What Do Editors Do? By Mel Hughes
I’m thrilled that Mel Hughes has written this guest post for my blog. Mel is a wonderful freelance editor and provides us with a clear and entertaining definition of each type of editing. So much information packed into this one!
You can contact Mel at email@example.com.
There was a time before I knew what editors did. I thought the name sounded cool, and I knew it had something to do with words—but as to what it was…no clue. After all, if you Google “types of editors” you’ll find a thousand different definitions of what editors do. A lot of what people think of as editing is really proofreading or copy editing. Don’t get me wrong—proofreaders and copy editors are essential. A book full of typos is not a fun read, even if it’s a good story. I’ve read—or tried to read—some stories so full of typos that it would take a magician to decipher what the author was trying to say. A book full of homophones (words that sound the same but are spelled differently and mean different things) is also tough on my spine. “He through there chance away.” “Come to the alley at two—and be discrete.” Bleah! But those aren’t the only kinds of mistakes you will see as you read (or write). What about the beautiful blonde named Amanda on page 22 who was a flaming redhead named Miranda on page 78? Or the couple that was supposed to be biracial in a racist world, but were both white by the book’s midpoint? What about the airplane that started out as B17 from WWII in chapter 3 but had become a Boeing 77 by chapter 19? Or the guy who was taken captive in chapter 3 and spent the rest of the book trying to escape…from a cell that was four feet deep? (Yes, such mistakes are possible.)
So…we live in a world where anything is possible, and in the world of writing, there are people who can fix mistakes as easily as a mechanic can replace brake pads. In fact, there are multiple sorts of people who can fix the multiple sorts of errors writers make.
- Developmental editing is usually done while the book is somewhere in progress. The glory of this kind of editing is you can hire a developmental editor before you’ve written a word. A developmental editor helps you (wait for it) develop your book: ideas and themes, structure and organization. Developmental editors are typically brought in early in the process because it’s better to hear that your idea for “a Kafka-esque circus monkey who works nights as a hard-boiled detective” might run into some difficulty before you’ve written half the book. They don’t worry much about homophones or whether you’ll win the spelling bee; they’re concerned with ideas. They want to help you create a book that works. Developmental editors are also the most expensive editors.
- Substantive editors typically get a finished draft of the book. This editor will analyze what you’ve written and tell you the good and bad of it. If a character in chapter 18 acts in a manner totally out of keeping with the way he’s been written up till then, a substantive editor will point this out and advise you to provide a believable reason for his actions or rewrite the section. If you have a destitute girl’s car break down in New Mexico on p. 54 and on page 56 she’s in New York and still broke, the substantive editor will want to know how it happened. Substantive editors notice when things happen out of a logical order; they’ll also point out that the wife beater who becomes the hero of the book while not changing his treatment of his wife will probably not appeal to the author’s intended female audience. Substantive editors will also point out sagging sections, purple prose, and places where you took 148 words to say something you could’ve said in three. A substantive editor may fix your grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors, but is not obligated to.
- Copy editors are the famous red-pen carriers. They carry this name because they developed in the newspaper arena years ago, editing newspaper “copy” and advertisement “copy.” They are concerned with the infamous “PUGS”: Punctuation, word Usage, Grammar, and Spelling. If you said “more then ever” or “you must be, Varina,” it’s the copy editor you rely on to catch it.
- Line editors…are usually mentioned when someone means “copy editor.” In real life, line editors are more like substantive editors.
- Proofreaders are brought in last, when every word has been written and analyzed to death. Their job is to ensure there are no typos or other minor booboos in your text—although since many proofreaders read the text backwards, they probably won’t catch the dog on page 90 who has become a cat by the bottom of the next page. That’s just not what they are looking for—they’re looking for misspellings and and (heh heh!) repeated words and the like.
Don’t misunderstand me—just because there’s a distinct hierarchy in payment (and possibly in prestige) does not mean, for instance, that proofreaders and copy editors are less important than developmental or substantive editors. A beautifully developed novel that’s full of typos is just as hard to read as error-free text that tells a drab, emotion-free story. If you want the glory of seeing your name in print, do it right and work with the pros.
What does it cost? It depends on what you want done. To get a an idea of price ranges, visit the Editorial Freelancers Association, where they have posted rate guidelines (https://www.the-efa.org/rates/). Editors’ rates are frequently open to negotiation; don’t be afraid to ask.
If you’re lucky, you’ll find an editor who can honestly say “I do all kinds” and then who’s willing to put it into practice. I do it, and I’m not alone. There are several editors in the Christian PEN and/or the Christian Editor Connection (https://christianeditor.com/) who say, “I’m an editor” and that’s all. If you send a manuscript to them for a substantive edit, they’ll do it, but they’ll include fixing all your PUGS for free. Others are more specialized; if so, you may end up working with more than one to get your manuscript ready. That’s not a bad thing; frequently it’s a lot of fun.
One thing an editor should NOT do—ever—is change your voice. Every writer has a unique voice, and so does every editor. Do not let the editor change your voice to theirs’. The best editor for your project will make it the best it can be while keeping your voice intact.