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 mlktrout@bellsouth.net.


MelThere 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.


  • It’s not often that I say, “I didn’t know all that,” but I kept saying that throughout this blog: aloud. This was an interesting and informative look at the process of writing. I once read Les Miserable, all 1200 pages of it, and more than once, lamented that he could have used a good editor. Now I know it would have been a substantive editor who might have said, “Victor, you took 600 pages to describe a priest, and frankly, it lags a bit.” In a different genre, I’ve often read detective/mystery novels that spend much time developing the “mystery” and then let it fall apart with badly executed ending. They build and build, and then It’s a sort of…Okay, the bad guy’s been caught, The End. That seems like a problem of follow through and completion. It’s as hard to finish a story, as it is to put the right amount of description, narrative and plot into it without making the reader want to carefully place the half-read book on the pile of other items for Goodwill.

    Mel does marvelous editing work. I know from experience how her editing, proof reading, and final editing can help a struggling writer find the voice she speaks of. It’s a nail-biting, gut twisting, head-banging experience that ends up producing something a person like me never believed possible.

    I’d like to ask Mel whether she finds editing fiction a lot different from editing non-fiction.Is there far more tracking of details involved in a fiction? You mention above how things can go awry over the course of the story. I’d contrast that with someone who submits something with a scientific basis or a report that’s based on their expertise or research.In this scenario, do you feel the need to understand the science behind it and try to verify its authenticity, or do you have to set that part aside, relying on them having done their homework, and concentrate on how they presented their facts?

    • Judy, I agree with you — Mel has given us a concise course in editing. Wish I had read this before I started writing my first novel.

      Despite enthusiastic feedback from friends and family on my first draft, I knew I was in uncharted territory as a novice author and I needed help. Hiring a professional editor took that unpolished version of my novel to another level, and we continued to work together through several revisions of the manuscript until we felt I could begin sending book proposals to agents and publishers. I wouldn’t think of submitting a manuscript again without having had it edited by a professional.

  • Thanks, Kay and Judy. In answer to Judy’s question, my non-fiction editing has been limited more to copy editing and proofreading. I’ve only done anything resembling substantive editing once with nonfiction. The author was newish and easy to work with, so that made it pleasant–and devotions are great to edit anyway, because I need all the devotions I can get. 🙂 But I love fiction best, because each fiction story is another world (doesn’t matter if it’s set on modern-day Earth), one created by the author, and I get access to it. There’s a story that a great sculptor was once asked how he made such gorgeous statues. He replied, “I take a big block of marble, and cut away everything that doesn’t look like the image I have in mind.” I love that, because editing is frequently like that–you take a story, and take out all the things keeping the story from being the story the author had in mind. Hope that makes sense.

  • Mel Hughes has written an exemplary piece on editing and editors. Thanks, Mel!
    It made me think about the many different things that have to (or at least should) be done to a manuscript before it is ready for a publisher to see. I’m wondering if Mel, or anyone else, has any experience with auxiliary methods to do some preliminary editing before putting an MS in the hands of a pro. Of course, most word processors already do some of that. For example, they do spell checking (but they probably won’t catch things like “Witch thai will he chews too ware tonight? That sentence has a lot of homophobes.”)
    Anyone have experience using grammar-checking or other kinds of editing software?

  • Hi Frank, and thanks for that question. Sorry for my late response. I have not used Grammarly.com, but I know a lot of people who have and who swear by it. Grammarly is mainly a PUGS catcher. There’s a free version and a paid upgrade. The problem with any software, though, is that it can’t recognize style or character speech. If there’s a South Boston character in your book and his speech is written to sound like Southie dialect, Grammarly will still think “cyaaah” is some horrible typo and not “car.”

    There are a lot of books on self-editing out there, too. “Revision and Self-Editing” by James Scott Bell is good. There are a few dozen books out there on self-editing–it’s separating the good stuff from the dreck that’s difficult. I used to buy every book I could find (and of course I ran up lots of credit card bills in the process). Now I won’t even consider buying a book on editing fiction if the author hasn’t written and SOLD a lot of fiction.

    The main problem with self-editing: it’s your own stuff. You may be too close to the problem to see it, and so it’s best to (no matter how much it hurts) put the MS away for a while and not look at it before you try. Bestselling author Stephen King won’t even try to edit one of his books without putting it in a drawer and keeping it there for 6-8 months. Cold reading really is best, but nobody wants to wait that long, sorry Stephen. So I recommend staying away from it about 2 months, and in the meantime, read everything ELSE you can get your hands on. Take so much in that you squish your own book out of your head.

    Hope that helps!

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