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 Viking Origin of Editing

As a historian who relies exclusively on lies, only I can sufficiently explain that Vikings were the original editors. And effective editors they were.

Please view the film below, where I let the world know about the early—and brutal—days of editing, and how that has affected editors today.

How to Find (and Go With) Your Flow

I recently entered a travel-writing contest. Normally, I’m pretty balanced about deadlines and details, but I’d let some things pile up, so I only had one day to write the contest entry. I did know the direction I wanted the piece to go, so I dove in. For some people, deadline demand is keyboard caffeine: it’s only when the threat of a editor’s talons or a manager’s teeth is near that production ramps up. I’m better when I have a more measured command of the deadline, when I can pool-cue ideas around to see in which pockets they sink, when I can return to a work in progress and let its established path move me forward.

Instead, lunatic typing to meet this deadline. When I judged I was about one-third of the way through the piece, I revisited the submission site to make sure I had all the facts straight. Nope. The contest had a 1,200-word restriction; I was already at 1,100 words. Gack! My first thought was to abandon this contest—I needed WAY more space to develop the ideas in this piece. And I knew how hard it would be to condense those ideas, as well as re-work the existing material to fit in the smaller space. My thoughts, in essence: “Ugh!”

But I was already at the keyboard, so …. For the next couple of hours, I worked that story, snipping where snipping was due, expanding where there was a loose fold in the lines. The upshot is that I was able to put together a credible entry. But the uppitiest upshot was that in that phase of cutting and crafting, I was really lost in the work. I rarely get in that state of flow—as it’s so compellingly elucidated by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi—that I felt its appealing allure. [Note: C’s name can be used to stop crimes in progress: just shout it at the perpetrators at the top of your lungs.]

The Goldilocks Challenge: It Ain’t About Hair Products

As Daniel Pink so convincingly explains in Drive, his great book on motivation, we need the Goldilocks challenge: something not too easy, but not too hard: something that challenges us just right. And when we get those challenges, our reward is intrinsic—the task is its own reward. Lately, I’ve spent some time considering narrowing my range of services, and I had been considering removing book-length editing (I edit both nonfiction work and fiction) from the list, thinking it secondary to my copywriting work.

But I realized from my travel-essay edit how trying to make sure that every word counts, and nurturing a budding idea through its page-length life is fun. For me, it’s a source of flow. I’ll be editing a science fiction novel late this summer, and one from the bubbling cauldron of Rick Wilson’s mind. I was leaning toward shutting down that end of my business, but I’m leaning back. It’s all in flow.

Look for those moments in your work that also feel like play, where both your mind and your mouth might be humming, where Poirot’s “little grey cells” are singing in chorus. That’s the work you’ll do best, and the best work you’ll do.

But man, the next contest I enter, I’m going to get the details straight.

What Does Editing Have to Do with Potatoes?

Let’s consider a nice serving of mashed potatoes, hot and buttery. Most cooks probably don’t think too much about preparing their potatoes, so it’s often a rote task, hurried through to get to the entree. But what if those potatoes were served with panache, with some kind of style point or spicy twist? Say you were served potatoes with a tiny derby hat on them. You’d remember those spuds, wouldn’t you?

You’d probably remember them even more, if under the tiny derby was a clump of hair. Wouldn’t that drag an interesting expression of creativity into an unappetizing corner? The reason I bring up potatoes, derby hats and unwanted hair is a point I want to make about editing. Competent editors are able to shape the standard serving of potatoes so that it’s without lumps, smooth and palatable. Good potatoes, but still just potatoes.

Better editors recognize when a piece of writing has a derby hat in it—they would never take that hat out, robbing the writer of a unique angle or voice. They’d find a way to allow the hat to fit snugly in its potato surroundings, fully expressive of its quirk and charm, without it seeming unnatural or foreign. And of course, a good editor would remove that hair—typos, kludgy expressions, dully passive voice, et al—posthaste.

Seeing What’s Missing from the Plate
Another skill possessed by a good editor is recognizing when something’s missing. If you don’t provide the reader with a fork, they can’t fully enjoy those potatoes. Some pieces of writing are strong, but they might have gaps in logic, or need to be buttressed by a few more starchy facts. Good editors notice if the writing meal is missing ingredients, and they know how to persuasively suggest adding them so that the writer chefs promptly step back up to the stove.

Of course, editors should always recognize when that potato serving is too big. I remember one of my first copywriting jobs out of college, writing catalog copy for an outdoor equipment retailer that sold a lot of camping goods. One of our products was the Backpacker’s Bible, which was a tiny book that gathered some of the most powerful/popular Bible verses (no “begats” allowed). My first round of copy for it had the line “The best of The Book with all the deadwood cut away.” [Note: for some odd reason they didn’t use my copy.]

And editors recognize when something’s just off. If you’re serving your potatoes to Lady Gaga, you don’t want her wearing her octopus-tentacle bra tinted some neutral shade of grey, do you? It cries out to be Day-Glo puce! If writing has a certain rhythm established, and the rhythm, without context, goes awry, a good editor will re-establish that rhythm. And the proper bra color.

You Don’t Mean He’s Trying to Sell Us Something?
Why is he going on like this, about potatoes and bras? Easy. I’m getting ready to unleash The Write Word’s Easy Editing and Spiffy Style Guide on the world, perhaps as soon as this week. It’s a 55-page ebook chockablock with editing potatoes and other good stuff. And unlike my first couple of ebooks—available here for free—I’m going to charge money for it. But it’s worth it, because it will keep the hair out of your potatoes, while preserving the stylish hats. The guide is filled with editing tips, so that you don’t have to pay me to be the potato masher. Look for its buttery goodness soon.

Short Writers Have Reasons to Live

Photo by Can Berkol

Well, I’m not really referring to writers of diminutive stature. I don’t really have an opinion on them (though people with very tiny hands scare me). What I’m talking about is the art of brevity, specifically regarding paring down your work so that the point is not merely sharp, but that the point can be seen beneath the urge to put frilly hats on it. This is a black art for me, since I often take the Dickensian approach to getting to my point, larding my work with parentheticals and asides, long trilling notes and meanderings.

Of course, writing that has flowery little hillocks in it rather than a flat-line speedway can have its charms, but in this matter I’m speaking of taking the cold scalpel to your writing, when leanness offers an advantage. There’s a famous quote by Blaise Pascal that captures the spirit of my slant:

“I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had time to make it shorter.” (This quote is often attributed to Mark Twain; Twain merely penned 19,324 other oft-cited quotes, and was too busy playing with his cats to get to this one.)

What ol’ Blaise was getting at is that it’s often much more difficult to restrain your writing, hitting just the high notes, rather than putting in both the trumpet solo, the tinny triangle and the banging cowbell (with apologies to the “more cowbell” advocates).

Stories Under the Knife
Not long ago, I had to trim almost 500 words from a short story in order to submit it to a contest requesting stories 2,500 words or shorter. I groaned about it, as much because cutting that sharply from something is not only hard work, but because I was convinced that the gouging would gut the story, leaving only its fluttering pulse. Wrong.

Well, right about the hard part: it is work to delete from, shift sentences around in and reshape a written piece, particularly when you are prejudiced regarding its already inviolate integrity. But as for gutting the story, not at all—the work was distinctly improved, the dialogue more snappy, transitions sharper, fewer flat spots. I was surprised.

I didn’t remove the 500 words all at once. I initially looked for bigger chunks for deletion, maybe even an entire paragraph or two, but the editing didn’t turn out that easy. However, I did find full sentences that my editor’s eye winked away, descriptive material that was added (but unnecessary) color. And I moved from there to cutting out phrases, removing things that seemed parenthetical (because parentheticals are often puffery, don’t you agree?) or just word-candy to feed my sweet tooth.

Sifting with a Finer Sieve
It’s when you get to the “I still need 75 words removed” point that it’s sweaty: but that impels you to see that a sentence reading, “At sunset I wept, with feeling, wept with ferocity,” might be better served as “At sunset, I wept.” Not Hemingway, but still better than condensed milk. (Parenthetically—but not pathetically—aside: that isn’t an actual example of an edited story sentence. You’ll have to pay me for those.)

Writing succintly is a fun and focused exercise. Here are some examples of six-word stories I wrote for a Narrative magazine contest:

Finally published. No readers. Quietly perished.

Her crash survivor: James Dean doll.

Balding. No prospects. Wear brighter socks!

Cruise ship canapé: tight tennis whites

That smell. Where? Maddening! Soul rot…

And here’s another attempt at cracking Narrative’s 160-word iStories:

Cold Stone, Warm Tears

He patted the dirt around the stone. The hand-tools were fine, but he liked to touch the earth last—it sealed the deal. He pulled out his notebook and scribbled:

“Precious gift”

OK, he thought. Not as sharp as “We are lost” from the Russian kid’s stone last week. He’d collected the tombstone statements from children’s graves for a while, soon after beginning his gravedigger’s job. The first one—“God’s garden has need of little flowers”—made him laugh, so he wrote it down. He probably had 70 or so now. Maybe he could publish a little book, maybe sell it in the parlor. He could use the cash.

The next day, the call: set the stone for a nine-month-old. “So small, so sweet, so soon.” Good one. He read it twice, a third time.

He buried the notebook under the stone, and patted it in. Little guys need their rest, he thought.

Who cares if Narrative didn’t think that much of them (the pigs). Short-form writing is good practice at focus and intent, nonetheless.

Examples For, Examples Against
I subscribe to Bruce Holland Rogers’s “Three Stories a Month” emailings, and I marvel at how often he can summon up sharp feeling in a short piece, and across so many genres. But sometimes, editing away some of a story’s skin can remove a bit of bone too. I took 400 words off of this story, The Vial, in order to reach the desired flash-fiction 1,000. It did place among the Smashwords contest winners, but it felt like some of its windows had been covered in comparison to the original. (Note: the Smashwords link goes to the free, 40 flash-fiction stories ebook download.)

But editing well, whether fiction or non, can often boost a tale’s flavor. And if you can’t stand to cut your own typewritten toenails, just ask one of your literate friends to do it. They’ll cleave away entire characters and just laugh at your bleatings of pain…