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WHAT THE HECK DOES AN EDITOR DO? (AND WHEN DO I NOT NEED ONE?)

When you think of an editor, what image comes to mind? Someone hunched over a paper-strewn desk, red pen in hand? Or a cigar-smoking, white-haired old guy sitting behind a similar desk, grunting to authors that their story was no good! (Okay, that last image is totally taken from the Little Women adaptation featuring everyone’s favourite mom-who-talks-to-Christmas-lights, Winona Ryder.)

Looking back, that’s what I thought an editor did for a long time. I pictured them, papers everywhere, reading all day long, and correcting minor typos as one did in class during peer editing. I’m not sure when, exactly, this image changed, but I eventually came to realize that they (we) do oh so much more.

So, I guess I shouldn’t have come as a surprise when I was met with more than a few blank stares at first telling friends and family I wanted to become an editor. “Oh, cool!” They’d say. (Enthusiasm imagined.) “That’s with books, right? So … you’re going to make them?” I guess you could think of it this way, but that’s not exactly what I do. (And not to mention that image conjures only one type of editor.)

I chalked this confusion up to people simply not knowing much about publishing, or the book world, but when I started freelancing I found my clients had the same questions. Most shocking was how unfamiliar they were with what, exactly, an editor does—least of all what type their work needed.

This gave me pause. With the wealth of available resources on writing, editing, and publishing, why is there still such disconnect? Slowly, I began to realize something. Writers, on the whole, talk to other writers. Editors, on the whole, talk to other editors. So why don’t we change that? Let’s dive right in.

WHAT THE HECK DOES AN EDITOR DO?

First, a small caveat. Fiction and non-fiction (or academic) editors may use different terms for the services listed below. That said, there are four main types of editing: Substantive/Structural Editing, Stylistic Editing, Copy Editing, and Proofreading.

1. SUBSTANTIVE/STRUCTURAL EDITING.

As the name suggests, substantive, or structural, editors work to improve a manuscript’s organization and content. This is the earliest stage and is best for authors who have gone through a few drafts and are now looking for critical, unbiased feedback. (In academic circles, this type of editing is called Developmental Editing.)

Substantive/Structural editors will highlight redundancies, make suggestions as to where more content or rewriting may be necessary, and locate incorrect or inconsistent facts. They compile these concerns for the author, along with suggested improvements. It is then up to the author to consider each and incorporate them into the manuscript as they see fit. Most times you’ll end up going through another draft (or two).

Takeaway: At this stage, the editor is helping to develop a piece of writing, taking a look at its substance and structure.

2. STYLISTIC EDITING.

Stylistic editors focus more on a work at the sentence-level, considering language and narrative style. They will highlight and correct wordiness, eliminate jargon (also known as editing for plain language), rid excessive use of the passive voice, un-mix metaphors, and suggest smoother transitions between scenes or sections.

At this stage, editors will also consider (or determine) the correct reading level for the piece, and make sure it is audience-appropriate. Depending on the type of project they may even create tables and figures. Stylistic editors work closely with an author, negotiating any suggested changes.

Takeaway: This stage is best once you have the structure down, but the prose needs a little extra punch.

(Although I do not offer these two services, I do address the same types of concerns in manuscript and short story evaluations.)

3. COPY EDITING.

I think this level most resembles people’s preconceived notions of editing. (You know, those images of people hunched over desks with big red pen in hand.) Above all, copy editors work to ensure a manuscript is consistent, clear, and accurate (especially if non-fiction). But they do also check for proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation. They may also flag broken links for online publications.

This stage is best for a next-to-final draft. When the prose needs a good polish before you start querying agents or submitting to publications.

Takeaway: Think of copy editors as a mechanic for your words. They make sure everything is in working order and ready to go!

4. PROOFREADING.

Proofreaders will comb through a work and correct errors in both text and design. These editors focus on fixing minor typos, ensuring all pages are numbered, and checking citations are correct.

Depending on the project, a proofreader may also confirm any changes introduced by the copy editor (or author) are incorporated. As may be obvious, this is the final stage of editing and occurs once a text is formatted for printing.

Takeaway: Don’t go for a proofread if you have not already done (at least) a thorough copy edit. Proofreaders are here to sweep away the crumbs, and do not dive deep into a text.

Phew! Got all that? (For quick reference, be sure to download my free guide!) Now, there are a lot more variances to each of the types of editing, as a good editor will explain at the outset. Each project is as unique as the author itself, and special attention may be needed for one aspect over another. (For more detailed descriptions, see Editors Canada’s Definitions of Editorial Skills, as well as their Professional Editorial Standards. These outline what authors should look for at each level, and what you can expect from the editor you hire. Editors certified by Editors Canada are tested to ensure they are knowledgeable about these standards and can demonstrate their skills. Psst … I have my proofreading certification!)

The end goal is always to make the material consist and clear, and verify that its content, language, and style suit its purpose and is audience-appropriate. Submitting your work to an editor can be a daunting step, but remember this above all: Never (never!) will a good editor make changes to the detriment of your style—but you also be open to constructive feedback.

Now that we got all that out of the way, let’s answer the question …

WHEN DO I NOT NEED ONE?

Editing is a crucial step in the writing process, and deciding to hire an editor before the work is ready can be detrimental to the entire project. Not to mention paying for unnecessary services can make a big dent in that nest egg.

So, before you make the investment, when can you put the credit card away?

1. RIGHT AFTER THE FIRST DRAFT.

It’s said time and again, but first drafts are always a horrible mess. Revise that yourself! After all, it is likely a first draft will need some major revisions, so strike while the passion still flows. For some, this may even feel like you are still writing the book, and an editor is definitely not ready to step in.

By taking the time to learn to self-edit, the better you’ll be at identifying weak spots, spotting repeated words and phrases, and recognizing redundancies. (To name a few.) Self-editing will also help improve your writing overall. And who doesn’t want that?

2. DOING SMALL TWEAKS TO FIT VARIOUS REQUIREMENTS FOR JOURNALS AND PUBLICATIONS.

These are likely your most polished pieces anyways, and you may have even sent them to an editor before. So, if you are making small tweaks to fit one publication’s word count over another, don’t worry about hiring a professional. Again, rely on your own skill set.

As an author, your job is also to work with words and language, and I’m willing to bet you know more than you think. (But! If shopping an unpublished manuscript to agents and publishers, you may want to consider paying for an evaluation or thorough copy edit.)

3. GUEST POSTS.

Many writers (and editors) share guest posts across platforms. These are sometimes done on a tight turnaround, and likely don’t need a professional editor. (It may even cost you more in the long run!) Established bloggers, however, may plan their posts far in advance and hire copy editors or proofreaders to ensure the information they are sending their audience is polished and clear.

That said, people don’t want to read a typo-riddled blog post, so be sure to read it through a few times yourself. Even get a friend to do so as well. Programs like Grammarly, The Hemingway App, or PerfectIt are also a big help in making sure you make the right impression online. (Sometimes, even the old-fashioned way of taking a red pen to paper is best.)

4. ESSAYS OR WORK-RELATED DOCUMENTS.

The concerns are similar to many of those above. You have a short essay, chapter summary, or long memo, and you want it to be awesome. I get it. I’ve been there. But save your pennies. Use the programs mentioned above, and learn to edit your own work. When hiring a professional editor you are also paying for their time, and (unless they specialize in student work) they may not be available within such a constricted time frame.

Graduate students, however, may want to hire an editor for their thesis papers. These require a lot of time and effort and may help determine your career path. Those are some big stakes, and the investment will be worth it in the long run.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Be selective in choosing an editor. Know first what they specialize in, so you can rest assured they are the right fit for your work. Many (myself included) offer free sample edits to help figure out whether their skills match your project, and if you will have a good working relationship.

Also, know that you get what you pay for. Free and cheap may equate someone who is a novice, so look for quality and vetted freelancers. This is your work and your passion—and you are so worth the investment!

Write soon,

Jennifer

P.S. Don't forget to download the four types of editing reference guide!