Thursday, October 20, 2011

Choosing an Editor

I've had some friends ask me what criteria I used to select my editor. I knew I needed one, but I had no clue what editing meant. I contacted editors and sent my writing to them for a sample edit. I received varied responses from brief comma-corrections, to a thoughtful and detailed critique and analysis of my sample.

I soon learned that editing meant different things to different people. Here are the categories, from most basic to highly developed.

  • Copy editing: basic grammar and punctuation. A sentence might not make sense, but if it is grammatically correct, then the editor will leave it alone. Let's look at the following sentence.
Beraiah launched into another jump, clearing a creek and splashing to the other side.
A copy editor would look at it and debate whether to use an Oxford comma or not. She would not worry about the presence of two present participials and whether they make sense in time sequence or not. There is very little judgment call involved.
  • Line editing: As the name suggests, the editor will look at lines of prose and work on sentence structure, tone, style, word choice and overall flow. Taking the sentence above, the line editor would wonder whether it might be better corrected as.
Beraiah launched into another jump and cleared the creek before splashing on the other side.
Beraiah launched into another jump, cleared the creek, and splashed to the other side. 
They might also look for overused words, echoes, mis-used words, and trim redundant words, look for readability issues like buried dialogues, overuse of introductory present participial phrases (PPP), misplaced modifiers and proper paragraph breaks.

  • Content Editing: Now we're talking your story. A content editor will look beyond the writing as a piece of prose and analyze elements such as point of view, adverb usage, showing vs. telling, and comment on pacing, characters, flashbacks and back story, and suggest places to cut and areas to expand. The content editor will also critique for character motivations, emotional tells, unclear point of view, stylistic issues, use of cliches, either too much or too little description, plot holes, unexplained settings, and other story issues. They would also notice sentences that, while grammatically correct, make no sense. Take the following example:
The wind blew through the tree-lined path, casting moving shadows in the moonlight.
A content editor would notice that even though the sentence is grammatically correct, the wind does not cast shadows and ask you to rewrite or maybe not, if she decides the sentence fits poetically with the mood of the scene. 
More importantly than sentence analysis, she may suggest rewrites where your story structure is weak, or your plot does not hold up. A content editor understands how to write and critique a story. She has to be creative and artistic to not only see what is in front of her, but to envision how the story could be better.

  • Developmental Editing: The editor may work with you before you've even written the story. She will help with theme, premise, concept, setting up the plot points, and even ghostwrite. Most of us cannot afford this level of editing. So I only include this for completeness.
There is also proofreading, but this is done after all edits are completed and usually involves a sharp-eyed person who looks for typos, formatting errors, and obvious punctuation errors.

Once I understood the levels of editing, I was able to compare the samples, as well as the competitiveness of the pricing. A copy edit should be priced less than a content edit. The answers to the quiz sentences combined with the sample edit showed which level of editing the editor was considering.

Here are the sample sentences (with an introductory and trailing PPP added for good measure):

Before: Beraiah launched into another jump, clearing a creek and splashing to the other side. 

After: Beraiah launched into another jump, cleared a creek, and splashed to the other side.
B: Chileab stopped to look at his fingernails after dropping his spear.

A: Chileab dropped his spear and stopped to examine his fingernails
B: “Who, what?” Confused voices craned for answers.

A: "Who, what?" Confused voices clamored for answers.
B: In an instant of time, David caught the king’s piercing look and dodged. A whoosh passed his head and the thud cracked the wall where he had been.

A: David caught the king's piercing look and ducked. Something whooshed past his ear. Too close. The king's spear cracked the wall with a sharp thud.
B: The wind blew through the tree-lined path, casting moving shadows in the moonlight.

A: I chose to keep this sentence because all the alternatives were too stilted and awkward.

[babies cry]
B: Putting Jonathan’s treasures on the table, I stumbled to the cradles, Ittai following close behind. [she stumbles because she just found out her father and all her brothers are dead.]

A: I set Jonathan's treasures on the table and stumbled to their cradles. [We can assume Ittai followed because he admires the babies next.]

I'm happy to say that I found an editor to work with. She not only marked up the sample, but she provided comments that explained why she changed something, as well as detailed comments with suggestions and critiques. She's doing Nanomowri and starts Dec. 1, so I have about six weeks to enhance the description, deepen the POV, and heighten the emotion before sending it to her.

Here's a article comparing copy editing and content editing.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Great post! very beneficial info. I never knew there were that many different types of editors. Looks like the content editor should be the one of choice...or at least the first one to do the edits. Without a solid plot, characters, POV and such, there isn't much use in the other editors, UNTIL these criteria are met.

    Thanks for sharing ;)

  3. It does depend on how much intervention you want. If you're confident about your plot, characters and story you could go with the line edit, to look for word echoes, sentence structure problems, etc.

    The content editor requires another return trip to look at your changes and make sure you didn't introduce any errors during rewrites. But don't expect too much from the content editor. If you don't have a solid story, you should work with a developmental editor.

  4. Very informative, Rachelle! Editors are so important, every writer/author needs to read this.