousand other things that lessen clarity. 

How many edit points did I find? There were 10,321 according to the Microsoft Word statistics I maintain when I edit a book.  I’ve been editing books for about three decades and that exceeded my previous record by about 5,000 edit points for a book of similar word count.

That author would have wrecked her writing career if she had released that book with so many errors.

Types of Editors

Most writers don’t understand the function of an editor. New authors tend to think of them in terms of someone who catches the errors they make. That’s why new authors often seek an editor/proofreader. They have no idea that those two functions are not related or that there are many different types of editors.

Here are three types of editors among many other types. The last two are the most important, and the most crucial to the success of your work. If you have taken the time to write a book, it is important that you find an editor who will see the best in your work and helps you to make it better.

Acquisition editor

In the traditional book publishing world, there are editors whose sole job is to acquire manuscripts. They play a valuable role. They read manuscripts from writers and agents and they determine if their publishing company can make money by acquiring publishing rights to the book. This requires an excellent knowledge of both writing and the book-selling market.

A book editor can make you look good

Sadly, vanity publishing companies today try to pass themselves off as self-publishers or Indie publishing company. In those cases, the acquisition staff is in the sales department, not the editorial department. Understand vanity publishing and avoid its many variations.

Developmental (Substantive) editor

A developmental editor is concerned about the structure and pacing of a book. A developmental editor is always questioning if the author is saying what he or she intended to say in an organized and clear manner. A developmental editor is reader-centric and is always thinking about what future readers will make of what they read.

An author may labor over a book for weeks, months, or years, yet never see the weaknesses of structure in a nonfiction book or plot and characterization in a fiction book.

A seasoned substantive editor identifies these kinds of issues (and many others) and reports them to the author. In my case, I supply a written report and consult personally with authors about their first draft. It is up to the author to make suggested changes (or not) when they create their second draft.  An expert developmental editor helps make a book remarkably better by offering professional insight.

Today, too many novice writers ask for “beta readers” on Facebook or elsewhere. I don’t understand that. It’s like randomly stopping people on the street and asking them for advice about who you should marry or what career path you should follow. What do they know? Usually very little.  You don’t want any opinion, you want a professional, informed opinion based on an assessment of facts. Professional developmental editing is beta reading on steroids.

A good substantive editor can transform a mediocre book into a superior one by assessing the strengths and weaknesses of a book and allowing the author to revise it before the copy-editing phase.

Copy editor

A copy editor is also known as a line editor because such editors go through the manuscript line-by-line to make sure that ideas are fully formed, that there are no logical or narrative faults, that proper grammar is used, and that capitalization and punctuation are consistent.

Only engage a copy editor after you have completed your best and final draft. Publication of the book is the next stop after copy editing. You don’t want to revise a copy-edited book because you’ll need another round copy editing, and that adds to your expense

A good copy editor checks for hundreds of things, and this is a sample of some of them:

• Basic sentence and paragraph construction
• Spelling correctness and consistency
• Proper noun usage
• Reduce adverb usage
• Delete repeated words
• Eliminate repeated phrases
• Correct misused words
• Check similar words (like to, too, two and there, their, they’re)
• Eliminate or reduce redundancies

A copy editor might propose or make minor structural changes, but they do it on the micro-level rather than the macro-level. A copy editor has one over-arching role to play. That is to do all that is required to add clarity to your book. Authors get lost in the misty glow of their book, but a competent copy editor sees things clearly. A copy editor suggests adjustments that please the author but serve the reader. View my copy editing services here.

A Proofreader is Not an Editor

proofreading is not copy editingEarlier I said that many neophyte writers seek an “editor/proofreader.” That’s because they do not understand the process. As I have said in my books, mentoring sessions and seminars, seeking an “editor/proofreader” is like seeking a “chef/busboy.” I don’t mean to denigrate either busboys or chefs, but each knows their role in the restaurant business. You don’t want the busboy preparing your gourmet meal. But authors sometimes get confused about different roles in the writing world and think of proofreading as “light editing” when it’s not that at all.

Many new authors are trying to produce a book cheaply and “editor/proofreader” people feed on that. By suggesting that proofreading is light editing, they capture the cheap end of the market. This tactic is about them making money, not helping you publish an excellent book.

There is one other thing I have noticed in my three decades as an editor. That is, many authors hire a proofreader instead of a copy editor because they are into self-sabotage. An author pours their life into writing their book, sometimes at great personal sacrifice, yet are filled with self-doubt. They don’t think their work is worthy of genuine copy editing, so they hire a proofreader who will only make superficial changes. They may find a few typos, but editing is far more than that.

Writing is a business, not a visit to a Las Vegas slot machine. If you wish to succeed, you must believe you can write a marketable book, and then invest in the kind of editing that will take it to the next level. Without genuine copy editing by a competing professional, your book will never be complete and ready to publish.

A book editor functions as I have described. An editor is your creative colleague. A proofreader serves a merely mechanical function and does not do, or correct, the work of an editor. The sole purpose of a proofreader is to make sure errors were not introduced into the edited manuscript during the composition process. This is done after a book has been edited and is in the galley or “proof” stage, thus the name “proofreader.”

My long-time advice to writers is that they should never trust anyone who claims to be an “editor/proofreader.” Professional editors know the difference and don’t claim to do both.

Over the years, I have seen proofreaders, acting in the guise of copy editors, literally destroy manuscripts at the last moment before publishing.  Authors sometimes allow a proofreader to change something “minor” without consulting the editor, and a second edition needs to be produced to clear the confusion created by the proofreader.

A proofreader may call a suspected editing error to the attention of an editor, but never makes changes on his or her own. That’s why proofreaders have been limited to making marks for suspected errors, not making changes.

The idea that a proofreader has an editing function is part of the explosion of ignorance that became common with the rise of the Internet and self-publishing. It’s a rookie author mistake to allow a proofreader to make any editorial change.

What Price Perfection?

Many neophyte writers expect copy editing perfection. Of course, that’s a naive expectation. There will always be errors in books even after they have been carefully edited.

Big 5 Traditional Publisher Editing Budgets

Look no further than the Big 5 mainline traditional publishers. They spend $25,000 or far more on waves of copy editors of a single book. The best copy editors available do the work. Yet, it is fairly easy to find editing errors in the books they publish. That has always been the case.

Back in the day, publishers inserted an “Errata” sheet in books. The paper listed the page number and error that was discovered only after the book was published. Today, publishers don’t do that and simply correct errors in the second edition. In the past molten lead days of book composition, making late corrections was expensive, and an errata sheet was enough.  Today, in the digital age, such changes are minor and only take a few minutes to make. This how the Chicago Manual of Style describes the process:

Errata, lists of errors and their corrections, may take the form of loose, inserted sheets or bound-in pages. An errata sheet is definitely not a usual part of a book. It should never be supplied to correct simple typographical errors (which may be rectified in a later printing) or to insert additions to, or revisions of, the printed text (which should wait for the next edition of the book). It is a device to be used only in extreme cases where errors severe enough to cause misunderstanding are detected too late to correct in the normal way but before the finished book is distributed.

Errors in books is an age-old problem and most readers take them in stride. No, I am not suggesting that authors should ignore errors. Errors should be eliminated. But some over-zealous grammar mavens seem to go crazy over them these days and that has not always been the case.

A Book Editor Can Make You Look Good

A Permanent Cure to a Temporary Problem

That’s why reviewers on Amazon or other sites who focus on “typos” are so reprehensible. They review the editing (or lack of it), and not the content of the book.  Such self-righteous reviews are an example of passive-aggressive behavior.

If they were decent people, they would fire off a private email to the author and report their concerns.

Any author can make changes in an instant, but a malevolent grammar-related review cripples book sales forever. And all such reviews are always malevolent even when a reviewer, who claims he or she is “just trying to be helpful,” mentions them publicly.

Why Perfection is Irrelevant

There are two main reasons why perfect editing is impossible. The first is related to the editing process itself, and the second is associated with the nature of humanity.

The book editing process is not performed in a vacuum. Each book is edited by following a particular standard. For example, I use the current edition of the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook unless a client specifies another standard at the start of the project. I like the AP Stylebook because the conventions in it reflect a fresh journalistic style that readers love.

So, the standard you use to edit makes a huge difference. The Chicago Style Manual and the MLA Handbook, and each is different than the AP Stylebook and the 20 other such guides that exist.

That’s why you never want your mother, a friend, or a former teacher to edit your book. The grammatical principles your mom learned in college 30 years ago, and your friend learned in high school ten years ago have changed.  And a former teacher? They may know the technical requirements, but they usually don’t have an artistic soul as I mention later.

The Humanity of it All

When it comes to the nature of humanity, we must be kind to each other and ourselves. For example, I sometimes think of the book I mentioned where I discovered 10,321 errors. What if I still missed just .005 of the mistakes? There would always be 51 errors in the book. That thought saddens me, but if I found 10,321 errors that the author and two other so-called copy editors missed, my work would still qualify for an “A-” to most reasonable people.

I have learned to embrace the philosophy of football coach Vince Lombardi. He said:

Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.

Writers and editors should strive for excellence. They should work together to produce the best manuscript possible. But it will never be perfect

Editing is Both Science and Art

There is some science in writing and copy editing. A writer creates a vision in their mind and converts that vision into words. A reader reads the words and creates a vision of what’s happening in their mind. A copy editor is an intermediary that verifies that process will happen.

But there is also art in writing. The kind of art that breaks all the rules. For example, a matronly grammar maven would probably go crazy trying to get the writings of James Joyce to fit into her little box. Joyce’ Ulysses, for example, contains convoluted prose, yet it is a work of genius.

That’s why one size does not fit all when it comes to editing. You need to hire someone who has a broad background in literature and knows the difference between bad writing and art.

An Editor Adds Value to Your Writing

A book editor worth his or her salt would never read proof, and a genuine proofreader knows it is beyond the scope of their work to edit anything.

As a writer, you are responsible for writing and revising your book. After that, you put your manuscript into the hands of a copy editing expert who will put your work through the refining fire.

Keep in mind there will probably still be some errors in your book, no matter how many people review it.

Most small publishers have a limited budget, so they can’t afford the many sets of eyes that read manuscripts at big traditional publishing houses. Editing is subjective, and perfection does not exist. Seek excellent instead.

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