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How an Editor Will Make You a Better Writer

Everyone knows what editors do…or do they? Most authors understand that editors find mistakes in a manuscript, but a good editor does a lot more than that! No matter how much a manuscript has been edited by the author or how flawless the author thinks the manuscript is, working with an editor is always worthwhile. Many of the best books would be unrecognizable without the help of their editors.

A good editor improves a manuscript through objectivity and experience and is an invaluable asset for any writer. A quality editorial process can make a big difference in the ultimate success of the book.

An editor will draw on her years of experience to examine the structure of a manuscript, its tone and contents, the way the information flows, what is included—and even what isn’t included—and assess how all those elements work together to inform, educate, and entertain a reader. A good editor will not only tell an author what is and isn’t working in the manuscript, but will also provide concrete suggestions about how to fix those issues.

How do you know what kind of editor you need? There are several different levels of editing, each of which will produce a different result.

Developmental and content. Developmental and content editing is what shapes the book into a cohesive unit. This stage focuses on structure, overall style, and the big picture content. Does the voice shift from a disciplined teacher to a joking peer? Does the structure follow the natural train of thought? Is there an aspect of the subject missing that leaves questions unanswered? If the manuscript is fiction, does the main character’s personality remain consistent? These are just some of the questions that might be addressed in developmental editing. An editor’s feedback is helpful in this stage, because the author may be too close to the work to see the big-picture problems.

Line editing. Line editing is slightly more specific than developmental editing. In this stage, the editor will make sure that every word on the page matches its intent, is the appropriate reading level for the audience, is consistent in style and voice, transitions effectively, and reads smoothly. The line editor is more focused on style while the developmental editor is more focused on story or content.

Copyediting. Copyediting adds another level of specificity, and is usually the final step before the manuscript is set into type. The copy editor is responsible for correcting all grammar, spelling, and usage errors, as well as making sure the style is consistent. In this case, style refers to a style methodology, like The Chicago Manual of Style, which dictates how words, phrases, and typographical elements are used. A good copyeditor is also on the lookout for any phrasing or consistency issues that the line editor may have missed.

Proofreading. The proofreader steps in once the manuscript has been typeset. Since it becomes costly to make changes once already in the typeset form, the proofreader is purely responsible for correcting any lingering grammar and spelling errors as well as typographical errors. Usually the proofreader is also responsible for noting the correct page numbers in the table of contents, and double checking that all footnotes and endnotes are in the right place.

The best way to find a capable editor is by asking other authors or agents or taking a look at some similar books to see if an editor is listed in the acknowledgments. Freelance editors abound, it’s just a matter of finding the right one. Authors can also learn about and stay connected to the publishing industry through the many industry websites and blogs, such as Mediabistro, Bookjobs.com, PW Daily, Publishers Marketplace, and others. Finally, there are a few companies, such as Gotham Ghostwriters, that exist to help authors find ghostwriters and editors.

When you find an editor, make sure to talk to him or her about what types of books he or she has worked on in the past, and get samples if possible. Also, definitely don’t be afraid to call an editor’s references. That holds true for any freelancer you are considering hiring. It’s important to make sure that the person chosen does quality work on the schedule he or she puts forth and within the estimate he or she presents for the work. Speaking to people who have worked with the editor under consideration is a good way to ensure that the right person is found for this important job.

If you aren’t sure what kind of edit your manuscript requires, you can ask an editor for his or her opinion. A good editor should be honest and realistic about the strengths and weaknesses of a manuscript, and provide a realistic assessment of how much work the project needs and what that will cost. Just be sure that you are open to hearing your editor’s advice if you request it!

By Margot Atwell, President of Em Dash & Co. Literary Services
Margot Atwell is an editor and publishing consultant with over a decade of publishing experience, including editing and publishing multiple New York Times bestsellers. She is the President of Em Dash & Co. Literary Services (www.emdashandco.com). This article is adapted from her first book, The Insider’s Guide to Book Publishing Success.

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