Happy Weekend, WG2E-Land!
It’s time for another waaay A-mazing Ruth Harris Report!!!
Take it away, Ruth…
My first job in publishing (after a few months as a secretary) was as a copy editor in the text book division of a large NYC publisher. There, I learned two things: 1) that, generally speaking, college professors cannot write and 2) that our job was to turn their gibberish—ooops, I mean manuscripts—into something that met a variety of local educational standards & could then be profitably sold to schools.
So now you know 1) Why your textbooks were so deadly boring and 2) why editors are so crucially important. Underpaid slaves (namely the talented, experienced editors who taught me how to revise, mark & edit a ms) were the invisible & uncredited foundation of a lucrative publishing enterprise.
After I left textbooks and moved to trade publishing, I learned something else: that even in the more glamorous part of the business, gifted editors worked over the mss of top bestselling authors. In a few cases, it was an editor who, almost literally rewrote the book that would be sold to the public and eventually top bestseller lists. I’m not naming names but, if I did, you would recognize them.
I also learned that, even in ancient times when editorial departments were fully & deeply staffed, there were bestselling writers who worked with their own privately-hired editors, paid for out of their own pockets. These writers understood the value of a professional editor/alter ego and did not expose their work to public view without their editor’s input.
For this series of Reports on Editors and Editing, I’ve asked four of the best editors active and experienced in the world of high quality self-publishing to explain what they do, how they do it, what they can offer a writer & what a writer can reasonably expect. The four are Sherrie Holmes, Jodie Renner, Meghan Ward and Matt, The Edit Dude, aka David Slegg.
What, exactly, does an editor do and what difference does it make?
Meghan Ward: An editor can help to improve a book in so many ways—from deleting repetitive words, adverbs, and creative attributions to making suggestions for how to overhaul the structure of the book or add depth to the characters.
Jodie Renner: Good editors will first assess the level of editing the manuscript needs to bring it up to current industry standards, which is almost always more than the writer realizes. Some manuscripts even need a major overhaul, starting with developmental editing; others need fairly heavy content editing for “big-picture” issues; others need stylistic help to smooth out the writing and make it clearer and more powerful; and some just need a final polish, to check for typos, grammatical error, and punctuation.
Matt, The Edit Dude: Of course, an editor does do the basics of correcting spelling and grammar errors, consistency, word usage and overall readability. However, depending on the type of edits that an individual author desires, an editor might also be helping them with character speech/behavior, various plot issues.
Sherrie Holmes: An editor does basic checking for spelling, grammar, and punctuation, and also looks at plotting, character development, continuity, point of view, clarity, conciseness, believability, and even things like mixed metaphors.
Isn’t the spell or grammar check that comes with a word processing enough?
Sherrie Holmes: While an excellent aid, these programs are by no means failsafe, and often miss the most ludicrous mistakes, such as distinguishing between they’re, their, and there. Or how about the cable TV ad I recently saw that said: Up to 60 channels of paper view movies and events. And I’m sure most writers have seen the “Spell Check Poem” that begins:
Eye halve a spelling chequer
It came with my pea sea,
It plainly marques four my revue
Miss steaks eye kin knot sea … . .
Also from Sherrie:
Matt, The Edit Dude: Not really. Spell check won’t find mistakes such as using a homophone of a desired word in its place. For example, you could mistakenly have a character walking into a room wearing a pair of stiletto high heals instead of heels. Spell check would be useless for this type of error.
Meghan Ward: I never use spell check or grammar check because they’re so often incorrect.
Please explain the differences between line editing, copy editing, content editing and proof reading.
Matt, The Edit Dude: I know there are differences of opinion on the specific definitions of the above roles. In my mind, I tend to group line editing and proofreading as being very similar. This would include editing basics as described above (correcting spelling and grammar errors, consistency, word usage and overall readability). I see copy editing and content editing as including the above tasks but adding to them suggestions for character and plot development, story structure, etc.
Jodie Renner: These lines are fuzzy and vary within editing associations, and each editor has her/his own take on them, but here’s a general description of the various levels of freelance fiction editing in the order that they are carried out, from most extensive and expensive to final polishing touches. These levels are often carried out by different people. Developmental editors rarely do copyediting or final proofreading, and vice-versa.
1. Developmental Editing or a Manuscript Evaluation / Critique / Analysis
Developmental editors look at the big picture and the whole structure of your novel, including whether chapters and scenes should be moved, condensed, or even deleted. A developmental edit or critique / analysis will give general advice on premise, plot, structure, point of view, characterization, character arc, pacing, style, etc., as well as specific fiction techniques such as showing rather than telling, avoiding head-hopping and info dumps, etc.
Some editors like me offer an “initial critique” of the first 10, 20 or 30 pages, which is much easier on the wallet than an evaluation of the whole book, and will catch most weaknesses, such as problems with your opening, point of view, characterization, and dialogue, or recurring style issues.
2. Heavy Copyediting / Content Editing / Stylistic Editing
For fiction, this should include “big-picture” advice on the opening, point of view, characterization, plot holes, dialogue, pacing, and fiction techniques like showing instead of telling, avoiding “info dumps” and style gaffes, etc. May also offer suggestions to improve paragraphing, sentences, and words; cut down on wordiness; smooth awkward phrasing and transitions; comment on discrepancies and inconsistencies; and help with tone and mood—all while striving to keep the author’s voice.
3. Medium Copyediting or Line Editing
Generally making the manuscript more readable. A line edit looks at the sentence structure, word choices, continuity and consistency. Often fixes awkward phrasing, smooths out rough or unclear writing, and decreases wordiness to make the writing tighter and more powerful.
4. Light Copyediting / Proofreading
For freelance editing, refers to final editing for grammar, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and other mechanics of style. Puts the final polish on a very well-written story or a manuscript for which all issues have already been addressed and solved.
Sherrie Holmes: Hoo-boy! Okay, here goes. There’s some overlap among these disciplines, but here are basic descriptions:
–A line editor goes through a manuscript, editing line-by-line for tone, style, and consistency.
–A copy editor checks formatting, style, and accuracy. Copy editing includes the five Cs: ensure the writing is clear, correct, concise, complete, and consistent. This also includes proofing for spelling, punctuation, and grammar, and in technical and educational works includes terminology, jargon, and semantics.
–A content editor does proof reading, fact checking, and checks to make sure the content is in the correct order or sequence, that there are no gaping holes, that point of view is consistent.
–Proof reading is checking for the basics: spelling, grammar, and punctuation. (In my experience, nobody knows the proper use of commas!)
Meghan Ward: Copy editing is correcting grammar, punctuation, spelling, and capitalization—making sure “U.S.” is spelled out as “United States” unless it’s used as an adjective, that sentences are grammatically parallel, that the use of the Oxford comma is consistent.
Proof reading is a lighter form of copy editing, mostly just running through the text to make sure there are no typographical, spelling, or punctuation errors.
Line editing is more in depth and can involve rewriting sentences or making suggestions for how to rework larger sections of the book, from paragraphs to entire chapters.
Content editing, also called developmental editing, is looking at the big picture. Does the story work? Is the protagonist compelling, is there enough dramatic tension to keep the reader interested for 300 pages?
Next time, our editors will answer questions about genre-specific editing, choosing an editor and the ins and outs of plot/character/story structure edits.
To end on a light note: Editor’s Supermarket Magazine
Links to our editor’s websites:
It’s Your Turn, WG2E-Land: What questions do you have for our Editor Panel?
The Best of The WG2E Editing Wishes — Ruth Harris
NYTimes bestselling author