Book Editing: The Definitive Guide to Finding the Right Editor

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Publishing is about product, writing is about process. ~ Emma Darwin

Why do you want any kind of edit?

Writing fiction is a unique creative exercise, because unlike every other creative art (except perhaps music), fiction depends on rules, guidelines and conventions – it depends on being recognized as fiction – and fiction depends on a special, learned complementary activity: reading.

You can write your work of fiction alone. If you have a massive reference library (paper, electronic or both); if you have been a voracious reader for many years; if you have had a thorough, intensive, deep literary education and if, most of all, you have a bottomless well of self-belief, you can write your fiction alone.

With the rise of e-readers and electronic publishing, it has become possible to publish your novel yourself. If you’re going to do this, then if you’ll excuse my presumption, you want to get it checked over for mistakes. But today, even traditional publishers expect you to submit a manuscript that has already been checked, at the very least, for basic errors of spelling, grammar and punctuation.

So you want an editor

If you don’t have a bottomless well of self-belief, then you also want to know if your book idea is worth pursuing; worth the many weeks of toil to turn it into a manuscript.

Once you’ve added those all important words The End to the final page, you want to know if your book is any good. Or if it sucks.

You may find all sorts of volunteers who can give you an opinion.

But there are also professionals, who will give you a whole lot more.

But what type of editor?

Broadly speaking, the professionals who can help you with your book can be divided into three skill sets, which I call high level editing, low level editing and proofreading. There are numerous terms for each of these skill sets in common currency, but very little consistency in their usage.

  • High level – High level editors are often called literary editors, content editors, developmental editors. Their skill set is focused on the Story. On structure, on plot, on characters, the understanding and the application of literary techniques, conceits and conventions.
  • Low level – Low level editors are often called copy-editors, line-editors, sometimes proofreaders. Their skill set is focused on the linguistic and cultural rules and guidelines that form the conventions of written communication: spelling, grammar, punctuation, layout.
  • Beta-reading (and proofreading) – Proofreading literally means “test reading”. The Indie and Self-published community usually calls this “beta-reading” – a term part borrowed from the lexicon of design. The skill set for beta-reading is to be able to read as a reader, but to explain or describe the reading experience to the writer.
  • Others – This article doesn’t cover paid reviews or similar “editorial reviews” like Kirkus, which are intended for books that are published or ready for publication.

High Level Edits: The Literary Editor

The role of the literary editor grew, very rapidly, out of the role of publishing editor. In traditional publishing, many publishing editors, commissioning editors, acquisitions editors and literary agents combine their commercial role with the role of literary editor. The literary editor’s role, in the broadest possible terms, is to help the writer to realize her book.

Book not manuscript.

The scope of the literary editor’s work is the book, not the manuscript. This is not only because literary editing arose from traditional publishing. It is because, perhaps even more so, in today’s self-publishing scrum, the author has to project manage every aspect of publication, and often wants or needs someone who can guide her through every stage of book production, from choosing which story idea to develop into a manuscript, right through to publication, marketing and promotion.

Why High Level Edit?

There are two obvious motives for seeking the aid of a literary editor. The many other reasons why my authors email, Skype, text or call me all seem to derive from these two motives:

  1. I don’t know what to do next. This can happen at any time during the creative process, though the example that occurs to new authors (and to those who’ve never worked with a literary editor) is that they have a big story concept (“Invasion of the Luddite Aliens”) but can’t see how to flesh it out into a story. The best solution for this may well be a discussion with both process and creativity oriented guidance from an expert.
  2. I don’t know what’s wrong with what I’ve done, but I assume something is. There are a number of variations on this, including: I think this is awesome but my friend, mother, significant other says it sucks and I want to know if that’s really true. Actually a lot of authors come to me because they’ve read or heard somewhere that a high level edit can be a very effective way of improving your book, even when nobody thinks anything is wrong with it.

What do you want from a high level edit?

Your high level editor will, depending on their preferred process, either focus on just the manuscript, or may focus also on the author, and/or the development and publication process. This is partly a matter of what clients usually ask for; but the demand for help beyond the current draft seems high, and I think you should want more than just a report on the characters and plot of your manuscript.

But what you want from your high level editor needs to be driven by your priorities, for the simple, if perhaps not obvious, reason that you will learn the most from an editor who is focused on what you want to know.

You should be expecting the editor to provide you with the results of an analysis both of the experience of reading the book and of the techniques you have employed, and you should be expecting the editor to show you what needs urgent fixing, and also where there are opportunities for improvement.

You should also be able to instruct your editor in your values, aims and ambitions as a writer.

An additional point to consider is the amount of contact both with you, and with your manuscript, that the editor is prepared to offer. My standard full content edit includes at least two 90 minute consultations. I also read your second draft. To my knowledge, most high level editors do not offer this. So find out.

The Literary Editor’s Skills

The toolbox is divided into three compartments:

  1. Technical skills – The high level editor needs to be analytical and articulate.
    Anyone, and I mean anyone, can read a book and tell you that it was no good, or that it didn’t work for them, or that there was something amiss in the plot or they didn’t believe in one of the characters or that the whole thing seemed to lack truth. It takes analytical skill to understand why the book is having these effects on the reader. To identify the specific features of the story, or specific weaknesses in the authors technique, which lead to these problems.It’s unimportant where this analytical skill comes from. It’s of primary importance, however, that the editor know how to communicate both the problems and their solutions to the author. Writers are a diverse bunch, and the editor’s ability to articulate issues depends on the editor’s ability to adapt to any writer’s understanding, education and experience, because it’s the writer who has to make the changes in her own book.
  2. Creative Skills – The high level editor needs to be able to understand not only the writer and the story, but the reader.It’s been my experience that everyone in publishing, but writers especially, don’t think often enough about the reader and the reader’s experience. But it’s in reading where the other half of storytelling takes place. Reading is itself a creative exercise, an exercise in imagination, in memory, in interpretation.A magical balancing act between the real and the unreal.The writer’s creative process is also often complex and obscure, but people of common culture often share the same ideas, the same instincts and follow the same imaginative pathways to creating their stories. So the editor has to have a cultural understanding of the writer’s creative process.
  3. Didactic Skills – The high level editor needs to be able to teach, develop and nurture the author’s skills, talent and creativity.The role of teacher has always been part of the role of literary editor. The literary editor is involved in the creation of far more books that any individual writer can be. This means we can learn lessons from the common factors that arise during the creative process in a way that is not open even to full time writers.This means that the literary editor is uniquely placed to be able to teach and guide a writer. And this is guidance that can only be learned from experience, because it isn’t simple, plain or clear enough to be written down or learned from a book. It can only be done.

What you should expect back

I provide my feedback in three different forms.

  • All my authors get complimentary copy of my book (which is currently untitled and due for release early next year). The book is a distillation of all my editing experience; every section of every chapter is based on a real issue found in a real book, so most writers will find that most of it applies to what they are writing.
  • Along with this, I provide an annotated copy of their manuscript. I prefer to use a commented Microsoft Word document with tracked changes. A typical 120,000 word document will contain anything from 200 to 1,000 comments depending both on the intensity of the edit and the needs of the author and book. My comments in the manuscript concern every possible aspect of writing.
  • Finally, I have a general notes report, where I give a detailed analysis of both recurring issues, structural issues (such as the order in which the story is told or the way vital information is revealed to the reader), issues of characterization and character development, plot, worldbuilding, and so on.

Those features and many others (as well as how to avoid common problems with each), is something I cover in much greater detail in: Read Worthy Fiction.

Other high level editors may restrict all their feedback to comments in the manuscript or give everything in a separate report, or do the same as I do. There are no rules, no conventions. We do what works for our authors.

In addition, I also invite the author to chat via Skype (or equivalent). Typically we chat once or twice, for 90 minutes at a time. This is not typical but worth asking for.

How to deal with what you get back

You may need some time to get over the shock.

Your literary editor is there to tell you what you are doing wrong, what isn’t working, what sucks. It won’t be balanced out with praise of what you are doing well, beyond the occasional “well done” or “more of this please”. Actually I make an effort to point out where you are obviously doing well. It helps to have someone tell you something about your strengths. But it is the nature of the exercise that priority is given to your failings.

And expect the editor to be frank and honest and direct. There’s no time to be gentle or spare your feelings, and we all assume that you’re doing this in order to improve; so you should expect to be told that you have some improving to do.

The most important thing to do with your editor’s feedback is to ask questions. You may grasp much of it right away – it’s fair to expect your editor to be a pretty effective communicator. But many of the ideas, issues, principles, conventions and techniques may be unfamiliar. Be sure that you don’t skip over or ignore comments, remarks or suggestions that you don’t fully understand. Look them up, research, and above all, ask.

Some of the changes or corrections that your editor advises you to make may require significant structural changes, such as changing chapter order, adding or cutting or entirely rewriting some chapters. In this case, you’re likely to need a strategy, in which case, ask your editor for guidance and suggestions.

Low Level Edits: the Copy Editor

There is one good reason to pay a professional to copy edit your book:
Readers will not forgive you if you don’t.

Why Low Level Edit?

Readers will notice, with surprise and curiosity, one error in (your mileage may vary) 10,000 words, and carry on reading. Readers will begin to get irritated with one error every 3,000 to 4,000 words. Any more than that, and they will very likely stop reading. If there is an error on the first page, the reader will spot every other error in the book (I call this ‘dead-in-the-water’).

And they won’t forgive you. They’ll write a review saying: ‘don’t buy – obviously hasn’t been edited.’

The copy editors speciality is errors. The good ones will find and correct all of the errors. This is not a matter of your peace of mind. It is the difference between getting read and not getting read. That simple.

What do you want from a low level edit?

Your copy editor will focus on the manuscript you send them.

The minimum you want from a copy-editor is that your manuscript comes back free of spelling, punctuation and grammar errors. Most copy-editors will also flag actual and possible vocabulary errors: where they know or suspect that you may have used the wrong word. Often they will make suggestions. Many copy-editors will also make suggestions as to sentence structure – either suggesting where to break up long sentences or where to join or complete fragments.

How to give instructions to your copy editor

It might sound like copy editing is very black-and-white; scientific almost. They find the errors, and correct them.

But language is never that simple. Even grammar and punctuation are messy. Spelling is especially messy; did you know that the dictionaries in most word processing software spell -ize words ‘-ise’ in UK spelling and ‘-ize’ in US spelling, and that as a result many people think that ‘-ize’ is incorrect in the UK. It isn’t. It’s at least as common as ‘-ise’ and much older. I chuse to spell choose with a ‘u’ because although not generally considered standard modern spelling, Jane Austen uses it.

So you will make your copy-editor’s job vastly easier if you know that you have certain preferences in spelling or punctuation. It will make their job easier if you can tell them something about your style, and the literary techniques you like to employ.

If you enjoy, for instance, using sentence fragments. If you enjoy word order that is non-typical. If you like to torture syntax on purpose. It will also help if you have specific concerns about your style, like people have told you that your sentences are too long, or that you use too many adjectives.

What you should expect back

In all cases, the corrected manuscript should be in one of two forms; either with markup, showing where changes need to be made, either in the traditional blue pen or using a common word processing software’s commenting feature. Or, the corrected manuscript should have the errors corrected, but with the common word processing software’s change tracking switched on, so you can accept or reject each change.

How to deal with what you get back

Even though the copy-editor is the expert, ultimately it’s up to you to decide what to do with each change. You will have to read through and consider each change on its own merits. In general, I suggest:
If in doubt over:

  • Punctuation – accept the copy editor’s change
  • Spelling – accept the copy editor’s change
  • Choice of Words – fetch both dictionary and thesaurus, and look up your original word and the editor’s suggestion, and then decide
  • Syntax (sentence length, word order, fragments, etc.) – if you deliberately chose to make the “error” in the first place, keep your version. Otherwise, accept the editor’s suggestion.

Many copy-editors will answer any questions you have about their corrections and suggestions. But remember copy-editors generally work very hard, and their work requires a special level of focus and concentration. So make a note of each question and query you have, and send an email with all your questions in one go.

Beta-readers, Proofreading

What are they?

Proofreading and Beta-reading, in the age of digital publishing, can be thought of as the same thing. Back in the days of moveable type, the proofreader’s job was to ensure that no new errors had been introduced to the text by the typesetter. Today, there is no typesetter to introduce new errors. So proofreading has become a test to see if the book works for a reader.

As such, what you want from a proofreader is a read-through from the reader’s point of view, and a report on what the book is like to read.

Controlling the process with clear instructions

It is therefore very important to give clear instructions to your panel of readers. Make sure they are clear that you don’t want them to worry about errors that the copy-editor is going to find and correct, like errors of spelling or punctuation.

Make sure that they do know that you need to know, however, whether characters or settings are believable. That you do want to know that they can imagine the locations clearly; that they don’t get confused as to what is going on. A very valuable specific instruction is to have them make a note of anywhere that they have to read more than once or stop and think. A less obvious instruction is to have your readers make a not of where they stop, every time they stop reading to go do something else.

Keep them talking

It’s very effective to talk to your proof/beta-readers. Face to face if possible (e.g. Skype). This is because you need to get their feedback on the emotional experience of reading your book.

Non-Fiction Editing

Non-fiction requires a different skill set both at high and low levels. Many copy-editors do both. My best advice is that if you need a fiction edit, chuse an editor who specializes in fiction or who edits at least 50% fiction.

Non-fiction can be edited by someone whose English is a second language or from a different English speaking region from yours.

Your Editor

Your literary editor will be with you for the long haul. It should be thought of as a long term creative collaboration.

Selecting a High-Level Editor

This means that your literary editor needs to be a good fit for you. Assuming you’ve been convinced that a candidate for the role has the necessary skills, personality is going to play a much bigger role than age, genre, educational background or cultural background. Personality is going to play a bigger role than genre.

Having said that, you do need to know that they can do the job. There are three ways to find this out, and you must do all three:

  1. The Sample Edit – A sample edit should be 2,500 to 5,000 words long, and it should always be FREE. Don’t even consider anyone who won’t do a sample edit.Nevertheless, ask nicely, and follow their instructions carefully. If you’ve never had a high level edit before, you might think it would be difficult to judge from a sample. But there is an easy way. Before you get the sample edit back, write down what you think is wrong with the extract you sent them. Not just what you think is weak or could be improved, but anything you feel unhappy or uncomfortable with.Remember that literary editors deal with structure, plot and character development, and those can’t really be judged from a 5,000 word sample. I generally ask for a longer sample so I can read more and get a better feel for the author’s work, although (for my own time and sanity) I only edit directly the first 3,000 to 5,000 words of the sample.Additionally, a sample edit isn’t a good way to compare editors’ work with each other. Without seeing the full manuscript it is difficult for the editor to prioritize between issues, so each sample may only draw attention to a subset of the problems in the manuscript. Use the sample edit to compare with your expectations, your needs and your values. And if you have questions, ask them. And if you want to chat, ask for a chat.
  2. References – Most editing professionals are not quiet about who they work for. I don’t publicize the names of the ghost writers I work for, nor the name of their client, for obvious reasons. But you can find out who all my other authors are from my blog. Most of them are on twitter.Most of them have their own website or Facebook page or both. So get in touch with them. Tell them what you are looking for. Maybe they’ll recommend their own editor, maybe they’ll recommend someone else. They are well placed to know what you can get out of the relationship and most are more than happy to give their opinions and advice.
  3. Try more than one – This might seem a costly way to go, but you have to learn as much as you can, all the time, if you want to become a better writer. So it makes no sense to settle for the first editor you think is pretty competent and you can afford.Try at least three. I don’t much like giving this advice, since I love working with 99% of the writers I have ever worked with. But making you into the best writer you can possibly be is my #1 priority, and there may well be a better editor for you than I could be. It’s about compatibility.

Selecting a Low-Level Editor

In my experience, copy editors are more likely to have literary and professional qualifications, and are more likely to be members of professional associations, than literary editors.

This is to be expected. Many of the skills that copy-editors apply are derived from knowledge acquired through study, and examination for qualification (testing) is much more feasible.

But letters after their name, and logos on the website, are not enough.

  1. The Sample Edit – Ask every candidate to do a sample for you. Follow their instructions for the length and format of the extract. Make a note of what you think is wrong with your extract – but don’t deliberately put errors in or try to set traps for them. The good ones will know.You can use the samples to compare the work of different editors. But in most cases what you will find is a variation in the scope of their edit, rather than in the number of errors of each kind that they detect. Some will go further in flagging and suggesting issues of diction, expression or vocabulary than others. So to some extent, you will be choosing on the basis of what you want from them, as well as your estimation of their skill.
  2. References – Copy editors will have a list of their clients on their website, or will be able to provide you with a list on request. Get in touch with their other customers and find out whatever you can. This is also part of your learning process. Taking up references will help you to learn what to prioritize when chusing you copy-editor.
  3. Try more than one? – Honestly, if the first one you try suits you perfectly, stick with them. A great copy editor is a great asset. If you aren’t completely satisfied, or you feel you have a hard time getting what you need from them, then next time, try someone else.

Finding and Selecting Beta-readers

It’s best if your proof/beta-readers are people you already know. Friends, colleagues. Your best friend’s spouses are often a very good compromise between people you know well and people who will be honest. Members of your writing circle are to be avoided because they are writers.

You need to find non-writers.

I think it’s a good idea to pay your beta-readers, even if it’s only $5, because it’s valuable for both of you to remember that even though they are volunteers, for you this is a business. You should have about five people on your beta-reader panel. Two is not enough. And they should be people who do a lot of reading.

How Long should an Edit Take?

Assuming your manuscript is between 80,000 and 120,000 words, you should expect a high level edit to take less than a month. I usually expect a typical length book to take me less than 20 days. It’s certainly possible to do it in 10 days, but my process requires a certain amount of down time for thinking.

Your low level edit should not take more than a fortnight. Many copy-editors will turn it around within a week.

It’s also a good idea to give your beta-readers a deadline. Two weeks should be enough.

When planning your publication schedule, however, allow a month each for high level, low level and beta-reading.

Editing Rates: How much will it cost?

Rates for Editing of all kinds vary enormously and are calculated in a variety of different ways.

High-Level Edit Costs – Most will have some means of calculating how much you will have to pay. Make sure it is clear before you start whether they are going to give you a fixed quotation (quote) or an estimate. If they give you an estimate, it will be adjusted once the job is completed, according to the time it takes.

Some charge by the hour, and estimate the cost from the number of pages or the number of words. Others charge per page or per word.

Whatever their advertised means of calculating the cost, always ask for a quotation or estimate.

My preference is to estimate the time that the job will take me based on a large sample of the text and on the author’s requirements. This allows me to put a fixed price on the job, and to give a firm deadline.

For a complete literary edit of a 80,000 to 120,000 word manuscript, high level editing rates vary very widely. Because my own service is tailored to the individual author, the fork is anything from $1,000 up to $3,000 and beyond. Editors using a fixed rate per word or per page charge from about $2,000 for their services.

Estimate the cost of high level editing: 0.025 * word count = price in USD

For 90 minutes of story development consulting, you should expect to pay $250 to $500.

Low Level Edit Costs – Most copy-editors will charge per word or per page. A few charge by the hour, but will give you a fixed rate based on page or word count if you ask for it. Bear in mind, however, that some writers are much easier to copy-edit than others, so copy-editors will typically reserve the right to revise the price once they have seen the manuscript.

Prices for copy editing typically start from about $1,000 for an 80,000 to 120,000 word manuscript. The highest rates are about double this.

Estimate the cost of low-level editing: 0.0125 * word count = price in USD

The Professional Relationship

Your relationship with your editor, in business terms, is of the purchase of services. You are the client and the editor is the vendor. As such, a minimum of paperwork should exchange hands. In most jurisdictions, you should expect a quotation before the job and an invoice when payment is due.

My standard quotation includes the following instructions:

Please print, write the words “read and agreed”, sign, date and return (you can scan and email).

This way the quotation document constitutes a formal agreement for payment in return for the services. You should therefore expect the quotation to identify clearly the service that is to be provided. Many editors have the possibility for direct payment in advance via their websites. If they do this, you should still have something from them explaining what they will do for you and when.

The invoice is essential for your accounts. The Quotation is not enough on its own.

Payment terms vary. Many editors accept payment in installments. Some expect a downpayment then balance on delivery (my preference – it’s very motivating). Many will expect payment in full in advance. Some may be flexible so it never hurts to ask for what will suit you best.

Remember, no amount of paperwork or promises guarantees that the work will be done to a high standard. Indeed, price is no guarantee of quality. If you want to know if someone offering editing services can be trusted, take up their references. If you can’t find any references or testimonials, don’t go there.

Where to Find an Editor

Finding your list of candidate editors can be tricky.

Novel writing has always been seen as rich hunting grounds by scammers and con artists, so if you just google editing services for fiction writers, you’ll get the people who’ve paid the most for SEO. Actually, Joanna Penn’s excellent website will come up in the top ten results and she has a very good, if short, list of editors that she recommends.

I can give you a couple of other points of departure:

Kboards.com is a forum for users of e-readers. There is a very active community of indie and self-published authors who have compiled a list of reputable services for authors. (Link pre-sorts for editors.)

That still gives you a lot to choose from, but you can visit their websites and contact them for sample editing.

Make use of the KBoards “Writer’s Cafe” to ask your questions about editors, and ask other writers for their recommendations.

An excellent way to find a good editor is to find out who edited your favorite recently published books. Often, the editor’s name, and sometimes their website, will be given in the book itself. If not, contact the author.

This is much more feasible with self-published authors, but these days, most authors are pretty accessible, and if they’re asked the question enough times, maybe they’ll put a link to their editor’s website on their own website.

Look no Further?

Or, of course, there’s me. I pride myself on being accessible and approachable, so you could just get in touch, or ask me a question, or select the type of editing you want, and book right away!

About the Author Harry Dewulf

Professional Literary Editor and Creative Writing Teacher. If you want help of any kind with your book, you may contact me here. I recently launched a course to teach you everything I’ve learned about writing novels in the last 8 years. It’s called Read Worthy Fiction, and you can find it on Udemy.

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