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Editorial Services Explained: How the Industry Thinks about Editing, and How You Should Think about It Too
Contributor
Written by
Brooke Warner
August 2015
Outlining
Contributor
Written by
Brooke Warner
August 2015
Outlining

This summer I listened in on an editorial panel at a writers’ conference where I’d been invited to speak. The room was packed with aspiring authors who wanted answers to their editorial questions. There were only four panelists, but ten minutes in, I started to feel the discomfort of the audience with what seemed like contradictory answers to the moderator’s questions. It was clear the writers were flustered by the nuance and variety of the editors' answers.

The problem with editorial work is that it’s subjective. No two editors are the same. Chicago Manual of Style is an editor’s bible, but it’s okay to break the rules sometimes, and consistency reigns. Editors edit at different speeds. Some are fast and some aren’t. Some charge by the word and some by the hour. Some editors cannot edit if they haven’t read the whole manuscript first; some editors can. Some people profess to be editorial professionals, but they’ve never taken a Chicago Manual of Style course, have never worked in publishing, and have never worked on a traditionally published book. Editors’ rates vary so much it’s shocking. Some experienced editors charge $30/hour while others (with possibly less experience) command upwards of $300/hour.

When one of the editors on the panel I attended started to describe what she thought the difference was between copyediting and line editing, I sort of checked out. I empathized with the audience because to me these are synonymous. A quick online search can add to your confusion, too, since people talk about editing in lots of different ways. 

The following breakdown mirrors how the industry thinks about editing. There are three distinct levels:

Developmental/Substantive Editing, which addresses the following:

  • Structural issues (reorganizing, cutting, expanding)
  • Plot flow
  • Sequencing
  • Pacing
  • Point of view
  • Dialogue, scene, and character development
  • Narrative and character arcs
  • Transitions
  • Any other big-picture questions an author has about whether his or her book “works” as is

 

Copyediting/Line Editing, which addresses the following:

  • Adherence to The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition
  • Grammar
  • Punctuation
  • Syntax
  • Minor language repetition
  • Spelling

 

Proofreading, which addresses the following:

  • Adherence to The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition
  • Punctuation and grammatical errors remaining or introduced after copyedit is complete
  • Formatting errors/inconsistencies
  • Spelling

 

Another separate editorial service many editors offer is an assessment. An assessment is a read-through of the work, what some might call a “cold read.” Only an assessment involves a written account of what’s working and what’s not, with the intention to help the author figure out how to revise, where to cut, and also to help them see what they’re doing well.

It’s possible that an author could opt for each of these services, likely in this order: assessment, developmental edit, copyedit, proofread. The problem for most authors is that doing all four is expensive, and sometimes—oftentimes—an assessment is inherently part of a developmental edit, but not always. Authors would benefit from an assessment from an editor before they start working with them, to discover whether or not they have a meeting of the minds with that editor, based on the feedback and suggestions. I think more editors than do should offer coaching services—connecting with the author verbally about their thoughts and opinions, guiding authors through the journey of making their book stronger, better, more salable.

I’ve seen editors who are so concerned with saving their clients money that they actually end up doing the author a disservice, editing the book less than it needs to be edited. I’ve seen authors so concerned with the cost of editing that they simply fail to get edited. They might opt for one editorial pass, but nothing else. A developmental edit without a final proofread is a disaster. You are not hiring a developmental editor to do a proofread. They might be qualified to do a proofread, but those are two separate skill sets, and two separate jobs. Just because someone has the title of “editor” also doesn’t mean they’re qualified to do every kind of editing. There are those talented editors who can do any level of edit, but most editors have a specialty—and in the best of circumstances, they stick to what they know best. 

It’s a reality check for many authors just how much editorial work may be needed before their manuscript is publish-ready. And editorial work is largely undervalued. Most authors expect to pay good money for design. Less so for editorial work.  Many authors think that because they’re a good writer, they’re a good editor. Not so. I’ve had writers tell me they don’t think they need an edit because they’ve taught writing. Believing you can be the editor of your own work is presumptuous at best. It’s important to remember that you don’t have distance from your own work when you've been toiling away at your project for months or years. Few people have the discernment required to execute a final draft of a manuscript that only needs a proofread. 

Here are some best editorial practices to consider:

  1. Never shop or publish a work without getting at least two levels of editing.
  2. Adjust your feelings about what you think editorial work should cost. It’s the best money you’ll ever spend.
  3. Ask an editor you’re considering engaging if they’ll do a “sample edit.” This doesn’t mean an unpaid sample, but you can get a one- to five-hour example of what their editorial comments would look like to see if you like their style before you have them edit your whole manuscript.
  4. Ask an editor if they'll talk to you by phone. Have a conversation with them. Ask them about how they work and if they’ve worked on books in your genre before. Ask them what appeals to them about working on your manuscript in particular.
  5. Ask for references. Some editors may not need references, if they’re coming recommended from someone you know, or if their reputation precedes them. But if you’re hiring someone off of a freelance site, amid a bunch of other names, you want to find out what published works they’ve edited and see if you can talk to a couple of their previous clients.

What kind of editorial experiences have you had? Have they been positive or negative? Have you been surprised by how much editing you’ve needed? I’d love to hear.

As a supplement to this post, see Annie Tucker's "Grammergency #6: Help! I Need an Editor" from February.

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Comments
  • Lea Galanter

    It's not so much the problematic money mindset but the editing field/business in today's world. Seems like anyone can hang up a shingle as an editor, and there are sites where editing projects go to the lowest bidder (and you get what you pay for). Makes it tough when inexperienced authors go into sticker shock at the cost of an experienced, qualified editor. Hence, the need to show the author what you can do with their text. But once they see the improvements, they become permanent clients (so far, mine have). I speak only of the process for the independent editor as I know it.

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Ha ha. May be time to change your policies, Lea. Just saying. No one has ever pushed back on this. And they prepay. I think editors have a problematic money mindset, but that's a topic for another post.

  • Lea Galanter

    Say, Brooke, can I work for you? This is the first I've heard of being paid to provide a sample -- sure I'd do a lengthy one if I were paid for it! I don't know of other editors who charge for a sample (doesnt't mean there aren't editors who do, but I haven't yet come across it). That's why I limit my time to an hour.

  • Linda Kass

    Brooke, as usual you have translated a confusing process into understandable and actionable terms. Most importantly, a writer needs to have at least a modicum of distance from her work to approach editing feedback with openness.

  • Mardith Louisell

    Great layout of categories and advice, even for an editor. Love the analogy of tennis and golf lessons. What about personal trainers?  That's what editors are - personal trainers.

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Susan, you're lucky to have received all three levels. Good luck with your publication! And congratulations.

    Lea, just to clarify, I'm not suggesting that editors give free samples. Our She Writes editors do paid samples, sometimes up to five hours. I would never edit for free, not even for one hour. I think people are willing to pay for a sample. No one has ever balked, so you might want to change your policy. :)

  • Lea Galanter

    Regarding doing a sample, yes, always ask for one. I always offer if the person doesn't know to ask. It also gives me a chance to assess their level of writing. One thing, though, is that the sample should be one to five *pages* not one to five hours. I won't spend five hours of my time providing free editing -- that's half a day's wages for an independent editor. The sample should take about an hour of the editor's time. The writer should pay careful attention to how the editor provides feedback (with great respect for the writer) and whether they maintain the author's voice when editing. The writer should be excited about the suggestions and improvements, not demoralized!

  • Lydia Sherrer

    Wonderful post! I knew most of these things generally already, but this was a good summary and bringing everything together. I'm currently looking for an editor and it is so hard! It is a LOT of money to spend and I'm so worried about spending it on the wrong person. Thanks for the help.

  • Jenni Ogden Writing

    Yes this is very helpful. Let me add the name of my own editor, who I think is fantastic; Philippa Donovan of Smart Quill Editorial services, previously in London but she has now moved to LA. On her website, under rates, she outlines a number of different editorial and assessment/referral services she has, with the costs, which I think is very helpful. She is always open to ongoing comment and very responsive to e-mails etc. The URL for her informative website is http://smartquilleditorial.co.uk. Her rates, I think, are very reasonable, and in the developmental assessments (Pointer Reports) she has done for me, her insights so incredibly helpful and insightful.

  • Michelle Cox

    Thanks for breaking it down, Brooke!

  • susan imhoff bird

    having my soon-to-be-released book go through the editing process with my publisher was incredibly painful and humbling. yet I learned things I'd never---in my twenty years of writing, receiving positive feedback from my writing group, winning an award---known. or even, sometimes, considered. what my editor did for my book existed on all three levels you detailed in your post, and I was intensely involved in the entire process:  at one point I told her I felt like I'd done the work of a super-condensed MFA!  editors are absolutely a writer's shadow side, teaching the writer not only about the project, but about the writer herself.

    thanks for the in-depth assessment.

  • Zetta Brown

    Thanks, Sakki. I hope people like working with me. I'm not an ogre, but some are just too attached to their work and are not ready for any critique, even when they say they are and are paying for it.
    Dealing with editors and the editing process is one of the reasons why I started the [REALITY CHECK] blog to let people get an idea of what it's really like, and it's the reason behind my Zetta's Desk blog.

  • Thanks for this informative post, Brooke. And Zetta, the comments on your editing style remind me of some critique groups I've attended where any addressing substantive issues--from misunderstanding the need for paragraphs, to asking how to help someone has only written three chapters in six years--is considered "not respectful of the process." Zetta, sounds like anybody who gets an edit from you is lucky! 

  • Pamela Olson

    I'm the same way, Catherine, as far as setting a price limit for the whole job. I actually enjoy editing, and there's nothing as painful for me as leaving an editing job less than thoroughly and well done! And yet I don't want to hit authors with a larger-than-expected bill due to my obsessive-compulsive nature... I guess that's both the joy and the "problem" of doing something you love for a living.

    http://pamolson.org/Editing.htm

  • Nancy Chadwick Writing

    Great post, Brooke. Very informative to every author, from their first draft to final manuscript.

  • Zetta Brown

    Thanks, Brooke--and thanks for the endorsement, Liz! Whenever you want to Skype, just let me know, or drop me a line. :D

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Thanks for your insider two cents, Zetta, and for being one of SW's recommended editors!

    Good comparisons, Catherine, and exactly. I've also seen so many writers embarrassed of what they put out in the world, all of which could have been prevented. Many people realize the value they should have put on editorial after-the-fact. Tough lessons.

  • Catherine Hiller

    This is excellent advice, Brooke, and I will save it to send to new potential clients. I'm both a novelist and an editor, deriving most of my income from the latter. With authors reluctant to spend money, I sometimes ask, "How much per hour do you spend on your tennis (or golf or music) pro?  Don't you think your writing is as important as your hobby?" As to fees, I look at a sample 10 pages or so then suggest a price for the whole job.  This frees me from "clocking in," which makes me feel like an assembly-line worker, and also reassures the author that there will be no surprises. 

  • Liz Gelb-O\'Connor

    I can vouch for Zetta, she has edited 3 of my books, and she's awesome :-) Z, miss chatting with you over Skype! And you always provided more in your line edit than Brooke outlined above.  

  • Zetta Brown

    I agree that an author should do what they can to get professional editing help, and not because I'm an editor. I'm also a writer and I know the value of having at least another pair of eyes analyze my work.

    The quality of your work affects your reputation, and your name is your reputation. How valuable is your name to you?

    I'm more than happy to provide sample edits or talk to clients, but I've been told that I'm a "hard" editor or a "mean" editor because I go into detail. Some appreciate it, but other's don't. They see it as slamming their work. I didn't stroke their ego enough. You shouldn't have to pay someone to get your ego stroked, if that's what you really want.

    For example, I had someone tell me that my detailed edits are more suited for a college course than for an author trying to get published. My notes would intimidate an author and discourage them to write. I should say that this comment came from a PUBLISHER who is also an author! Apparently I was picking up things other editors never brought to her attention--so why is it an issue now?

    Why am I saying this? Because I take pride in my work and my level of service. When I edit for someone, I'm not just sharing my knowledge of grammar and punctuation but also my knowledge of literature and literary analysis. 

    I figure that if you are going to pay me your hard-earned money, you better get your money's worth. In the end, I want to help serious writers polish their work and help them see their work published and (hopefully) praised.