Writer’s Toolbox: Editor Types and Skills

In “10 Things Your Freelance Editor Might Not Tell You—But Should by Brian Klems, he advises:

You should avoid the temptation to hire someone to edit your first draft.

I know you’re really excited that you finally finished that book! I’m happy for you…you should be happy for you. Celebrate it! But don’t send it to an editor yet. Put it away for three weeks and then reread, making notes on its strengths and weaknesses, asking yourself what’s missing, and flagging places where you find yourself skimming. Then rewrite the manuscript at least once—twice is better. Don’t bring in a professional until you have made the book the best you possibly can on your own. At this stage, you are still best equipped to take your book to the next level. Only when you’ve taken it as far as you can on your own will you get the most for your money in hiring a freelance editor.

Once you have reworked your draft until there is no more room for you in it, then it is time to take it to a professional.

Writers in the Grove

Writers in the Grove workshops offer time for reading and review of written work. Items are to be no longer than 4 minutes read out loud, and at least 18 photocopies to share with the members to edit. Edits are limited to encouragement and suggestions at the development stage, not serious editing markup. The process usually takes about 5-10 minutes, and the writer receives their copies back with notes and some verbal advice. These are done on a first-come, first-serve basis based upon the limited amount of time available.

Most published writers go through various editors and editing steps before publishing. Each step in the process is critical to the success of the published work, though not all work goes through each of these editor types.

The job descriptions of these editors are:

  • Editor: The editor has many roles, and may work with an author to improve their manuscript and develop a style guide to ensure consistency throughout the manuscript. This process may involve rewriting and editing copy to improve readability through language, spelling, punctuation, and syntax, though these tasks are typically taken by other editor types. Some editors oversee the entire publication process and may work with marketing and the author to promote the book, but this is typically the responsibility of the publisher, which could be the author as self-publisher.
  • Copy Editor: Copy editors review copy for errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar, check for readability and style. They also fact-check and verify story details, date, facts, and statistics. It is highly recommended that everything you prepare for publishing go through through copy edits.
  • Development/Developmental Editor: The development or developmental editor examines the plots and arcs in the story, ensuring consistency in presentation, form, voice, and style. Their job is not to rewrite the story but make the story consistent with all the core elements a good story demands. Their expertise is on development, ensuring the story is stuffed with all the conflict, excitement, and drama necessary to make it compelling. Another type of development editor is called a substantive editor. This person helps the writer by focusing on story elements, plot, characterization, dialogue, point of view, settings, scene orders, word choices, sentence structure and syntax, and strengthening the manuscript writing.
  • Line Editor: The line editor is the final editor to tackle the manuscript before publishing, you hope, after its been through all the other editors. Their job is to not discuss plot and arc, character building or dialogue as that is the responsibility of the development editor. Their job is to go through every sentence, check every word, and make sure that the manuscript is ready for publishing by checking spelling, grammar, punctuation, consistency, word usage, possibly some fact checking. While the copy editor does these things, too, it is the line editor that ensures each word works, and nothing will embarrass you after publishing.

Editors use a style guide or style sheet prepared by the author, sometimes in collaboration with an editor, on how the voice of the book is to be written and presented to maintain consistency.

The following is a breakdown of the specific tasks associated with each editor role. A professional editor may cover all these things, so I’ve not included them in this list. A reminder, these tend to be fluid descriptions as some editors specialize in one or more of these skills and roles.

Copy Editing

  1. Spelling and punctuation choices are consistent with the genre and style appropriate to the book’s setting and characters.
  2. Variant spellings, like anaesthesia or anesthesia, or colorful or colourful, or accent spellings for dialog/dialogue and writing style, are consistent throughout and in line with the book’s style guide, and included in the style guide for the manuscript.
  3. The manuscript is fact-checked, if applicable, to ensure that all historical, current events, names of people and places, weather, politics, and other references to real things are correct, or as right or close to the truth as possible. All quotes and references must also be verified.
  4. Chapter headings, subheads, parts, sections, quotes (blockquotes or pull-quotes), and other manuscript formatting areas are consistently styled throughout the document.
  5. All foreign words feature the correct accent marks, and are italicized if appropriate.

Development/Developmental Editing

  1. Plot and Arc
    • Does the story have a clear beginning, middle, and end?
    • Does the story start in the right place? Should it start earlier or later?
    • Does the plot have an arc? Is it clear? Are the significant turning points of the plot dramatized sufficiently to support the conflicts and resolution of the plot?
    • Does the manuscript offer consistent themes and motifs? Clearly defined? Define them.
    • Does the story follow a definable pattern of cause and effect, action and reaction?
    • Does every sentence have conflict? Does every paragraph have conflict? Does every page have conflict? Does ever scene have conflict? Does every chapter have conflict? Make sure they do.
    • How is foreshadowing used? Is each scene set up well and can the reader keep slightly ahead of the character, or slightly back so they are as surprised as the character?
  2. Characters
    • Does the protagonist have a clear arc, called a protagonist arc?
    • Does the protagonist face challenges and conflicts consist with character development and the plot arc?
    • Is all the background/exposition necessary to support the character and the plot included? Is there any backstory that can be cut or edited down?
    • Does the protagonist both win and lose something by the end of the story? Which is the greater win or loss? Should their be balance?
    • Are the other characters in the story deserving of their place? Do they all need names? Could they be consolidated? Minimized? Emphasized? Expanded?

Line Editing

  1. Language and Style
    • Check for redundancies and repetition. Eliminate repeated words or phrases that do not serve as an artistic effect. Look for clever phrases used repeatedly and cut them.
    • For fiction, cut all author intrusions in to the story, author commentary, editorializing, and pontificating. Let the characters tell the story.
    • Are the verbs and adjective details specific? Do they match the intention and intensity of each sentence and scene?
    • Cut out unnecessary words or sentences or filler dialogue? Ensure each one matters to the story.
    • Do paragraphs end on strong sentences, encouraging the reader to read the next paragraph and turn the page?
    • Are sentence and paragraph lengths varied throughout the manuscript?
    • Do the characters sound different from one other in thought and dialogue?
    • Is the narrator’s voice and diction consistent throughout the manuscript?
  2. Scenes
    • Is the setting clear and reflected in the details of the story, be it a place, time, culture, or age?
    • Are events narrated in real time and , whenever possible, in chronological order?
    • Do transitions between subjects, sections, and chapters move smoothly. Are they all necessary? How do transitions impact the pacing of the story? Are transitions across time and space clear to the reader?
    • Are the themes and motifs in the story obvious in the use of language, similes, and metaphors throughout the manuscript?

Where to Find Editors?

Finding and hiring an editor is no different from hiring an employee. You look for someone who has the right skill set, expertise, reputation, and experience, and interview them to ensure you and your written work is a good match for them.

Willamette Writers is a good source for finding editors, as is the agents and editors list from Pacific Northwest Writers Association, if you wish to keep your search local to the Pacific Northwest.

The Society for Editors and Proofreaders offers their Directory of Editorial Services, made up of their professional members. The Association of Freelance Editors, Proofreaders & Indexers also offers a list of their members who are professionally trained and experienced. The Editorial Freelancers Association is another member resource to highly skilled professionals.

There are many editors marketing themselves online. Search for them using keywords that describe your genre and writing style to narrow the results, and vet them thoroughly before trusting your precious work to their eyes and hands.

Here is some advice from a variety of experts about the editing process to help you along the path to publishing.

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