Editors. Uhhh! What Are They Good For?

'2008-01-26 (Editing a paper) - 31' photo (c) 2008, Nic McPhee - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Over time, I’ve made a few preposterous videos (near page bottom from the link, under the “Editing: It’s Brutal” head) about the cruelties of editing, and how editors are the unsung heroes of the modern age. Or something along those lines.

But I’ve never explained, on a sane level, some of my editing approaches and processes. Since I do occasionally have bouts of sanity, here goes: I’m an editing ho of sorts, in that I edit both fiction and nonfiction, for businesses and individuals. I write (and publish) in both categories, I’ve studied the writing and editing of both, and though there are some differences in editing between the two types of writing, I can easily get into the proper mindsets of working with both.

I’ll briefly go over the three basic types of editing and some thoughts on how I approach it, with some thoughts on how to choose an editor. Here’s our big three (sometimes known under different names, but the song of the red pen is the same): developmental editing, line editing, and proofreading. I’m using book editing for the examples discussed below, but much of what I say applies to editing fiction or nonfiction of varying types and lengths.

Developmental Editing

Developmental editors work on projects in their earlier stages, perhaps when a writer has written their initial draft or second draft, and wants someone to assess a book’s high-level structure, chapter-to-chapter development and end-to-end logic. Writers need to be satisfied that those elements of their work are secure before they go on to any other editing level. A developmental editor might make substantive suggestions for change, such as the shifting about—or elimination of—chapters and the addition of consequential pieces of new material. For fiction, the editor could discuss broad issues of character, theme, voice and conflict—and make the same kind of broad change requests.

For a fiction project, some of the essential questions a developmental editor might discuss with a client could be:

  • What is the main story question, intention, or theme?
  • Does the story start (and end) at the right place?
  • What’s at stake for the protagonist(s), and is the tension behind that stake well developed, handled, and resolved?
  • Have characters and subplots been seamlessly introduced and developed, and do all of them expand/drive the narrative in some compelling way?
  • Is the point of view clear for each scene? (And do transitions between scenes work?)
  • Does the work employ vivid imagery, use strong verbs and nouns, and avoid clichés, melodramatic or flat characters and passive voice?

Sometimes a developmental editor will make specific suggestions on single sentences in a story, so the differences between line editing and developmental editing can overlap a bit there. However, those kinds of suggestions would only happen in sections of the book that the editor presumes will be little changed. No sense in editing something that’s going to be deleted or changed in a major way.

Line Editing (or Copyediting)

Line editing is related to straight proofreading, but it’s a more complex, fine-toothed (and interpretive) editing process. A line editor will make simple in-text corrections or suggestions where there are errors, but sometimes also suggest re-workings of sentences and entire paragraphs, in trying to mediate omissions in ideas or undeveloped ideas. Line editors both look at grammar and writing mechanics, as well as at the flow of the work, both its logic and expression. If desired by the client, some editors also directly rewrite some sentences on issues of syntax or other structural situations, or suggest in detail where they could use some bolstering.


Proofing comes into play when a writer is comfortable with everything about the book’s big-picture structure and its grammar/sentence structure, and he or she simply wants to make sure there are no typos, misspellings or format problems. A proofreader is the person who sees where you intended a “your,” but inserted an incorrect “you.” A proofer pokes the eye out of that pesky apostrophe—when an “it’s” is supposed to be an “its.” It’s not a proofreader’s job to point out deeper problems (though I sometimes can’t help it).

My Editing Approach

For a long document like a book, usually I have a phone conversation with the client to go over the basic exchange of information, procedures and anticipated milestones—and to see if we have a good feel for each other’s work. That’s critical: find an editor who you feel comfortable with, and who respects the work you’ve done, and won’t try to change your voice. Occasionally I’ll offer to edit a small sample of the document to demonstrate my approach. Most of the work from that point is done by email. Sometimes it can all be done by email.

I normally use Word’s Revisions/Track Changes tools to directly make changes in a manuscript, and also to insert comments or questions. The writer reviews my corrections, accepts or rejects them, and if so inclined, types answers to the comments/questions back into the manuscript. If requested, I then go over it again, or if my comments and questions are best answered by the author, the writer takes it from there.

In regards the minor corrections, such as inserting or removing a comma, most authors just review the corrections in Word, and approve them or reject them. It can get a little tricky to tell sometimes when it’s just a space removed or a period substituted for a comma, because the Track Changes tools don’t make it easy to see those small additions/subtractions, but you can always see the results of accepting the correction in the text.

The work can be completed after the writer has gone over the first round of suggested changes, or it can go another round. I worked on a five-book series with one author who essentially said “Great stuff. I’ll take it from here” on every book. I’ve had a couple of other writers do the same: They rewrote from my insertions and didn’t request further help. Many others have come back with their rewrites, asking me to proof their corrections and changes. And in a few instances, writers have put in new raw material with a rewrite request, and I’ve rewritten it to their instruction, but that’s probably not the best approach for fiction.

The Dough

I’m flexible in my approach to fees. If you do want me to re-check your edited material, that’s when I always charge an hourly; but on the first round, I will do a per-word or per-page charge, based on 12-point, double-spaced type (normally around 300 words a page). If I’m unfamiliar with the client, I will ask him or her for one-third to one-half up front (and if I need more candy and my piggy bank is low, I might ask for it even from my familiars). Should we dissolve our agreement before I’ve even reached that point in the work, I’d return the equivalent balance.

Per-page charges can really range, from $2.50 to $4.50 a page for line editing. The range is dependent on how I project the effort and depth of attention the work will demand—which means I need to take a look at the whole of the work. After the first copyediting round, I normally charge $30–$40 an hour to input any suggestions the author has made (which includes rewriting sentences or even paragraphs, if requested) and re-proofing. Or if the author wants to me to go over the manuscript that he/she has reworked, I can go back to the per-page model, which because the work has already gone a round, would be much cheaper.

One other consideration is that if a client wants to have a straight project fee—because the level of attention any manuscript needs is individualized—rather than an hourly/per-page, I can provide a bid after I take a good look at the work. However, if you are looking for a thorough copyedit, it’s likely that a book of 100,000 words will cost at least $1,000 on a bid. I am soon going to copyedit a 90,000-word novel from a client whose work I know from an earlier novel edit, and I gave him a $1,000 bid because I have a good feel about how much work I’d have to do; I’d have to check out any unfamiliar work a bit to get that sense. I know it sounds expensive, but doing a deep copyedit is a considerable time investment, and I’m good at what I do.

Editing Your Editor

Obviously, you don’t have to accept every (or even the majority) of your editor’s suggestions, particularly when it comes to slippery issues of “flavor” and tone. I often question whether a single word in a sentence is the word that does the best job, and I’ll suggest substitutes. But you should hold steady if that word carries the weight you wanted. Sometimes an editor’s job is simply to make the author consider if a character’s gesture or expression is really the one the author intended, to introduce the idea that on the very sentence and word level can rest the lasting power of the work. But sometimes the editor’s job is to question whether a character even belongs in the work. Asking an author to consider such a heavy structural issue (such a question should only be part of a developmental edit, to be sure) is asking a lot—but sometimes those questions need to be asked. And you as an author have every latitude to just say no. (or Hell No!)

You may do better with an editor that specializes in your genre. If you are a YA writer, you might want to work only with YA editors. I’ve edited a range of business books, mysteries, self-help books, literary fiction, nutrition books, and thrillers, so I’m all over the place. But it’s reasonable to consider seeking out an editor that is steeped deeply in your genre. I’ve been editing for more than 25 years, but all projects are different, as are the authors. One unifying thing is that it’s a deep pleasure to work with authors and see work improved—my work as well as theirs. Expressing oneself in words—and doing it well—can seem daunting, but there’s such satisfaction in making a strong effort.

Ask around writerly circles and groups (LinkedIn might help) if you are seeking an editor. The Bay Area Editor’s Forum is an organization about which I’ve heard a great deal of good. Obviously you want to work with someone whom you feel is credible, and with whom you’re comfortable.

OK, this has gone on WAY too long. But if you want to read some more musings on editing, download my Style Guide from the right-hand side of the page. Sure, you might have to read some stuff about grammar, but there are lots of jokes too.

May all your words take wings (and without any leaden feathers).

The Editing and Style Guide Doffs Its Swaddling Clothes

As I threatened you with earlier, I’ve written a 55-page Easy Editing and Spiffy Style Guide that will make the world safe for clean copy and sterling style. The guide (whose handsome bookish face you can see—and click on!—to your right) is a collection of editing tips and advice for anyone who needs to spruce up the written word. Or at least ensure that their written words don’t have that telltale trace of toilet paper on their shoes when they emerge into society. You can try before you buy with this 8-page sampler.

As I explain on the landing page, the guide holds these within its happy walls:

• Best Practices in Editing—Learn how editing is critical to effective communication
• Editing Tools—How to use all editing tools to maximum effect
• Types of and Approaches to Editing—Harness the power of every editing stage
• Proofreading Methods and Examples—Don’t let typos tangle your efforts
• Editing Checklists—Perfect your documents, step-by-step
• Editing Resources—In-context URLs providing expanded editing knowledge
• Style Guide Covering Numbers, Possessives, Semicolons and More!
• A Pocketful of General Usage Tips

And, as the saying goes, much more! Oh yeah—it costs money. But not much, and it’s worth its weight in chocolate electrons if it saves you from the humiliation I felt
years ago, when as the copyeditor of a big software company I let the annual product guide go out with the incorrect 800 number on the order page—a number I’d seen approximately 101,000 times.

Oh yeah—the guide’s kinda funny too.