Here’s part of George’s email: “I’m confused. I’m done writing my book and I know I need a professional editor. But what kind? What’s the difference between a developmental editor, a content editor, a copy editor, and a proofreader? Help!”
When I was cutting my teeth as a young writer, things were straightforward. Editors worked for publishers. Their job was to make your manuscript better. Like many things, though, things have changed in the Age of Self-Publishing.
There are still editors who work for publishing companies, but there are lots of freelance editors, too. Even some of the editors working for publishers are freelancers. And in wonderful gig economy fashion, the freelancers get to describe their work with whatever title they choose.
What follows is my interpretation of how this all works and a suggestion about how you can find the kind of editor you need.
Two Kinds of Editing
After reflecting on my own experience and explaining how things work to clients, I decided there are two basic kinds of editing.
Some editors exercise judgement. Judgement editing is where the editor renders an opinion. It’s characterized by phrases like “I think you should…” and “This might be better if…”
The other kind of editing is rule-based editing. Rule-based editing applies a certain standard to your manuscript. Rule-based editing makes sure that your manuscript uses standard English conventions, like subject and verb agreement. Rule-based editing makes sure that you follow the dictates of a style sheet. This is not a matter of opinion. If the style sheet for your publisher or that you’ve agreed upon with your editor calls for you to write out the word “percent” instead of using the percent sign (%), that’s what you do. All the time.
You can get a sense of the difference when you consider the use of the Oxford comma. An editor using judgement might suggest that you use or don’t use the Oxford comma. A style sheet, like the AP style sheet that journalists use, has a rule about the Oxford comma. A rule-based editor will follow the rule in the style sheet. He or she will follow whatever you’ve agreed upon as the rule. In other words, judgement-based editing might suggest that you use an Oxford comma, and once you’ve agreed to it, rule-based editing makes sure you do it all the time.
Kinds of Editors
There are lots of different names that various freelancers use to describe what they do. For me, editors (the people) fall into three groups.
Developmental editors look at the entire manuscript and make suggestions about structure and sequence. This is pure judgement editing. Developmental editors work before the manuscript is complete. In fact, the earlier the better. Developmental editors are sometimes called “content editors” or “book doctors.” I do developmental editing for most of my clients.
Copy editors usually tackle the manuscript after it’s complete but before the interior design for the book is done. Copy editors use a mix of judgment and rule-based editing. One editor I use regularly requires that I decide what style sheet to use with the option of creating my own. Then, we follow the dictates of the style sheet. But she also makes suggestions about structure and sequence. It’s all part of the service she offers.
Proofreaders are the last kind of editor to touch a manuscript. They usually swing into action after the copy editors are done and the interior design is done. Then, the proofreader goes through the manuscript as it will appear in the book. Proofreading is pure rule-based editing. A proofreader may ask a question to clarify what you want, but he or she does not normally make suggestions about overall manuscript structure and sequence.
Picking the Right Editor for You
You’re most likely to get a book you’re proud of if you use both kinds of editing.
Many authors don’t hire a developmental editor. But they have a friend of colleague who performs a developmental editorial function. People who hire me to work on their book sometimes hire me at the very beginning of the process and somewhere towards the end of the actual writing. Whatever works for you will work for me or another professional developmental editor.
Self-publishing authors who want to get the best book possible hire copy editors and proofreaders. Sometimes, those editors come as part of the service of an author’s services company. Sometimes, you hire them directly.
If you do hire a copy editor or proofreader directly, the best way to find out if they can work with you effectively is to audition them. This will cost you some money, but it’s worth it.
Visit the site for the Editorial Freelancers Association, solicit recommendations from friends who’ve used editors, and do a little web searching. Narrow the list of the people you think may work for you down to a manageable number. In my experience, that should be about three of each.
Give the people you’re considering the same large chunk of your manuscript to work with. Make sure they know what you expect of them. Then, turn them loose on your manuscript. They should spend an hour doing their editing or proofreading. Review the quality of their work. Will it help you produce a book that you can be proud of? Think about the relationship. Are they easy to work with? Did they produce their work on time and in accordance with your standards? Are you comfortable with them? Skill level doesn’t matter if the chemistry is off.
If your head says, “They have great skills” but your gut says, “Yeah, but,” go with your gut.
Editors can make you look good and save you from embarrassment. They can help you create a book you’re proud of.
You will need both judgment editing and rule-based editing if you want the best possible book.
Judge potential editors by their work and work style, not their title. Have them work on a sample of your manuscript and pay them for their time.