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Meet Your Destiny—
What Writers Should Know about Editing and Editors

Copyright 2002; 2016 by Patricia Anderson


It's in your stars. Any writer who seriously seeks publication is fated sooner or later to encounter an editor—or very likely, more than one editor. If you have yet to meet your own editorial destiny, then knowing in advance what you are getting into, and with whom, will help smooth the course of your future relationships with editors.

Editing Is a Many Splendored Thing

At its most basic, editing involves reading for small details and correcting errors of spelling, punctuation, font, and formatting, as well as omissions of words, phrases, or lines of text. When a work is at proof stage (typeset but unbound), this is all the amending normally required—hence this fundamental kind of editing is commonly called proofreading.

In earlier draft stages, most manuscripts require more than simple proofreading. Apart from reading for small basic errors of punctuation and so on, the editor goes through the work, line by line, to identify and correct grammatical errors or weaknesses, resolve inconsistencies, reorder awkward and confusing sentence constructions, replace misused words with appropriate alternatives, and rewrite occasional phrases or sentences for greater clarity or emphasis. This level of editing is known as line editing or copyediting. When diverse changes prove to be consistently necessary throughout a manuscript, and the result is a general overhauling of the author's style—usually to render it more appropriate to the particular genre and readership—some editors then refer to copyediting as stylistic editing.

At any stage, in addition to copyediting or even major stylistic editing, a manuscript may require a more extensive reworking of its overall concept, internal logic, and physical organization. The editor may make substantial creative contributions to the work, including considerable rewriting and original writing. This, the most demanding kind of editorial endeavor, is called structural editing or substantive editing, At their most extensive, a combination of structural and stylistic editing may virtually amount to ghostwriting.

Broadly speaking, editors fall into two groups: in-house and freelance. And within each of these two groups individual editors operate at various levels of the editorial process.

Writers' Support Group: In-House Editors

The generic term in-house editor applies to various editors, each of whom is part of the author's support system, once a contract has been issued and signed. Their collective job is to assist the author in making "the work" (as a manuscript is typically called in the language of contracts) the best it can be and to ensure that the final product is as error free as several attentive people can make it.

The editor who first offers a contract—the editor whom you want to reach and interest when you first submit your manuscript—is your best friend above all of your in-house support system. This is the acquisitions editor, who may also be known as acquiring editor, commissioning editor, or sometimes simply senior editor. If he or she is especially prominent in the publishing house, an editor of this type may bear the higher title of publisher. Whatever their titles, these are the editors whose interests are closest to your own. Like you, they believe in your book; they will work with you to bring your work to its fullest creative potential; they will go to bat for you when it comes to issues of marketing and promoting your book; and they direct the copyeditors and other members of the editorial staff to uphold the style and intent of your work.

When you and your acquisitions editor have agreed upon substantive changes to the manuscript, and you have accomplished them, the manuscript then goes to a copy editor. Depending on the size of the house and its needs, this may be anyone from a full-time employee to an occasional contract worker. The same holds true when it comes to the proofreader. This may sometimes be the copyeditor doing double duty or, in a large house, yet another employee or contract worker. Finally, in all but the smallest of houses, a different kind of editor—variously known as the managing editor, production editor, or project editor—oversees the entire schedule and personnel involved in turning a manuscript into a published book.

Professional Help for Writers: Freelance Editors

For most writers, the journey from completing the first draft of a book to finding someone to publish it covers a long, rough road. You and your work will typically encounter rejection and, worse, indifference from agents and publishers who had seemed like good bets when you first sent out queries. To increase your chances of getting your work read and eventually accepted, you will—indeed, should—reappraise it in the light of book market requirements. Ideally, you do this after the first draft is completed and before you attempt to submit it anywhere. But if you've already sent it around with no success, the need for revision is simply all the more apparent. In either case, the question you should ask yourself is: How can this work be revised to be more professional and thus more likely to be published?

Many authors come up with the answer themselves and then undertake their own revisions. But this is exhausting for most and often agonizing and confusing as well. It's not that you mind the hard work of revising, but how can you be sure you're doing the right kind of revising? This is the point where a competent freelance editor can be of great help. Of course, freelance editors cannot guarantee you publication or literary representation. But a good one can ensure that your revisions are appropriate and that they will result in a manuscript that meets today's professional standards.

There are many good, competent, and highly experienced editors working freelance. Many were once in-house editors who have opted for self-employment. Others came to editing through a range of professions where they developed the knowledge and skills for specialized editing in legal, medical, technical, or corporate fields. Others are, or have been, professional writers, and some have a range of experience that takes in both editing and writing in a variety of capacities and genres. Freelance editors often call themselves just that; many simply use the title editor. A freelance editor with strong credentials, many years of experience, and versatile, highly developed expertise may legitimately use a designation such as book doctor, editorial consultant, or literary consultant.

Finding the Right Match: Hiring a Freelance Editor

If you are thinking of hiring a freelance editor, here are some questions and considerations to bear in mind:

Do the editor's skills match your needs? If you want a novel edited, then you want an editor with literary experience. A business editor who brilliantly fixes annual reports will not know what to do with your thriller or historical romance. If you're a scholar or other expert writing for a specialized or highly literate market, you need an editor whose credentials are comparable to your own. If you write for children, an editor whose only experience is with adult trade paperbacks is not the one for you. And so on—you get the idea.

Does the editor have a proper grasp of your goals? If you have written a work that you want an agent or mainstream publisher to accept, then you need an editor with stylistic and substantive editorial skills, as well as a knowledge of the book trade. Don't opt for the editor who assures you that fixing your comma faults and dangling participles is all you need for publication to be within reach. Grammar is important, of course, and correcting it is part of the editor's job, but it takes more than grammatical correctness to meet professional publication standards. If you are planning to self-publish, you have greater flexibility when it comes to editorial issues. In this situation, you need an editor who will defer to your authority as author-publisher but who will at the same time ensure that your writing will be polished and professional enough to suit your particular readership.

Are the editor's fees appropriate? Editorial fees can range from as low as $20.00 an hour to over $100.00 an hour (or the equivalent charged on a per-page or project basis). Fees are typically based on a combination of the editor's experience and the level of job they are undertaking. You need to decide in your own mind what you require, why you require it, and how much you can and will pay. There is no particular rule to guide you—it's mostly a matter of common sense. You don't need to pay $150.00 an hour for basic copyediting. At the same time, don't expect a competent stylistic or substantive editor to work for less than $50.00 an hour.

To find out more about freelance editors, their professional development, and the range of work they do, consult the following editorial associations:

Hiring a freelance editor is not in itself your dream come true. But hiring and working with a competent one could pave the way to your true destiny as a writer: that is, to meet the right acquiring editor or to self-publish to great acclaim.

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