There’s editing, and then there’s editing

With my first novel, “On Different Strings”, in the final stages, I got to deal with a few editors. It appears to be imperative that all parties understand exactly what is expected and agreed upon.

While they go by different names, by and large there appear to be four basic types of editing (maybe five, if “fact-checking” is considered separately). For short stories and other short-form works, an editor may perform all of these at once: for long-form works, especially novels, separation becomes a necessity.

Developmental editing [as described, e.g., here] focuses not so much on your text as on the substance: the story line, the world building, the characters… Is the world building credible? Are the characters believable and do they have enough depth? Are the plot and subplots compelling? How about the general structure of the novel — does it “grab” the reader, or do things only start happening after it is too late and the reader has already tuned out? And so forth…

In terms of “readers”, an “alpha reader” might focus on many of the same aspects as a developmental editor.

Stylistic editing [as advertised, e.g., here] focuses on the style, as the name says. Does each main character have a distinctive voice (and one that credibly matches their background) — or does it all sound as one glop? In a third-person novel, does the narrator have his/her own voice? Is the vocabulary too simplistic, too recondite, or about right for the target audience? Are sentences too long and complex to read smoothly — or, at the other extreme, are sentences so short and choppy that the book acquires a “See Spot Run!” quality?

The stylistic editor tries to address all of these issues. At the same time, (s)he needs to balance this against leaving authors their own voice. Not surprisingly, this is the most difficult and time-consuming type of editing, best left to experienced professionals  — and therefore also the most expensive type.

Sometimes a stylistic editor may rewrite a statement for clarity or style — and change its meaning in the process. In many cases this happens because the original was too vague or ambiguous. If the editor insists on turning statements into their opposites simply because the plain meaning is unpalatable to him/her, there is only one answer — find another editor.

Copy editing [e.g., here] focuses more on the mechanics: ensuring correct spelling, grammar, usage, punctuation. It may also extend to flagging words or constructions repeated in close proximity, and proposing synonyms or alternatives.

Copy editing also deals with the many aspects of usage, capitalization, punctuation,… where there is more than one authoritative answer. Oxford commas, yes or no? Punctuation tucked (common in the US) or untucked (more common outside the US)? Capitalization after a colon? “5 AM” or “five o’clock”? All these issues can be argued either way, as long as the answer is applied consistently throughout the manuscript. Typically, editors work to a specific style guide: mine worked to the Chicago Manual of Style, a.k.a., CMS. Organizations may have their own style book that an editor working for them is expected to follow.

The often-heard term “line editing” appears to correspond to a combination of copy editing and (light to medium) stylistic editing.

Finally, “proofing” or proofreading is limited to catching typos, punctuation errors, formatting errors, repeated or missing words, and perhaps the most blatant malapropisms (misused words). This is the cheapest form of editing. It is best not left only to the author, as one’s brain ‘knows’ what it intended to write and corrects the typos read ‘on the fly’. Another pair of eyes will catch issues you didn’t — it had better be a proofreader than a book buyer with a spelling bee in his bonnet 😉

Fact-checking may enter the equation during both developmental and stylistic editing (or line editing) — or it may be performed by a different person altogether. My editor did do a fair amount of fact-checking on matters he was familiar with, but obviously nobody can be expected to be a maven on everything — so one turns to enthusiasts for guns, planes, medieval armor,… or whatever the specific matter at hand might be. Online forums are a great resource for this sort of thing. (This extends to regional social customs, as I learned first-hand :))

What about multiple rounds of editing? Sarah Hoyt appears to belong to  the “one and done” school of thought: for a professional writer, it indeed makes more financial sense to release a “good enough” novel and start writing the next, than to polish endlessly and generate zero income while doing so. In contrast, first-time novel writers — especially those blessed with well-paying day jobs — have an incentive to both put their best foot forward in their debut novel and ‘learn on the job’ as much as possible.

That being said, it appears that a second or third round of proofreading can never hurt. A second round of stylistic editing, however, runs the risk of the second editor undoing much of the work of the first and otherwise clashing with it — thus generating “a horse designed by a committee” in the process. (Unless, of course,the rare scenario pertains that the two editors are used to tag-teaming.) Copy-editing, in the narrow sense of the word. probably lies somewhere in the middle.

Perhaps the best way to distinguish between different editing levels is in terms of resolution.

  • Proofreading typically corrects at the character level — misspellings, misplaced or missing punctuation marks, runaway formatting tags.
  • Copy editing typically corrects at the word level — malapropisms (misused words), solecisms (grammatical abuses), inconsistent verb tenses, run-on sentences, missing verbs,… The main ‘nonlocal’ goal it may try to achieve is grammatical consistency for those issues where there is more than one ‘correct’ answer: typically this is achieved by working to a specific style manual.
  • Stylistic editing typically works at the sentence to paragraph level, trying to achieve a consistent tone, and creating (or honing) distinctive voices for characters and for the third-person narrator, if any.
  • Finally, developmental editing works at the ‘global’ or structural level, and does not typically descend to details of the actual writing. Its goals are a compelling and believable plot, realistic characters,… in other words, for genre fiction: a good yarn.

Summing up: It is essential, when somebody is contracted for a type of editing, that both sides agree beforehand what type of editing is to be performed, and what the “boundaries” are. For example, as I learned the hard way: if you engage somebody with a sharp eye but no prior editing experience for an additional proofreading run of your work — and then (s)he starts performing unsolicited stylistic editing on top of an earlier stylistic edit… there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth on both sides.

Disclaimer: I have no business relationship with indiebooklauncher other than as a satisfied client.

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