A Holistic Description of the Editing Process

cutting up a manuscriptBeta read, proof-read, copy edit, line edit, stylistic edit, substantive edit, aunt Mary’s read-through: you name it. Ask just about anybody what the different types of editors are called, and they’ll give you a different answer. And why should we care? We can’t afford them anyway.

Knowledge of these various functions can be applied to our own self-editing process and make us better writers. So… we can’t afford four different editors. We should be sitting ourselves down at various stages of the writing process and making certain decisions, whether we have help or not.

Chronology and Value

The main reason we want to nail these chores down to some degree is that authors and editors need contracts that set out the responsibilities of each. But by an amazing coincidence, it turns out that the decisions that are made earlier in the writing process have the most impact on the eventual success of the book, and therefore the quality of the advice we receive at each stage can be treated with appropriate respect.

To a great extent, this value is based on how much the editor knows about the art of story-telling (and the effect on a great number of readers) at one end, and how much he knows about the mechanics of writing (and the effect on that picky English teacher you had in Grade 11) at the other. And all the other editors are somewhere in between. Here’s a list:

1. The Acquisitions Editor

This is a very important editor that Indie writers don’t have to worry about, although we should. This person works for a publisher and looks over the best of the submitted manuscripts to decide whether they will sell. We Indies do this all at once in a fleeting gush of enthusiasm the moment we think up the idea for the book. Then we forget it. We shouldn’t. Because this guy knows the market. He knows what the reader wants. He can tell us what section of the reading public will buy our book. His talent is more of an art than any job that decides how to spend millions of dollars should ever be; he ranks right up there with the people who write the Federal budget.

Anyway, we should do a lot of this type of thinking before we put one word on the page. Because once we start writing, we’re hooked. It’s our baby, and nobody’s gonna tell us it won’t sell!

2. Developmental, Substantive, or Content Editor

This person should start much earlier in the game than any writer wants. He can come in when the story is only a gleam in the writer’s eye, an idea that came to you one Sunday morning as you lay in bed waiting for the hangover to go away. He works on the whole book, breaking it down in large chunks, some of which may not be written yet. He considers the readers’ experience as they read the book. What if your MS contains two very distinct sections and would be much better written up as two separate books? (This happened to me. Twice. Is there a message here?) That is a developmental problem to be solved before writing progresses any further.

The developmental editor is aware, probably more than the author is, that the story has a message that the author communicates to the readers by taking them on an emotional journey. That allows them to experience the ideas the author is discussing. Without this emotional journey, the author is only a lecturer, and only university students are stupid enough to pay to sit through a lecture. So the main concern at the developmental stage is the thematic material (what the author wants to say) and the emotional path (how the reader will feel). This includes character development over the story and suspense created through the development of the conflict.

This is the most valuable form of editing. One hour with a good developmental editor might turn your book into a bestseller. One hour of proof-reading might turn up a dozen grammar errors. You do the math.

3. Copy, Line, or Content Editor (Yes, that one’s in there twice)

Once the story has been set on rails, the writer can get at it. Unless you need guidance or have serious stylistic issues, you shouldn’t need any help for a while. However, once the book is in first draft form (and let me emphasize that this means the author’s seventeenth or thirty-ninth draft) it’s time for a copy or line edit. Now we’re looking at it chapter-by-chapter. Although the developmental editor did this in general, we’re now being specific. Are the chapters in the best order? Why is this chapter in the book? Does this chapter have an idea and the appropriate emotional flow to demonstrate that idea?

We also go paragraph-by-paragraph. Does this paragraph contain a single idea? Is it clear what that idea is? Does the paragraph contain sentences of varying lengths? And all the while we’re watching the progress of the plot and the characters’ personalities, to make sure there are no holes, errors, or unexplained jumps. We also go into sentence structure, vocabulary, flow of language and all that, especially if there’s a problem.

4. Proofreader

Once the story is straight, we go completely technical. We do a proofread based on the mechanics of writing. The Chicago Manual of Style, or whatever. To a greater degree, this work could be done by anyone. Except for matters of consistency (how characters’ names are spelled), different people could do different chapters and still clean the MS up properly.

And somewhere in the middle there is the Stylistic Editor. I hope somebody else covered his job, because changing your own writing style is one of the most difficult jobs there is.

And the Problem?

As you have perhaps figured out, the Indie writing process is completely skew-if. We get an idea and write a book, and after it’s done we decide who the audience is and what genre we can shoehorn it into. We complete the book, then take it to an editor who can tell us the mistakes we made at the start, mistakes that are now so ingrained into the writing that only major surgery will cure them. We use beta readers who don’t see the book until it’s too late for us to respond to anything they say.

But if we write enough books, sooner or later we get those varying editing functions ingrained into our writing process, and sooner or later we may even come up with a book worth reading.

May it be sooner, rather than later.

Author: Gordon Long

Gordon A. Long is a writer, editor, publisher, playwright, director and teacher. 
Learn more about Gordon and his writing from his blog and his Author Central page.

13 thoughts on “A Holistic Description of the Editing Process”

  1. Good insights here. Just two quibbles:
    1. “He” is more than likely “she” in today’s publishing world.
    2. Deciding whether whole chapters belong in there (and where) is the job of acquisitions editors — who are best positioned to discuss it with the author — or developmental editors consulting with acq eds, and really should never fall to a copyeditor unless someone skipped key steps.

    1. I agree with the “she” part. Most of the editors I know are women. (As, perhaps, are most authors, and definitely most readers.) As far as the generic pronoun, I’m of the philosophy that male writers should use “he” and female writers should use “she,” if only because there’s no other convenient way to do it.
      On the other hand, deciding who catches what error is fluid, which is one of my main points. That’s why I put the “content editor” in two different areas. I agree that, in general, the earlier you catch a structural error, the easier it is to fix.
      Come to think of it, the easier you catch any error, the easier it is to fix it, which is why I may contract to do a certain type of editing, but I will also tell the author if I see something else that needs fixing.

  2. -grin- I really enjoyed this particular ‘journey’, Gordon. As a pantster, I’m doing developmental editing on a regular basis and all I’ll say is – get some dedicated writing software to make the inevitable less painful!

    1. You know, as I get more experienced at writing, I find that what used to be “seat of the pants” is modified by my knowledge of structural considerations.
      I suppose the best writer is someone who can be creative while using an internalized structure.

  3. Isn’t the “Developmental, Substantive, or Content Editor” the same as a “book coach”? I’ve always been curious about this particular role in the writing / editing phase.

  4. Probably. Also “mentor,” “college professor,” or “Aunt Mary, if she really knows what she’s talking about.” At that stage of the writing process, the amount and form of help the writer receives is highly individualistic, depending on the needs of the book and the talents of the editor.
    As I said at the beginning, the names are immaterial, as long as the functions are filled.

  5. Thanks for this very informative article, Gordon. I guess a good (real not virtual) writers’ group is a plausible substitute for “Aunt Mary, etc”. if you can find one.

  6. What a great overview! I learned about all of these editorial hats after I had finished the umpteenth draft of my first novel. Thankfully, I had the wisdom to hire a substantive and copy editor. I ended up chopping thousands of words, moving a chapter, deleting another, and adding one as well.

    What I also discovered was that even with their help, there were errors that got missed, which I found through the help of my beta readers and my own proofreading time and again.

    Through all of the above, I gained a ton of knowledge, which I’m still building upon. The whole art and business of writing is an unending journey.

  7. A side-note about editing: all editing should be completed before you send your book off to the person who will be doing your interior layout/kindle conversion. Most times, authors are completely unaware of what goes on after they send their file off for formatting, but your designer has no desire to spend an hour or more making editing changes to your text. Since most layout professionals import your simple Word document into Adobe InDesign and then spend time carving out character styles, paragraph styles, and object styles, sending them an updated Word document is not the best practice. Finding an editor that knows his/her way around InDesign can be a plus in emergency underedited-file situations.

    I do allow a few corrections to be made. I mean, there is always the “typo that got away”. But extensive editing changes have to be billed at my hourly rate, which is generally more than an editor in the indie pub market charges.

    1. Thanks for a word from the “editor” I didn’t mention: the person who does the formatting.
      It’s the same as all the others; often when the MS gets to that stage, there are mistakes that have been made earlier on that are very hard to correct.
      My memorable blooper in that context was moving my MS from my laptop to my iPad, doing some work, then exporting it back. Word put in a whole bunch of formatting gobbledegook that the Smashwords Meatgrinder hated, and I couldn’t find.

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