Which Level of Editing Does Your Manuscript Need?
It saddens me to see a new author in a forum ask for editing but not know there are multiple levels of editing or what each of those levels entails. I worry the majority of new authors quite easily fall into situations where they are scammed, because they don't recognize the true scope of what a professional editor does.
Hopefully, this blog post will be a resource for those authors.
This blog post will not discuss individual editor rates. There genuinely is no concrete answer for what is considered a fair rate. Yes, if an editor's rates are too low without explanation, there should be red flags that indicate further research is needed. But normally, each editor's experiences, novels edited, educational credentials, and previous employers come together like pieces of a puzzle to determine the correct rate of service for each editor. While there are industry averages that are essentially considered industry standards, there are many editors who price their services both below and above these rates. It is up to the author to find the right combination of puzzle pieces to equal a rate that fits within their budget. Each level of editing has a particular purpose and scope of focus. Let's start with the least involved and expensive form of editing - proofreading. We'll work towards the most detailed and expensive - developmental editing.
Proofreading is never your first line of defense when it comes to novel editing. This level of editing is merely a read-through of the novel, normally after all other levels of editing have been completed and changes made. Some editors prefer to complete proofreading in Microsoft Word, while others prefer to complete the proofread on the formatted manuscript file. This allows the editor to view headers, footers, paragraph spacing, and alignment, as well as any random misspellings or minor punctuation issues. Think of proofreading as the final clear coat of sealant on your newly built and stained deck; nothing is essentially changed about the manuscript, just an added level of protection.
Copy editing is the level where your editor will initially address those misspellings, punctuation, and grammar concerns. During this phase, an editor will make sure your entire manuscript is consistent with a pre-approved style guide, that all instances of numerals, Oxford commas, hyphenation, and any particular fictional languages adhere to the guidelines established by the author. You might also find that the editor will make sure that your word usage is intentional: that meet is not meat, ensure is not insure, site is not sight, and so on.
During copy editing, your sentence structure is not adjusted. Think of copy editing as the stain that goes on the newly built deck; the structure is polished and protected, but no boards or nails have been repositioned. This would be the level that authors with the time and experience put into their craft to produce initial clean drafts would request. It can also be requested as part of a line editing/copy editing package if the editor offers, separate services if they do not.
Line editing and developmental editing are my favorite of the four. These are the levels where an editor's expertise truly shines. Line editing focuses mainly on the readability of the novel and the potential experience for the reader. With the reader in mind, the editor makes sure sentences flow with reduced redundancy and repetition. Syntax and word choice are examined and adjusted accordingly. The editor corrects any instances of head hopping, tense changes, and excessive passive voice. One of the most fundamental focuses of line editing is also to point out where the author has told versus shown excerpts of the manuscript.
Where a reader may have just skimmed the surface of a story, a line editor will make it possible for the reader to immerse themselves in it. A talented line editor will truly elevate a story. Think of line editing as the sanding of the boards of the new deck you just built, smoothing the rough edges so that guests can run their hands on it without getting splinters that make them pause. I normally suggest this level of editing for most new authors stepping into self-publishing for the first time. It is also the level met with the most resistance. This is where loved sections may be cut or entire sentences restructured for improved flow. However, an experienced editor will be able to make these changes while maintaining authorial voice.
Finally, the last of the four editing levels! Whereas line editing focuses on the reader experience, developmental editing focuses on the story structure itself. A developmental editor looks at the story as a whole from a birds-eye view, taking in how the beginning, middle, and end intertwine to form a cohesive narrative arc. Sub plots are examined for proper development, spacing, and conclusion. Point of view is nailed down and made consistent, while characters are fleshed out and brought to life.
During this level, an editor mainly communicates through suggestions and examples, not as many hands-on changes. Genre-specific knowledge is applied to manuscripts, and any thematic issues are addressed. A developmental editor can also help with lengthening or shortening a story, brainstorming plot development, and giving atmospheric advice. Think of developmental editing as the actual building of your deck outside, rough boards pieced together in the appropriate order to form a recognizable and enjoyable space.
Though an editor will not make many comments or changes towards the grammar, punctuation, or syntax of the manuscript, this is still a great editing level for new authors looking for guidance. I have seen it stated that all new authors should start with a developmental edit; however, I have seen a few new authors with a fantastic, natural talent for storytelling and no need for a developmental editor. Always be sure to ask your potential, trusted editor for guidance in this regard.
I feel it necessary to reiterate here that beta readers are not adequate replacements for any level of editing. However, if you cannot afford a developmental editor and have no prospects for saving the funds for one, a group of beta readers will be your next best bet. It would be even better if you could follow up their comments and suggestions with a manuscript evaluation from a developmental editor. Often times, if your narrative arc has any potential problems, you will see this mentioned by more than one of the beta readers in your circle. Their suggestions for how to change it may not be accurate, but you can then approach a developmental editor with what was discussed with your beta readers and get additional guidance.
I hope this helps! Look forward to more information on what a book coach is and how they can work for you, as well as how to handle an editor's sea of red.