Thoughts on the Editing Process

Since I have been doing a lot of this lately, including Beta reads and formatting, I thought I would discuss the various stages of the editorial process. This is by no means specific to self-publishing; all authors go through an editorial process of some sort, and for some, the process is much deeper than it is for others, and for some it could be a whole lot deeper.

First Reader(s) is normally the person(s) you trust the most. The Person(s) who will give you honest feedback straight out of the gate, understanding that this craptacular mess of paper you have just handed them is a work in progress, and that your mind at that moment is too scrabbled to see it clearly anymore. For me, I have different first readers for different types of stories. For many authors, their first reader is their spouse or best friend, possibly another author they admire and respect.

Beta Readers are people who read a written work, generally fiction, with what has been described as “a critical eye, with the aim of improving grammar, spelling, characterization, and general style of a story prior to its release to the general public.” The author or writer, who can be referred to as the alpha reader, may use several “betas” prior to publication. A beta reader, who may or may not be more personally known to the author, can serve as proof-reader of spelling and grammar errors, or as a traditional editor, working on the “flow” of prose. In fiction, the beta might highlight plot holes or problems with continuity, characterisation, or believability; in both fiction and non-fiction, the beta might also assist the author with fact-checking. [Wikipedia]

Manuscript Critique and Evaluation or the Developmental Editor provides an overall assessment of your work. Manuscript critiques generally focus on the broader picture along with adherence to theme, plotting, story arc, and characterization. The primary focus is that the story is balanced and follows the rules of logic within the confines of its world. Does it make sense and is it well written? Often this is the same as a literary critique, and literary theory will be applied to the evaluation, similar to a book review. Generally in today’s publishing climate, this task falls with the Agent first. The Critique partner or Agent/Editor will offer suggestions to improve thematic clarity, expand and contract plotlines, remove areas of implausibility, and deepen characterization. The suggestions made during the critique process usually require substantive editing on behalf of the author or rather, further revision. This is a time consuming process, and the Editor and Author need to work very closely, the relationship between the two is critical here. Sometimes a Beta Reader is qualified to perform this function.

Copy Editing corrects grammar, punctuation and spelling errors as well as logic and continuity problems. The “five Cs” summarize the copy editor’s job: Make the copy clear, correct, concise, comprehensible, and consistent. Copy editors should Make it say what it means, and mean what it says. Typically, copy editing involves correcting spelling, punctuation, grammar, terminology and jargon, timelines, and semantics; ensuring that the typescript adheres to the publisher’s style. Copy editors also add any “display copy”, such as headlines and standardized headers, footers. Copy editors are expected to ensure that the text flows, that it is sensible, fair, and accurate, and that any legal problems have been addressed. [Wikipedia] Note: Copy editors are often called “Grammar Nazis” and will tend to have a favourite style manual at their side at all times. Mine is “Words into Type.” Yes, that’s right; I am not a Chicago girl, so sue me.

Line Editing checks each sentence for paragraphing, structure, dialog and word usage to ensure a smoothly flowing document. Oftentimes this can be combined with the copy-editing function.

Proofreading is the final check for typos, punctuation/spelling mistakes, formatting errors and other minor problems. The term proofreading is sometimes used incorrectly to refer to copy-editing. This is a separate activity, although there is some overlap between the two. Proofreading consists of reviewing any text, either hard copy on paper or electronic copy on a computer, and checking for typos and formatting errors. [Wikipedia] Note: Normally this is performed with a proof copy of the work either manufactured or an author printed copy.

Now in the self-publishing world, finding people who can do this sort of editing is a tricky business. All too often authors choose family and friends to act as Beta readers, and in this case, they may not be qualified to give a thorough literary evaluation of the work, they may not be grammatically inclined to catch what a proof-reader would easily, and they are definitely not objective. Many authors try to do it all themselves, but again, you need a second set of eyes, and in the beginning stages you need more than that.

Creativity blossoms behind a closed door, but the revision and polishing stage of the work requires a barn door flung all the way open. It requires beta readers and editors who can remain detached from the author and the story. It requires critical thinking and problem solving, not to mention theoretical knowledge and a firm grasp of the language. Beyond the technical stuff, every editor/beta reader/copyeditor has their own style, and every author should seek out those whose style meshes with theirs. I prefer the blunt, brutally honest, focused on the manuscript style of Editor. Recently over on Writerunboxed.com there was an interesting post discussing editorial services. One of the comments that stood out for me was by Allison Dickson who stated:

As someone who does freelance editing, I have had to turn down a few potential clients when I have realized (after previewing their work) that it wasn’t an editor they needed, but an intensive writing class. Or a series of them. As for cost, I try to undercut my competition in order to help writers at least get some help and guidance without spending a small fortune, because I know from experience that writers are often broke and I don’t care to take advantage of that.

One thing I would add here (and one thing I offer to all potential clients) is a free sample. For a novel, I will edit 20 pages free of charge so they can see what they might expect from me. Many of them like what they see, and some don’t. I think in most cases it’s due to expectations. When you think you’re presenting someone your best writing only to get it back looking like someone took to it with a weed whacker, you’re going to feel a little deflated, and possibly antagonized. You will then seek out an editor (or more likely a friend who reportedly “loves” your work) who will be kinder to your ego.

I always urge people to remember that I don’t get paid to pet their egos. My reputation rests in the quality of a finished piece, so I have a vested interest in honesty. It is my job to read their books with the earnest eye of a new reader, without preconceived notions or fears of damaging a friendship.

Now that is the sort of editor Cheryl Anne Gardner likes and needs. That — very up-front give you the straight shit — style suits my own personal style and reflects my own editorial style as well. For some writers this will just not work and can cause a great deal of stress for the author and the editor/ agent/whatever and can end in disaster. No one wants to feel mistrusted, or patronized, or bullied … etc. No one is intentionally acting that way; it’s just that perceptions can get a bit skewed when styles don’t match up. So if you begin to feel this way about your Editor/Agent/Whatever, then end the working relationship amicably and move on to someone who suits your sensibilities a bit better. The same goes for the Editor/Agent/Whatever. However, please keep in mind, no matter what the Editor/Agent/Whatever’s style might be, they have a vested interest in the manuscript. They are trying to help you make the work as good as it can be. Whatever function you have contracted them to do, paying or non-paying, please understand that the editorial work is their work and their reputation on the line. The manuscript is always the author’s work, of course, but they have a stake in it too.

As for myself, I write in a variety of genres and can’t always use the same people. For Lit critiques, I normally have Beta readers who are teachers or other authors, and on occasion, I use critique groups. As for the copyediting, I do much of that myself, since I do it all day long at my day job. However, I am prone to missing things. Stare at a manuscript long enough, and you go blind to a degree, so I have three different software packages I use for grammatical checks, and I also have a live person final proof-reader. Even then, one or two stray commas or some other fiddly thing will get through. I also try to choose editorial staff based on my writing style: People who are well read in my genre and style. Someone who loved Twilight is probably not going to be a good Beta reader/Editor for my work. This goes the same for choosing a reviewer: You want a qualified reviewer in your style and genre. No sense having a Romance only Reviewer read your Bizarro Science Fiction Novel, unless of course, Bizarro Fiction is their other personal favourite. My first questions to potential editors/beta readers are: who do you read, what style manual do you prefer, and how do you feel about the Oxford comma? There are a lot of freelance editors out there and prices vary, so make sure you understand what makes a qualified editor before you start writing out a check.

Every author is different, every book is different, and every editor is different. The process can be as simple or as elaborate as it needs to be, and selecting the appropriate services and collaborators is not a pick off the menu type of deal. If you have trouble with critical commentary, then you are not ready for the editorial process just yet. Hang back, keep revising, and start networking with people already involved in the process so you can get a good handle on what to expect before you turn your pages over. The same goes for reviews. Choose your reviewers carefully, and make sure you can handle a critical review before you submit. Don’t make it personal because it isn’t.

I work day in and day out in an editorial capacity. I am an author and also a reviewer. I am also human: An imperfect dysfunctional human with artistic sensibilities. I can tell you, no matter what side of the editorial process you are on, none of them are easy. There are a lot of qualified freelance editors out there and there are a lot of fakes. A careful reader is not always a qualified editor, but a qualified editor is always a careful reader. A degree in English is not always necessary, some sort of other work experience will do, and other authors and good reviewers make pretty decent editors as well. Ask for samples always, and you can start the dialogue with these questions: 1) What’s your opinion of the serial comma? 2) Just speaking personally, what is your preferred dictionary? 3) Do you have a preferred Grammatical Stylebook? If yes, which one. 4) What do you count as privileged forms of speech? 5) How many passes do you normally do? 6) What is your take on copy-editorial latitude? 7) In your view, what else does a copyeditor do?

If they can answer those questions correctly, then you are on the right track.

Happy writing, editing, and reading to all.

Cross-posted from The PodPeople Blog by Cheryl Anne Gardner

  • As a self-published author, who has been stung by one bad editing job, I understand the need for a good editor. The problem is money. I have a finished manuscript that I’d like to release this summer. It’s out to beta readers for feedback, but will need proofreading beyond my eyes and editing. However, to send it to an editor, I’m looking at anywhere from $300 (a short job that may give me the same poor outcome I got last time) to paying over $1,000 for a full meal deal editing job by a professional. I suppose I could see spending over $1,000, if I were convinced some big publishing house was going to pick up my book knowing I’ll recoup my investment. However, I’m paying out of pocket to publish as a self-published author just to get it to market. Quality is a huge concern, because I don’t want to release “crap.” Yet being able to afford the whole enchilada of an in-depth editing job is beyond my financial reach. It’s a conundrum.

    • Doug

      Vicki, I’m with you on editing being expensive. I came across this publisher that I actually use to edit my work. It’s the lowest cost I’ve EVER come across and they have a strong experienced crew that does just this. I don’t want to get into what I’ve learned about them because I don’t want this to sound like an ad, but you bring up a good point and I was in the same boat and maybe I can help direct someone to a place that really helped me. The company site is fourdoorspublishing.com. They have the lowest set up cost fee I’ve seen and it includes EVERYTHING a self-publishing company offers including book return and listing with ingram and ALL the self-publishing staples, including a cover for well under $300 and all their services are $25/hour and they’re VERY ethical in how they charge. And they’ll only do the extent of editing you ask them to. I swear by them. Sorry this sounds like an ad, but like it shows here, this is a huge concern with people. It was for me and I got tired of people trying to charge me as high as $175/hour or $20 to $50 a page. I hope this helps someone. It helped me. Low costs and good quality are out there if you look.

  • Two things I love about this post: Allison Dickson saying, “Someone took to it with a weed whacker,” and, “What’s your opinion of the serial comma?”

    I’m an independent editor. I do all three types of editing: developmental, line, and copy editing. And I hear all day long every day from aspiring writers out there trying to sort the real editors from the amateurs. It’s a messy, messy business.

    My client Kathryn has said publicly that when she got the first installment of her Copy & Line Edited manuscript back from me and saw the “blizzard of blue” she thought she’d been scammed. (She’s now one of my most loyal clients.)

    It’s true that there are excellent freelance editors out here, they do take the quality of your manuscript seriously, and they are worth finding.

    It’s also true that it can cost a bundle, and for people like writers, who are already known to be starving in garrets, this is a serious quandry.

    I can tell you you are not going to get much in the way of quality editing nowadays for $300. I’m sorry, you’re really not. I was offering professional services last summer at rock bottom prices because the independent editing industry was in such infancy and my independent business, in particular, was brand new. But even then I couldn’t have done much more for that kind of money than a read-through. Now I still offer pretty cheap rates because, like Allison, I know the reality that most writers live with. (I’m betting Allison, like me, has also been a starving writer in her time and knows how it feels.)

    Unfortunately, nobody who’s put in the apprenticeship it takes to do developmental, line, and copy editing properly can afford to do it that cheap. Like so many other things in life, you get what you pay for.

    So, definitely, definitely, learn everything you can about the editors you have in mind before you even approach them. Read their blogs. Check out their sites. Ask for client testimonials. Follow them for awhile to see if they ever offer anything free. (I do periodic Free Edit specials in which I invite readers to submit short pieces like hooks or climaxes that I can edit and then post for the edification of everyone.)

    Look for an editor whose voice you trust.

    And if you can afford them, then go for it. Yes, it’s going to cost you. And, no, unless they’re also a publisher, they’re not going to be able to guarantee publication. There are no guarantees in this business. Even publishers sometimes take on projects they fail to publish. The burden of editing simply falls on the shoulders of the writer more and more at this particular point in history.

    And if you can’t afford your editor of choice, keep hanging around and listening to them, learning everything you can from them, taking your craft as seriously as you would someday like your readers to.

    Remember that learning a craft well enough to become a professional is a long, rocky, and exhausting road. It takes years, and you will get thrown by the craft far more often than you will throw it. The ones who get good are the ones who simply love it too much to let go.

    (Oh, yeah—serial comma. That’s an issue that hinges on the difference between journalism and fiction. Drop the final comma in journalism, keep it in fiction. Now you all know.)

  • great post, well-balanced, ‘caveat emptor’ and do your research on editors and agents in general before you submit a MS.

  • Thanks for the lovely and educational post. I have also been scammed by a freelance editor just recently. I paid $1,000 for 33,000 words of non-fiction (tennis fitness book). When I almost sent the book to print I started to notice all the typos, inconsistencies and punctuation things, about 3-4 per page. She did not change much in my writing, and I was almost thinking that I am that good, ha ha. I was so disappointed. When I brought it to her attention, she said she maxed out her hours, a few typos are okay, and she would need to rewrite the entire book. That was a bad defense! I just don’t understand how somebody just doesn’t care about doing good job.


  • You are so welcome Suzanna. There are a lot of really good freelance editors and proofreaders out there, and fees can vary depending on the level of editorial assistance you want or need. Most I have come across charge by the word or page. I have never heard an editor say they maxed out their hours and stopped without telling the author. That’s crazy.

  • Thanks, Cheryl! I will for sure know in the future. I don’t even think that she maxed out her hours and stopped. I believe now that she has no idea what she is doing, because she went through all the chapters, more or less, but it looks like she was very careless… I know she was editing during the Wimbledon, and she was posting comments on Facebook about this match or that match almost all the time. I was thinking “shouldn’t she be editing my book?” So now I understand how she missed 3-5 things on each page. And first afterward when I started to point out all the typos, she said she maxed out her hours and she would need another 5-8 hours to go through everything (i.e. I need to pay). But why would I let her to do it when she already did really bad job? I am still trying to figure out what I could do about the situation now, afterward, so she wouldn’t do similar to other writers.


  • Suzanne,

    I’m so sorry to hear about your terrible experience. Yes, it sounds as though this “editor” is not an independent editor at all but simply one of the many, many amateurs out there pretending to edit.

    These people are a thorn in everyone’s sides–in the sides of writers, of course, but also in the sides of real independent editors because they cast doubt upon our profession.


    Real agents have to deal with the existence of fake agents, too. And real independent publishers deal with the existence of fake publishers.

    You can protect others by reporting her to Preditors & Editors. That’s what they’re for.

    And if you really want to help protect others, you can donate a few bucks to their legal fund. They get sued periodically by rip-off “editing” and “publishing” organizations.

    Good luck!