If you are looking for a quick and easy answer to the question posed by the title of this post, the answer is you.”
Perhaps that seems unlikely at this moment, but one day you could become the best editor for your book. After all, who knows the story, the characters, and the message better than you do? We’ll discuss this option (self-editing) a bit later.
For now, let’s talk about professional editors, the people who polish prose for a living. I know a bit about them, as I’ve been an editor for more than twenty-five years. A good pro can work wonders with your manuscript and become a valuable ally in your quest for a book so good readers will thank you for writing it.
What Do Professional Editors Do?
While all editors strive to make your manuscript the best it can be, there are many ways to achieve that goal. Here is where the issue gets complicated. No definitive, widely accepted list exists to define the types of editing available and what each type involves.
The editing police will not arrest or fine editors for misrepresenting the type of editing they perform. Professional editors are free to determine (and name) the type of editing they do.
On my editing site, WriteFriend.com, I simplified the process for prospective clients by offering book editing and business editing. If you’re interested in book editing, you can choose between done-for-you editing and collaborative editing. If you’re a business client, you’ll see a list of the types of business editing I’ve done. I invite potential clients into a discussion to determine the most beneficial type and amount of editing for their budget, timeframe, and goals. Then I discuss how I can help them achieve those goals. No fancy editing terminology is needed.
About now, you may be wondering why a professional editor would promote self-editing. Here are the short answers:
- Knowing whether self-editing is a good choice for you requires an understanding of the alternatives.
- No matter how skilled you become at self-editing, you are likely to need (or want) to hire a professional editor in the future.
Now let’s look at the alternatives to self-editing.
Editors, book publishers, and career authors are familiar—to varying degrees—with the types of professional editing available. They may not agree on what to call each type of editing, but they know what to expect and when each type of editing will produce the best result.
During my years as an editor, I’ve incorporated many types of editing. I provide what my clients need to achieve the best results, often combining several types and levels. It’s a personal method that works for me, and it seems to work for my clients. When explaining editing options, I find it easier to discuss functions rather than types, grouping them into four categories based on the process and goal: conceptual editing, content editing, technical editing, and proofreading.
If you’re a beginning writer or an experienced writer who plans to publish a book for the first time, awareness of these categories can help you navigate the confusing sea of editing options.
The first, and possibly most important, piece of information to absorb is this: Avoid over-editing. Unless your career plan involves becoming a prolific author with dozens of best-selling books to your credit, focus on the basics first.
In the descriptions that follow, we’ll discover those basics.
Category 1: Conceptual Editing
- Conceptual editing
- Manuscript critique
- Manuscript evaluation
- Developmental editing
- Structural editing
Conceptual editing is both a category and a type of editing. It takes a high-level look at your draft or manuscript, focusing on structure, flow, readability, and completeness.
At the end of a conceptual edit, you’ll typically receive a written report that describes potential issues and provides actionable suggestions for improvement.
For new writers or for authors switching to an unfamiliar genre, this type of edit provides valuable feedback.
Conceptual editing may also be referred to as a manuscript critique, manuscript evaluation, or developmental editing.
Structural editing also takes a broad view. As the name implies, this type of editing focuses on the structure of a manuscript, including the number and length of the chapters, plus the total number of pages in the book. The editor ensures that the overall content aligns with your objectives and that it zones in on what your target audience wants to read. The editor may suggest additional content to include in the manuscript.
Note: As traditional publishing gives way to self-publishing, additional types of editing have popped up, such as the recently coined term book shepherding. Experienced professional editors may take on the role of book shepherd to guide new writers from draft to print, either doing the editing themselves or directing the author to appropriate professionals.
Category 2: Content Editing
- Content editing
- Line editing
- Substantive editing
- Developmental editing
- Full editing
- Stylistic editing
- Comprehensive editing
Content editing, as you may have gathered from the title, focuses on the content in a manuscript (versus the mechanics of language). Content editors work on the structure of a manuscript and focus on flow, tone, pacing, dialogue, point of view, and completeness.
They may rearrange chapters, sections, and/or paragraphs and point out plot holes or issues with character development. Unlike conceptual editing, content editing involves hands-on changes by the editor.
Line editing involves a sentence-level focus. The editor assesses the power and meaning of each sentence and makes changes to improve word choice, flow, tone, style, voice, clarity, tense, and pacing. Cliches, repetition, redundancy, sentence fragments, wordiness, and awkward constructions are targeted for rewrites. This type of editing strengthens, tightens, and clarifies the wording in your manuscript, which in turn improves your readers’ experience.
Substantive, developmental, full, stylistic, and comprehensive editing are terms that describe similar types of content editing.
Category 3: Technical Editing
- Technical editing
- Mechanical editing
Technical editing involves a detailed word-by-word edit at the technical level. The most well-known version of this type of edit is copyediting (note that The Chicago Manual of Style recently sanctioned the one-word version of this term, but some editors may prefer to write it as “copy editing”).
Copyeditors provide some feedback on content and word usage and may venture into a bit of rewriting, but the main focus remains on the details. Consistency, coherency, spelling, grammar, capitalization, dialogue tags, numbers-versus-numerals, syntax, and hyphenation are the primary targets. Fact-checking may be included.
Mechanical editing also takes a close look at punctuation, capitalization, and spelling, but the primary focus for mechanical editors is adherence to the preferred style guide for the manuscript, such as The Chicago Manual of Style, Associated Press Stylebook, or the in-house style guide for the author’s preferred publisher.
Category 4: Not-Quite Editing
- Beta readers
The final editing category isn’t really editing, which is why I term it “not-quite” editing. It involves two separate but equally valuable types of editorial reviews.
Proofreading is a natural part of editing but is not considered editing per se. Proofreading serves as the last pass for a manuscript and may not occur until the book designer has created the layout design and applied it to the manuscript. The proofread is often performed on a PDF version of the manuscript or on a hard copy of the final layout.
Proofreaders spot inconsistencies and errors that the editor(s) missed and any formatting errors that might have been introduced during the layout process. They include problems with typography, word breaks, captions, page numbers, typos, headlines, inconsistencies in the table of contents, and errors in text on the back or front covers. Some proofreaders will also catch spelling errors, errors in abbreviations, and punctuation problems.
While some editors include a final proofread after content and/or mechanical edits, many authors, publishers, and editors prefer to separate the editing and proofreading processes.
Beta readers comprise a unique non-editing review force. Beta readers are to content what proofreaders are to layout and precision. Beta readers notice and report on plot holes, logic lapses, awkward transitions, issues with pacing and flow, and problems with readability. They may also notice technical issues, but they do so from a broader perspective.
While a beta reader can contribute to the quality of a manuscript at any point, their work is most effective in the early stages, ideally before the process reaches the proofing phase. When considering a beta reader, select someone with experience reading the genre of book you’ve written if you want the best results. Avoid recruiting a beta reader from your personal group of friends and relatives, as they are unlikely to provide an objective review.
Choosing the Right Editor for Your Needs
Because so much overlap exists between the types of editing and the terms editors use to describe their work, the first step involves assessing at what point you need help. Knowing what you need depends on where you are in the writing process and your goals as a writer.
What is your goal?
- Do you want to learn if your book idea or initial draft is readable/publishable?
If so, find an experienced conceptual editor.
- Do you want to publish your first book on your own as quickly as possible?
If so, self-edit and then hire a proofreader.
- Do you want to submit a polished manuscript to a book agent or traditional publisher?
If so, hire a content editor, technical editor, and proofreader, in that order.
- Do you want to become a best-selling author with a long list of books under your byline?
If so, first become a capable self-editor and then find a dependable content/technical editor and proofreader.
- Do you want to excel at the craft of writing so you can expand your options for a career as an author?
If so, learn to be a competent and confident self-editor, which will make you a better writer.
Where you are in the writing process?
- Do you have an idea and rough outline but no draft?
If so, consider conceptual editing.
- Do you have a completed but unedited draft?
If so, start with conceptual editing and move on to content editing after updating your manuscript.
- Do you have a draft that has been through several revisions?
If so, you’re probably ready for content editing, followed by technical editing and proofreading.
- Do you have a draft that has been through at least one professional (non-technical) edit?
If so, you’re ready for technical editing followed by proofreading.
- Do you have a well-edited manuscript ready for the final steps?
If so, it’s time for a thorough proofread.
If I Choose to Hire an Editor, How Do I Find the Right One?
Most of my clients come to me through referrals, which I consider the optimum method for both the editor and the prospective client. If someone you know and trust tells you an editor did a great job on a project, that editor will most likely produce good results for you as well.
If you don’t know anyone who has hired an editor, go shopping online. When you find a promising website, contact the editor and request a sample edit. Some editors offer a free editing sample, while others charge a fee. A sample edit is the most reliable way to know in advance how a given editor will handle your manuscript. You’ll also get an idea of how well the two of you might work together.
How Do I Learn to Self-Edit?
I’m glad you asked. That is, after all, the focus of this website. The Level Up Your Self-Editing Skills guide is a great place to start. It offers a step-by-step process that you can customize to suit your needs. Click here to check it it out.