Editing: Finding the Right Words

dripping red inkWe need new words for all the things we mean when we say the word “editing.”

Proofreading is a separate word for a separate process and yet I’ve seen the word editing used where the writer clearly means finding and correcting spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors. Let’s all agree not to call that editing. It is proofreading.

Professional editors may divide editing into even finer gradations, but I practice two: line editing and developmental editing.

A line editor ensures that each word is the right word, that each sentence says what you mean, the best it can be said. They make sure that each paragraph is properly constructed. And they do it all without stripping your voice from your writing or overlaying theirs.

A developmental editor looks at the big picture. Their job is to determine if the book as a whole is a whole. Are there sections or chapters missing? Does everything happen in the right order? (This applies to both fiction and nonfiction.) Is there extraneous material?

A developmental editor will tell you if your novel contains the 12 essential waypoints in storytelling. They will tell you if your business book clearly teaches the points you’re trying to convey in the most effective manner. The developmental editor’s job is to determine in the broadest perspective whether or not your book works. Then, in either case, to offer suggestions and refinements to make it the best version of your intent.

For the record, I love developmental editing, do not get excited about line editing, and loathe proofreading. I am blessed with the availability of the best proofreader I have ever known and an excellent editor qualified to perform both line and developmental editing.

Order! Order in the Editing!

It is important to have all these variations of manuscript tidying in the right order. Here are my recommendations.

When you complete the first draft or even the outline, get the opinion of a developmental editor. At this point the depth and cost of the consultation will probably match the volume of your material. A 60,000 word first draft of your sci-fi epic is a big investment in time and effort for the editor. A three-page outline of your business book idea will be significantly less time and cost.

The earlier you involve a developmental editor, the better. This applies to both fiction and nonfiction. While some editors focus on one or the other, it is not unusual that the skill set that creates a natural developmental editor can see the structure of either fiction or nonfiction clearly. Earlier involvement will allow the editor to identify critical flaws and steer you in the right direction before things are carved in stone.

Even before this point, consider my Pathfinding Session to make important choices about your book before you even begin.

After a first round of high-level developmental editing, it doesn’t hurt to involve your developmental editor as you complete the first draft, if you’re working from an outline, or the rewrites if you’re working from a first draft.

When you have a complete manuscript let the developmental editor review it again. If all is well it’s ready for line editing and proofreading.

By you.

Regardless of your ability to spell and comfort with punctuation and grammar you should take the first responsibility for cleaning up this manuscript. (You didn’t go back to fix typos, punctuation, or grammar while you were writing, did you? Proofreading while you write is like baking the ingredients and then assembling a cake. When you write, write — and nothing else.)

Going over your own work with a critical eye will help you catch pet phrases which should be banished, chronic apostrophic errors, and spelling inconsistencies (for instance, you may have spelled Fearghal’s name four, yes four, different ways in your latest Irish mystery.) Besides acting as a form of self-education, the more you clean up the manuscript, the less work it will be for the editors and proofreaders to come. Less work means less cost.

Once you have tidied it to your heart’s content (or to your stomach’s knots) it’s time to pass it on to a line editor. For some reason many authors are tempted to have proofreading done first or earlier in the process at least. There is no reason to carefully proofread and correct words, sentences, or paragraphs which may not survive the editor’s pen.

A good line editor will do a reasonably good job of proofreading as part of their cost. When they are finished your manuscript should be complete, only requiring the fastidious and careful eye of a proofreader.

The proofreader, like the editors, will make recommendations using perhaps the Track Changes feature in Microsoft Word or some other agreed upon method. It is always best for the author to review and then accept or yes, reject, recommendations.

A proofreader may know spelling, punctuation, and grammar better than you. But there may be cases where unusual spelling or technically incorrect grammar or punctuation is intentional. This is a case where if you know the rules well enough, you know when and where it is acceptable, even prudent to break them.

The same is true of an editor’s recommendations. When we’ve hired an expert for their expertise, it only makes sense to accept their recommendations. Unless, of course, we know better. Which is both the author’s prerogative and responsibility.

Trust these folk’s professional expertise and balance it with your artistic sensibilities. It’s a balancing act.

If you’re unsure of something, trust them.

But when you are absolutely positive that your way is the right way, that’s your call because this is your book.

Isn’t That A Lot of Work?


It is well worth it. Worth the effort. Worth the time. Worth the cost.

My first mystery, Through the Fog, was all me. Having worked with my fantastic editor, Tom, and flawless proofreader, James, on A Long, Hard Look, it is far superior to my first effort.

If you’re writing for friends and family, for what we might call local, personal distribution, invest whatever level of effort and money you’re comfortable with.

If you intend to charge total strangers money to read your work, you owe them a valuable learning experience in your nonfiction or a palpable vicarious experience in your fiction.

Do it well and your fans will thank you. So will your self-esteem.

6 thoughts on “Editing: Finding the Right Words

  1. Great article Joel. You went over 1,000 words, but who’s counting? (lol). But it had to be told in its entirety.

    Tom is a good editor and his prices are market value. I just had him bid me a price.

    I’m thinking of having him do work on The Golden Scepter in October. It’s about 90k words. Time to save my money!

  2. However your point was succinct. The MAIN complaint with self-published authors on Amazon reviews is the editing….or lack thereof. I still can’t believe some of our fellow self-published authors are too lazy to click ‘spell check’ on their manuscripts.

    I understand professional editing is the biggest expense for an indie author book. But it’s a necessary evil. If you REALLY can’t afford to hire a professional, then have peers or friends do it, but just DO IT!!

  3. Good editing is worth every penny it costs.

    But even a minimal check using MS Word’s spelling and grammar check would improve many of the indie books I’ve seen.

    For self-published books to begin to be perceived as quality writing, they don’t need to be as good as traditionally published books, they need to be better.

  4. Joel, I both appreciate the generous mention and the overview of editing distinctions (which is better than the one I tried to give a potential client yesterday).

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