How Editing Makes Books Better
- Editing will make your book better. There is no question about that.
However, there is a lot of confusion about what an editor does, and this article is designed to help you sort out the kind of services you need.
Some seemingly authoritative writing sites will tell you there are 6, 8, or 10 different kinds of editing. The reality is, they’re stretching the point; all editing falls into three categories.
⯀ Acquisition editing
⯀ Developmental editing
⯀ Copy editing
Some of these so-called authoritative sites say that proofreading is a type of editing. As we have already seen, that idea is misguided. Proofreading is not “light editing” or a “final edit.” Proofreaders make marks for an editor to check, but they should never be allowed to make even minor changes themselves.
Some consider themselves an editor/proofreader in order to pick up any fee they can get. “Editor/proofreader” is an oxymoron, and professionals do not claim to do both.
Let’s look at these three types of editors and also consider the value of self-editing and the editing of your book by a friend or relative.
The first editor in the process is called an Acquisition editor. You find them at traditional, mainline, or legitimate independent publishing companies.
They are the staff person who evaluates manuscripts to determine if there is a market for the topic and whether the manuscript is good enough to publish.
An Acquisition editor may love the topic, but they might not like a particular manuscript and will reject it.
Where do Acquisition Editors get manuscripts? Well, some big publishing companies still take direct submissions, but that is happening less for staffing and legal reasons.
When a big publishing company accepts manuscripts directly, they tend to get a flood of them. They go into a slush pile and junior acquisition editors read them. That’s why the publishers take so long to get back to authors — junior editors are working through the slush pile.
When a junior editor finds something that meets the established general publishing criteria, they bump it up to the Acquisition editor. If the Acquisition editor likes it, he or she will take it into committee, and the publishing committee makes the decision whether or not to make the investment in publishing the book.
As I said, most publishers do not like to look at submissions directly from authors. They prefer to receive manuscripts that have already been vetted by a trusted literary agent. If the literary agent likes it, the Acquisition editor will be interested in it, and upon evaluation, will take it to the committee.
The first step in that investment is offering a royalty contract, with an advance, to the author.
An Acquisition editor is very important. This editor assesses a manuscript both for its literary qualities and its ability to turn a profit for the publishing house. Publishing houses rise and fall based on the judgment of Acquisition editors.
Developmental editing is when a competent professional reads the first or subsequent drafts of a book and givens notes on various literary aspects of the book. They offer insight so an author can confidently complete his or her final draft.
There may be some differences in the minds of some between Developmental editing, Substantive editing, and Editorial Assessment, but the distinction is minor. It is mostly related to when this type of editor starts helping the author.
If you have a contract with a big publishing house, you will probably be assigned a developmental editor. He or she will help you through each stage of the development of your script. Famous 20th-century American writer John Steinbeck was in regular contact with the developmental editor, Pascal Covici, at his publishing house as he wrote his books.
Today, especially in self and independent publishing circles, an author will write a complete manuscript of the book, and when they are done, they give it to a Substantive editor. A Substantive editor is doing the same job, but after the first draft is completed, not as an ongoing process.
What does the Developmental/Substantive editor do? He or she takes a macro view of the book. They are not addressing grammar or spelling even though they may call attention to it. In fiction, they are looking at things like plot structure and character development. Authors become blind to many things As they write, and a Developmental editor reads the manuscript from a fresh perspective and points out glaring errors and offers suggestions for an improved story.
In nonfiction, a developmental editor looks at the book from a reader’s perspective. They make sure the author has covered all the bases. They look for clarity. They offer suggestions for improvement, such as resources to check or experts to interview. They often suggest minor changes that make a big difference in the result the author is trying to achieve.
Developmental editors are not critics — they offer helpful insight about things that will improve the book. It is always up to the author to think about suggested changes and adopt them when needed. Developmental editors have an uncanny power to trigger the thinking of authors, and many authors have a deep sense of indebtedness to their editors for “saving them” from producing a bad book.
A Developmental editor is not considered a collaborator. He or she gets no formal credit for their input, even though authors sometimes express their appreciation in an acknowledgments section. The best Developmental editors act as catalysts. They trigger thoughts. They offer suggestions. They encourage.
Copy editing and Line editing are mostly the same things, even though some make a distinction between the two.
Developmental editing is the macro view of a book, and Copy editing is the micro view. Good copy editors look at every sentence and paragraph and, as I do, checks things like:
• 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
• Consistent bullet/list formatting
• Check for acronym consistency
• Consistent use of compound words
• Reduce run-on sentences
• Reduce passive voice
• Reduce parenthetical phrases
• Consistent heading/subheading formatting
• Proper formatting of book, movie and other titles
• Check for common typos
• Consistent capitalization
• Consistent use of numbers (1-9 are words, 10 and above are numbers)
• Quote style (straight or curly)
• Proper use of em and en dashes and hyphens
• Reduce exclamation mark usage
• Proper use of period and ellipse marks
• Close open brackets and quotes
• Eliminate double spaces after periods
• Make dialog tags consistent
• Correct other relevant issues. Clarity is the ultimate goal.
The goal of Copy editing never changes. It is to offer the reader consistency and clarity.
This purpose is why I think an author editing his or her own book is misguided. They may be able to correct spelling, but since they know what they mean, they really have no perspective to grasp if the reader knows what they mean.
Copy Editing is Part of the Creative Process
New authors usually do understand the importance of Copy editing, so they tend to make these deadly errors.
⯀ They tend to think their work is perfect, and they just want someone to clean up “typos.”
Even when the typos have been eradicated, the book will still be riddled with errors of various kinds, and readers will hate your book.
In my long career as a Copy editor, I have seen this happen many times. The most egregious case was the woman who hired me and said she wanted a “light edit” because she already had learned friends review and edit the manuscript. She even thanked them for their work in her acknowledgments.
In my view, there is no such thing as a “light edit.” That term is usually a euphemism that new authors use. It means they want cheap work.
I did my usual edit in this case, and what did I find? There were 10,812 “edit points” (errors) in the 65,000-word manuscript. Can you imagine that? She was ready to publish trash because she was blind to reality.
⯀ New authors who do not budget for professional Copy editing tend to enlist the support of a friend, relative, or former teacher to edit their book. That is always a mistake for multiple reasons.
One of the main reasons is that books are edited according to a particular style, not some writing convention your friend learned in high school ten years or what your mom learned in college 30 years ago. Competent copy editors use a recent edition of the Associated Press Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style to edit a book. A professional does not depend on older, no longer used conventions from memory. A stylebook is one of the main things that ensures consistency.
⯀ New authors tend to use “Grammar Nazis” because they have little or no confidence in their own work. They want someone who will make “all things right” and falsely believe a so-called Grammar Nazi can help them.
A Grammar Nazi is defined as, “A person who habitually corrects or criticizes the language usage of others” with either amateur or professional standing. They are most commonly highly rigid in their interpretation of grammar rules, and they think of themselves as experts even though often they are not.
The reality is, recent University of Michigan academic research demonstrates that these people have a personality or character disorder. As the study said,
Three out of the Big Five personality traits interacted with only one type of error, either grammos (agreeability) or typos (openness, conscientiousness). One trait (extraversion) interacted with both types of errors, and one trait (neuroticism) interacted with neither…. The primary contribution of the current study is the finding that personality traits influence our reactions to written errors.
Thus, rigid “Grammar Nazi” types, by their nature, tend to be “Nazis” first, and grammarians second. They may know rules, but they have the propensity to torpedo your creativity because they are often void of creativity themselves. They know WHAT to think (they follow orders no matter what the consequences may be), but usually do not know HOW to think, and are unable to understand how alternate grammar often aids communication.
Yes, an exacting knowledge of grammar is good. However, it should be good enough for the Copy editor to know when to use it and when to not use it, in order to communicate effectively to the reader. A good copy editor is just as interested in stylistic considerations as he or she is in subject-verb agreement.
By the way, the best editors or others are incapable of producing a “perfect” book ready for publishing. Mainline publishers with deep pockets often send $25,000 or more on waves of editing, but you can still find errors in any of their published books.
The Boundaries of Copy Editing
A good Copy editor does not re-write the book but does do minor polishing automatically. A good editor will substitute weak words, phrases, and sentences with compelling alternatives. With the Microsoft Word “Review” function, an author can easily reverse any edits they wish.
However, Copy editing should not be mistaken for the work of a so-called “Book Doctor.” A Book Doctor does an extensive re-write but does not take any creative credit. The manuscript still needs Copy editing after the Book Doctor has done his or her work.
A good Copy editor confers with the author about deeper editing, at least in the case of self-published books. If you sign a contract with a traditional, mainline publisher, they will likely do a “House Edit,” and you will be expected to defer to their editing choices.
Copy editing is an integral part of the creative process. All authors need to have a budget to pay for the best services available to them.
Invest in Editing
Your book needs to be edited before you release it to the public. No, I am not talking about just proofreading for typographical errors. I am talking about the kind of editing that helps writers offer their readers a higher quality book. That includes paying for both competent, professional Developmental and Copy-editing services.
⯀ You do not want unqualified “beta readers” to shape your writing. You want advice only from experienced professionals whom you trust.
⯀ You cannot Copy edit yourself because you are too close to your manuscript. You will not see most of your blunders, and you will want to keep parts that will surely embarrass you later.
⯀ You cannot trust a friend, relative, or an old school teacher to edit your book for you on the cheap. They know you. They will be editing in conformity to the relationship they have you. You will not get the objectivity you deserve.
I have never been able to understand why authors pour their life into their book and then cheat themselves by not getting competent, professional editing. It is like making a wonderful apple pie from grandma’s recipe, but failing to bake it. The pie is not worth eating, no matter how lovingly it was made, if the baking step is omitted. Book editing is the heart that brings all the flavors together.
Developmental editing and Copy editing are essential to the quality of your book, and quality is central to its success.