Editing is a multilayered thing


by Terri J. Huck

Editing_a_paperMy introduction to Possibilities Publishing Company came when I sat in on a panel discussion by CEO Meredith Maslich and a group of authors at the Fall for the Book Festival a couple years ago. The writers had had a variety of experiences with publishing, but the one point they agreed on was the importance of having a professional edit one’s manuscript.

I was a writer long before I was a professional editor, so I am intimately familiar with both sides of the process. And I know how an editor can bring out the best in someone else’s writing. (It’s always easier to see another writer’s work more clearly than your own, thanks to that extra layer of objectivity.)

Then a panel of published authors at the Writer’s Center confirmed what I had heard elsewhere: There are few great editors left at the big publishing houses because the people with that title are focused more on business than editing. That is sad news, but it opens up tremendous opportunities for writers to find their own editors, and there are a lot of good ones out there.

Different levels of editing happen at different stages of writing—and that’s true of magazine articles as well as fiction and nonfiction books. It’s just a little more involved for books.

Here are the levels, in order:

1. Manuscript assessment. Given the time and energy involved in editing a book, most editors will want to see at least the first few chapters of your manuscript before committing to it. They are trying to get a sense of the state it’s in and your sensibilities as a writer to decide whether you are a good fit for one another.

Some editors will ask to see the entire book and might charge a fee in return for their time and written feedback. In that case, he or she will give you a general assessment of what works and what doesn’t and a recommendation for what the next level of edit or revision should be. (Yes, some editors will suggest a rewrite before taking on your manuscript. Agents and publishers often do the same.) The money you pay for that assessment might be applied to any future work the editor does on your manuscript.

In lieu of reading the entire book, editors might ask for a synopsis. (You should have one on hand anyway. Writing a synopsis is an invaluable way to see whether your story makes sense. If you have glaring lapses—events that simply happen without any discernible cause, for instance—they will be immediately apparent. I’ll talk about how to write a synopsis in a future blog post.)

2. Developmental edit. The editor will read the manuscript closely (often more than once) and give you page-by-page recommendations for improving story, structure, voice, style, language, character development, dialogue, sensory description, and so on.

3. Line edit. The editor will go through the manuscript line by line editing for consistency, clarity, tone, etc. At this level, the editor might also draw your attention to concerns about structure, character, point of view, and story arc, but that feedback is generally less detailed than in a developmental edit.

4. Copy edit. Editors at this level correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation. The most dedicated copy editors will point out errors of consistency or murky character motivations, but that’s not what they’re looking for.

Editors typically charge different rates for the different levels of edit, and many specialize in only one or two of the levels. You should always get an estimate upfront. Some editors will quote an hourly rate, but they should be able to give you an estimate of how many hours it will take them, and that will most likely be based on your manuscript’s word count.

Finding the right editor for you and your book might take a little time, but it’s worth it because editors want to help you produce the best book you can. I’ll offer some tips on where to look for editors in a future blog post.

Terri J. Huck is an editor and managing partner at Possibilities Publishing Company. She blogs about researching and writing historical fiction at TheSmellOfGunsmoke.com.

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