You’ve probably heard at least one fellow writer claim that s/he doesn’t have to worry about spelling or grammar or even plot-holes because, once the book is accepted by a publisher, the editor will fix any errors. Maybe that was true before typewriters were invented, but it wasn’t true when my agent was sending my first novel out to publishers 27 years ago.
The hard truth is that, unless you’re already a bestseller or a major celebrity with an established audience, no agent or editor will even look at your book unless it’s already well written and well-edited.
In traditional publishing, agents and editors are marketers: agents “sell” manuscripts to editors, who “sell” the books to the rest of the editorial staff before making the author an offer to publish. (Once the book is published, the bookstores, not the publishers, are the ones that literally sell the books to readers.) Agents and editors simply don’t have time to edit a book, especially not for unproven authors. And if you self-publish, your readers will expect your work to have the same quality editing that traditionally published books have.
That means whether you’re looking for agent representation, submitting directly to publishers, or planning to self-publish, anyone who reads your book has to be completely engaged by your story, has to like your writing, and should never notice that there’s anything that needs to be changed, i.e., edited. Good editing is essential for all books, but there are lots of different kinds of editing, only some of which is done by traditional publishers.
If you’ve taken a creative writing class, attended a writing conference, or turned your manuscript over to beta-readers or members of a critique group, you’ve been exposed to developmental editing. This type of editing helps you write your book better, whether it’s fiction, memoir, or nonfiction.
Developmental editing is important at a very early stage in the book’s development, after the first or second complete draft. A professor, published author, beta-reader, or critique group member will point out areas where you could strengthen your plot or make characters more realistic, indicate where you should delete or add dialogue, or show you how to emphasize certain themes that would make the book richer.
If these readers are experienced in literary criticism or creative writing terminology, they might be able to help you improve the book’s point of view or its symbolism. All these things are developmental editing since they develop the book’s story or improve the writing style. Anyone skilled in writing and reading can serve as a developmental editor, but the more skilled and experienced you yourself become as a writer, the less developmental editing you’ll need.
Unless you’re a celebrity who wants to reach a wider audience by writing a book, or a proven bestseller who wants to change genres, developmental editing is not what happens once a book is accepted by a traditional publisher. All story development and its associated revisions need to take place before a book is ever sent to agents or editors. The editing that happens in a traditional publishing House is only done on a book that is considered “complete,” i.e., no substantive changes are going to be made to the book’s story or to the writing itself.
Editing will take place, and it will be intensive, but all the work done by editors at traditional publishing Houses is done to books that are already under contract for publication. That means that unless you’re already traditionally published or had a book accepted by a major House, you’ll probably never hear the terms that apply to the kind of professional editing that your book would receive there: copy editing and line editing.
Let’s take a look at what these different levels of editing are.
In publishing, the “copy” is the text, whether it is an article for a magazine, a poem or a story in an anthology, or an entire book, so “copy editing” is done to the text itself, but it is not developmental editing. Copy editing does not help you with your story — not with its plot line, pacing, character development, dialogue, symbolism, or themes. All that kind of writing and revision needs to happen before you submit a book to a copy editor.
Copy editing is done on a book that the author considers ready for publication.
In traditional publishing, copy editing only takes place once a book has a publishing contract. Since the acquisitions editor reads for plot, character development, and writing style, it is the House copy editor who looks for inconsistent verb tenses, incorrect pronoun-antecedent agreement, or errors with commas, semi-colons, colons, or quotation marks. The copy editor might also note words that are repetitive/redundant and suggest alternatives; likewise, there may be stylistic suggestions to improve the book’s writing, but these will be few at this stage of editing.
After a book is copyedited, the author goes over the book again, accepting or rejecting the copy editor’s proposed changes, answering any questions posed by that editor, and clarifying things if necessary. The copy editor will review these before the book moves any closer to publication.
Line editing happens after copy editing. The book is considered almost ready to be designed, either as an e-book, a paper book, or both. Before that design, however, a line editor goes through the manuscript with a metaphorical fine-tooth comb, looking for absolutely anything that is not perfect.
A line editor pays special attention to transitions, vocabulary usage, and style, making final changes that will improve the quality of the book’s writing. A line editor also tracks a novel’s scenes, looking for any inconsistencies in setting, for instance, such as changes, within the same scene, in time of day, weather, characters’ clothes, or furnishings of any rooms the characters are in.
All line editing must be completed before the book is laid out for print since it is costly to re-design a book. The author is expected to review each suggestion made by the line editor before the book is sent to the designer.
In traditional publishing, the author is not permitted to make substantive changes to the story or writing once the book has been copy edited. By the time the book has been line edited, it is considered almost perfect and is ready for submission to the book designer, so the author certainly cannot rewrite anything.
If you are self-publishing and make substantive revisions to the story or to the book’s writing after the book has been copyedited or line edited, then you should have the new version of the book copyedited and line edited again.
No doubt you know what proofreading is, which some people mistakenly call “editing,” and you probably also know if you’re good at catching your own mistakes, even if they’re only typographical errors that wouldn’t prevent a reader from figuring out what you meant.
When traditional publishing Houses talk about proofreading, they mean the final check for any typographical errors after the book is laid out in its final, designed format. All front matter (title page, dedication, acknowledgments, copyright page, etc.) and end matter (index, footnotes, bibliography, discussion questions, author’s note, author biography, etc.) have been added, the book is paginated and has been designed by one of the House designers (the acquiring editor approves the cover art, the internal typefaces, etc.) and absolutely no rewriting of any kind is permitted.
Even though someone at the House will proofread the book for a final time before it goes to the printer, it is ultimately the author’s responsibility to proofread the book for the very last time. For that reason, any typographical errors are blamed on the author, not on any of the book’s editors. If you are publishing your book yourself, you will need to have someone else proofread your book after it is laid out for print, even if you plan to publish only an e-book version, before you do a final read-through yourself.
As an author, you have control of the quality of your product by telling a great story with such compelling characters that the readers can’t put your book down. After you’ve done that, good editing is essential because editors ensure that everything flows smoothly and nothing jolts the readers out of your story and back into their own lives.
If you’ve seen reader reviews, you’ve read the comments about a story not being believable, about dialogue not being realistic, or about a book’s becoming boring. Reader reviews are quick to point out that a book would have been improved if it had been a great deal shorter.
And while it’s true that those kind of comments are in reviews for both traditionally and self-published books, when a book has been poorly edited, readers are quick to leave scathing reviews about bad writing, poor or non-existent editing, and the author’s lack of education or intelligence.
Bad reviews can hurt sales, so good editing is good marketing because it allows readers to concentrate on your great story instead of on the physical quality of the book itself.
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Dr. Alexandria Szeman
Dr. Alexandria Szeman is an award-winning author who founded her own publishing house after retiring from University where she was a Professor of Creative Writing, World Literature, and Professional & Technical Writing. After learning book design and distribution, Alexandria began publishing other authors. The advent of e-books allowed Alexandria to put her own out-of-print books back into the market while allowing her to continue to publish fellow literary authors in all genres
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Rachel Thompson is the author of newly released BadRedhead Media 30-Day Book Marketing Challenge: How to energize your book sales in a month - created to help authors market their book. She is also the author of Broken Places (one of IndieReader's "Best of 2015" top books and 2015 Honorable Mention Winner in the San Francisco Book Festival), and the multi award-winning Broken Pieces, as well as two additional humor books, A Walk In The Snark and Mancode: Exposed. She owns BadRedhead Media, creating effective social media and book marketing campaigns for authors. Her articles appear regularly in The Huffington Post, IndieReader.com, The San Francisco Book Review (BadRedhead Says…), 12Most.com, BookPromotion.com, and Self-Publishers Monthly. Not just an advocate for sexual abuse survivors, Rachel is the creator and founder of the hashtag phenomenon #MondayBlogs and two live Twitter chats: #BookMarketingChat (co-hosted with TheRuralVA, Emilie Rabitoy) and #SexAbuseChat, co-hosted with C. Streetlights and Judith Staff. She hates walks in the rain, running out of coffee, and coconut. She lives in California with her family.
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