March 2013


Today’s post is the final in my series on editing. I’ve talked about content editing, copy editing, and now we’ll look at proofreading. If you have a manuscript that you believe needs to be proofread before sending out, and you hire someone to proof it, you need to know upfront exactly what kind of service you will receive.

I learned early on when I started doing freelance editing and proofing that most people do not know the difference among the various types of editing. An author would hire me to do a proofread, so that’s what I would do, but then he would be unhappy because I didn’t catch his errors in sentence structure or paragraph organization. I quickly learned to ask a lot of questions to find out precisely what kind of editing a client wants and expects. As a writer, you need to do the same. Be very clear when you’re hiring an editor so that you both know exactly what the expectations are upfront.

If you ask for a proofread, this is what you’ll get: Your manuscript will be checked for typos, misspelled words, missing words, incorrect word usage, incorrect punctuation, inconsistencies in formatting (different-sized headings or subheads, for example), incorrect indentation of paragraphs or sections of the manuscript, correct formatting of notes and references (at the proofing stage, facts are typically not checked again, unless specifically requested), correct pagination, capitalization errors, correct use of italics and other effects.

If you need more than this checked on your manuscript, you will then need to ask for a copy edit, or perhaps even a content edit. At a typical publishing house, a manuscript normally will get proofread three times by three separate people–this is in addition to the layers of content editing and copy editing that it receives. If you are working with an independent proofreader, you should expect to have your manuscript read through twice in order to catch all the errors. It is nearly impossible to get everything on a single read.

Because of the varying degrees of work necessary for the different types of editing, the price you will be charged will also vary from proofing to copy editing to content editing, increasing in cost from proofing to content editing. I hesitate to add prices here because the market fluctuates, as in any industry, and the prices I quote will quickly be outdated.

My best advice is to contact at least three editors, ask for the same type of editing, and find out what each charges. They should all be within the same basic range. If one is extremely low or high, don’t rule that person out, but find out why. Maybe her experience level is very different from the others.

In addition to price, you’ll want to know how long the editor has worked in the editing field, what types of editing can she do, what are her strengths and weaknesses (some may only do nonfiction, for example), if she’s always worked as a freelancer or if she’s also worked in-house at a publishing company (this is simply helpful to know because an editor who has worked for a publisher may have more in-depth knowledge of the whole process, which can be helpful), how she will indicate changes on your manuscript (using Track Changes in Word, highlighting them, changing font color, etc.), and what the turnaround time will be.

I would also ask for at least one reference. Sometimes writers like to ask to see examples of previous edits the editor has done. I have to admit, I have never saved my editing work! Some editors might, but I know there are many like me who don’t, so this request may not get you too far. Instead, what is more helpful, is to ask if the editor could do a sample edit on your manuscript. I often offer this to customers, especially if they are unsure of the process and don’t really know what to expect from my editing. I will usually edit one or two pages, focusing on the type of editing they are asking for.

If you ask for this sample edit from three editors, you’ll get a very good idea of what to expect from each and which one you’ll probably want to work with. Before hiring an editor, be very clear on your deadline. If you need to get your manuscript to a publisher or agent by a certain date, be sure to add some margin into your time frame for your finished edit. It’s likely that you and your editor will go back and forth on changes, especially at the content and copy edit level, and that may take time.

I tried to cover all of the basics and then some about the editing process in these four posts, but if you have any additional specific questions, please post a comment, and I’ll do my best to answer for you.

So far, I’ve discussed big-picture editing, also known as content or substantive editing–for both fiction and nonfiction–and looked at how to hire an editor that does that type of work. With this post, we’re going to look at the next level down, so to speak, which is line editing.

Line editing is a lot like how it sounds–an editor will go through your manuscript line by line, searching for mistakes in grammar, word choice and usage, sentence structure (Are the adverbs and adjectives in the right place? Did the writer split his infinitives?), and punctuation (Was a semi-colon used instead of a colon?).

In addition to searching for mistakes, a good copy editor will also check for things like redundancies (“12 pm noon,” “stand up,” and so forth), making sure that sentences are as strong as possible (this usually means trading in adjectives and adverbs for strong, descriptive nouns and verbs), eliminating wordiness, and overall, making sure that the writing is as clear as possible. Line editors also search for “pet” words or phrases that are used over and over, changing or eliminating them as needed.

Another big part of a line editor’s job is to research the facts that a writer has included in her manuscript. Even if the work is fiction, the manuscript should be fact-checked for accuracy. Whether the subject matter is science, history, or geography, nothing will cause an author to lose credibility faster than having the wrong information in her writing.

Along these same lines, all quotes, references, and notes should be verified by the copy editor. If the author references in the manuscript that he retrieved his information from a particular website, that website needs to be verified with an active link so the reader can access the information.

For certain types of manuscripts, all this fact checking and reference verification can be extremely time-consuming. Works that are scientific in nature (even fiction) or fall into other niches, such as Christian works, which typically involve Scripture verification, can be especially tedious. I mention this because, if you have such a manuscript that needs to be copy edited, be ready to be charged a higher rate than if your manuscript didn’t need such verification work.

One more area that can usually be expected of a copy editor is taking a look at the overall aesthetics of the manuscript: how the headings and subheadings are treated, and making sure they are consistent in their treatment; the size and type of font used; use of bolding and italics; and so forth.

In my next post, you’ll see that many of the above areas that constitute a copy editor’s job will also be reviewed by a proofreader–but there are many differences in the two functions as well.

In Part 2 of this series on editing, I want to focus on “big-picture” editing, which is called substantive or content editing. As explained briefly in my first post of the series, this type of editing will look different for fiction vs. nonfiction, but the overall purpose is the same in both: to focus on overarching problems with a manuscript and to view the manuscript as a whole. This is different than the other two types of editing–line editing and proofreading–which evaluate a manuscript in very small, often isolated, chunks.

First, let’s look at nonfiction.
The big-picture ideas for nonfiction editing (for books and articles) include the overall organization and presentation of the material as well as the flow and transition of paragraphs. No matter how a nonfiction piece is organized–Q & A or other interview style (for magazines), chronologically, in sequential steps, or as organized subtopics, clarity is paramount. An editor will be looking for ideas that need to be re-ordered within the manuscript and ways to make the thoughts flow as smoothly as possible.

Transitions between chapters and paragraphs are also important, so the work doesn’t end up looking disjointed. Within the chapters, each paragraph should have a strong topic sentence and only one theme. If there are random thoughts within your paragraphs, they should be corralled, and either moved to another paragraph or eliminated.

Editors will also look to see how your reference work, if applicable, fits into the body of your work. If you’re using illustrations, charts, statistics, etc. they need to be properly placed and aptly support your text.

Before sending your manuscript off to an editor, check to see that there are no holes in your logical presentation. Read it objectively with fresh eyes, making sure that you haven’t left any unanswered questions about your topic.

Now onto fiction. When content editing a work of fiction, some things the editor will look for are: how well the characters are developed; if the dialects of the characters are consistent throughout the book; if the story flows well from scene to scene; if the point of view remains consistent within scenes; if various techniques like flashbacks or dream sequences are used correctly and do not lead to confusion; overall pacing of the story; how well the story arc is developed; if the chapters’ beginnings and endings are written in such a way as to make you want to read more; how effectively the conflict is developed; the effectiveness of the story’s subplots, and if all the loose ends are tied up by the end of the story.

When you ask for a content edit, these are the things you should expect to be scrutinized in your manuscript. Often, when writing fiction, it’s easy to make a lot of assumptions about what the reader knows, or should know, from your writing. Things that may seem obvious to you may not be so to your reader. Having an editor review your manuscript will bring those areas to light so that your writing becomes more clear.

Before you send your manuscript off for a content edit, keep the above list in your mind as you’re reading through your story. Make sure you can check off each of those areas to the best of your ability. If there’s a certain area that you’re struggling with, like getting a flashback scene to work so that it fits into the flow of your story properly, let the editor know that ahead of time. Ask for suggestions for how you could make it better.

It’s sometimes hard for writers to stay open minded during this first editing phase, because this is where most of the slicing and dicing of a manuscript occurs. Your editor may suggest cutting entire scenes because they slow down the story too much, or you may be asked to rework a character because he’s not believable.

You obviously don’t have to do what the editor says, but at the same time, it’s helpful to not be closed minded, thinking only your way is correct. At least try the suggested edits and see if they strengthen the manuscript. This is where having an editor whom you trust (and get along with) becomes really important.

So, how do you find such a person? For a content edit, if at all possible, I highly suggest meeting with the potential editor, or at least having a phone call if an in-person meeting is not feasible. You will gain a much greater sense of confidence (or lack thereof) and rapport through an actual conversation versus email. It’s very important that you both are on the same page with your expectations and desire to make the manuscript the best it can be.

When it comes to locating a content editor, I recommend using referrals when possible. If you don’t know of anyone right off who can refer you to an editor, start asking around in your critique group and writing circles. You can also locate editors at writing conferences and workshops. You can find editors in market guides, but just make sure you screen carefully.

That’s all for now on content editing. Next post I’ll move onto what to expect when hiring a copy editor.