4 Levels of Editing Explained: Which Service Does Your Book Need?

Edit

This post originally appeared on April 23, 2014 at The Book Designer.

In a previous post, we discussed how you can work with beta readers to enhance the self-editing process. Self-editing, or revision, as we call it, is the furthest you can take your manuscript on your own, with feedback from others, but without professional editing help. This is a great first step towards polishing your manuscript.

Let’s suppose that you’ve gotten feedback from your beta readers and made any necessary adjustments to your manuscript. What else can you do find out what your book needs?

Why, hire an editor, of course! (If you’re on the fence about hiring an editor, see this article on what editors know about readers).

In this article, we’ll talk about your first contact with an editor — and what happens to your manuscript when it lands in an editor’s inbox.

Finding an Editor

Your first step in connecting with an editor is to find the right editor for you and the book you’ve written. There is an editor for every book and author. To find the perfect fit, consult editors’ profiles at these professional editing organizations:

  • Editorial Freelancers Association
  • Editors’ Association of Canada
  • Institute for Professional Editors (Australia)
  • Society for Editors and Proofreaders

One of our clients told us that he combed through 60 profiles before he decided to hire us to work on his book. Do your homework. You can learn a lot about an editor’s expertise and manner by reading his or her profile. It’s reasonable to contact more than one editor before settling on the one who’s right for you. By reviewing editors’ online profiles, you should be able to narrow the field to two or three.

What do I send my editor?

After you’ve found an editor who you think will be a good fit for you, you’ll need to make initial contact. In order to assess your manuscript, your editor will most likely ask you to send a sample:

10-Page Sample

For a quick initial assessment, we ask for 10 pages from the “messy middle.” Why? Because most authors understand the importance of starting well, and as a result, the first chapter of a book often gets a great deal more attention from the author than a chapter in the middle.

If we can see the middle, where many authors’ writing energy tends to flag (and understandably so), we’ll get a better sense of how much time it will truly take to help you with your book. You’ll want to know an editor’s assessment of the messy middle because it can directly affect how much editing services will cost. It’ll also help an editor to make some DIY recommendations that can reduce editing costs later in the process.

Table of Contents

If you’re writing a nonfiction book, include a table of contents (TOC) with your 10-page sample. A TOC can help your editor to see how you’ve arranged the major topics in your book, and whether you might need help with the book’s structure.

What does a book need?

When your book sample lands in your editor’s inbox, he or she will assess the “level” of editing that’s needed. There are four levels of editing, and each level builds on the next. Every successful book manuscript will have resolved issues at each of these levels:

Big-Picture Edit

Also called developmental, structural or substantive editing, this kind of editing involves moving large chunks of text around and possibly cutting some sections as well. It addresses the structure of a book — how everything hangs together.

This happens more often than you’d think: An editor receives a large fiction manuscript for copyediting. During an initial scan of the text, she notices a few trouble spots — for example, the plot is lost in large sections of background information and the characters are difficult to distinguish from one another.The editor knows the novel would be better if she could address these issues, but how? At more than 350 pages, it’s a large apparatus.

Her solution? And this happens more often than you’d think, too: She prints out the difficult sections of the novel. Then she gets her scissors. Yes, scissors, and begins to cut and re-assemble those parts of the story, so that they fall together more naturally and present the story in the arrangement that serves both the story and the reader’s expectations. (Note that by now the editor has taken off her copyeditor’s hat — she’s not quite ready for it!)

Needless to say, big picture editing can be very expensive if you need to address a book’s structure after it has been completely written.The cheapest way to address big-picture items is to get help structuring your book before you write it.

If you like to structure your book before you write it, send your editor a detailed outline, or a detailed 10-page plot summary to see if he or she can spot any potential holes.

If you’ve written your book, but you’d like feedback on your structure, you can still send it to an editor. But keep in mind that your editor will need to read an entire book instead of a 10-page plot summary, and this extra time will be reflected in the cost.

Paragraph-Level Edit

Also called stylistic or line editing, this kind of editing involves recasting sentences for clarity and flow. It can also involve moving sentences around so that your meaning is clear. Stylistic editing always aims to preserve the author’s voice, first and foremost.

Suppose you’ve finished your manuscript, and everything is where it’s supposed to be for best effect. What features of your finished book could indicate that it still might need a stylistic edit? Here are a few examples:

  • All your sentences are about the same length
  • You use a lot of adjectives
  • The vocabulary isn’t suited to the intended audience
  • Your meaning is lost in too many big words or jargon
  • Transitions from one paragraph to the next are awkward

Effective writing has a rhythm and pulse, and with practice, good writers learn to develop an ear for these qualities. A stylistic editor can help you hone these skills.

Sentence-Level Edit

Also called copyediting, this kind of editing addresses grammar, usage and consistency issues. It is entirely understandable that an author can lose track of many small details over the course of writing a book. From how a character’s name is spelled to the colour of her eyes to her mother-in-law’s hometown to how that’s spelled, the possibilities for small errors are many.

What’s more, sometimes these errors are introduced by the author himself during the revision phase. I once asked an author I was working with how it could be that her main character was entering high school that September when she had just had her 11th birthday the previous June. The author replied, “Oh, yeah. Hm. It’s because I cut a section out and reordered some events during one of my revisions. This is my fourth revision. I’d better take care of that detail!”

So in addition to consistencies in spelling and punctuation (colour or color? skateboard or skate-board?), a copyeditor will find issues of continuity that don’t add up. Sort of like quality control. This grid lists the kinds of things that editors attend to in a copyedit (Have a look! It’s like peeking over a copyeditor’s shoulder!). You can use a grid like this one to help you determine which copyediting issues you can confidently address yourself, and which ones you’d prefer to hire an editor to fix.

Word-Level Edit

Also called proofreading, this kind of editing addresses typos, repeated words (the the), spelling, punctuation and formatting issues (how things look on a page) as they occur in your book’s final environment. So, if you’re publishing an ebook, your editor will look at your book on an e-reader, or in an e-reading app to see how it looks and operates. If your book will be printed, your editor will proofread a PDF. Proofreading is the last pair of eyes on your book before it goes live: it’s the last chance to catch an error before a reader finds it and gleefully points it out.

What kind of editing will I need?

Typically, a manuscript will travel more or less through all four levels of editing before it’s deemed polished and ready for the reader. But that doesn’t mean that you’ll need to hire an editor for each kind of editing.

What your book needs depends on your strengths as a writer.

If you’re brilliant at outlining a book in a clear and logical way, or if you’re a master at crafting the perfect plot or story arc, you won’t necessarily need a big-picture edit. But if you struggle with explaining yourself clearly, or crafting realistic dialogue, your editor might recommend a paragraph-level edit.

At the very least, every manuscript will benefit from a sentence-level edit, or a copyedit. If your editing budget is limited, you can be strategic about the services you select.

Regardless of what your manuscript needs, working with an editor can help you improve your writing — particularly if you approach the process with a willingness to learn about your writing quirks (we all have them). With a positive and open attitude, you’ll not only get a better book, you’ll save money on your next editing project with what you’ve learned from this one.

3 thoughts on “4 Levels of Editing Explained: Which Service Does Your Book Need?

  1. Hi Arlene, and thanks for your comment. We were trying for a slightly different approach, friendly to those who aren’t editors themselves. As you know, there are lots of terms and jargon in the business…

    Have a good weekend,

    Carla

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