This is usually followed by comments of ‘I used this guy once but it was a frustrating process’, or ‘mine was ok, but I’m not sure I’d recommend them.’
I’ve come across so many people who were really disappointed with the editor they hired to help them with their books or blog posts and in almost every case, once I’ve done some digging, I’ve discovered it was because their expectations of their editor were completely unrealistic.
The most common reason is that many people think the job of an editor is to take their words and re-write them to sound heaps better. That’s not editing, however. That’s ghost writing. Something that usually attracts a far higher price tag than editing (and for good reason. A skilled ghost writer takes your concepts and ideas, turns them into something coherent, ensures the writing sounds like you … and allows you to put your name on it even though you didn’t actually write it).
So, if editing isn’t ghost writing, what is it then?
In the perfect world, editing is four-stage process*. While it may seem that these four stages apply only to the editing of long-form content (like e-books and print books), it does also apply to short-form content like blog posts and articles:
Stage 1: Developmental editing
When we’re talking books, developmental editing occurs at the very start, preferably before you’ve started putting pen to paper. It’s where the editor considers both your idea and the intended market and determines whether:
- The idea is sound
- The idea will resonate with the intended market
They will also look at the ‘hook’ of your book – the angle from which you intend to deliver your idea – and help decide whether that’s the best angle, or if there’s another that would work better.
Editors of magazines and online publications also do the above when someone sends them an article or a pitch. They ask themselves ‘is this idea one that will resonate with our readers?’. If it won’t, they’ll either reject the piece or ask you to re-write it from a slightly different angle.
Stage 2: Structural editing
It doesn’t matter if your writing is amazing, your ideas brilliant and your target market perfectly primed to receive your ideas. If your book or article jumps around all over the place and doesn’t take the reader on a logical journey, it’s going to struggle to resonate and get traction.
When it comes to books, a structural editor will check that the order of chapters, and the sections within chapters make sense when it comes to delivering on the promise you’re making (via your title and sub-title). They ensure the information contained in each chapter is actually relevant to that chapter. They ensure the flow within each section and between each section is smooth and logical. They cut out stuff that doesn’t support the ideas you’re trying to communicate. They’ll also point out where the holes are (i.e. which bits need to be expanded on).
For a blog post or article, structure is just as important as it is for a book. You need to start with a strong hook, (pull the reader in), then deliver the information you’re trying to impart in a logical fashion that flows nicely and delivers a nice payoff for the reader.
Stage 3: Line editing
Once the structural editor is done and you’ve made the changed they’ve recommended, that’s when it’s time to bring in a line editor (often called a copy editor). These guys literally go through and look at each line.
- A 45-word sentence might be cut into two sentences.
- Redundant words like ‘that’ will be removed.
- Unnecessarily long and convoluted sentences will be shortened.
Line editors also check for grammar and consistency of formatting, (bullet points, headings, quotes etc), and ensure what you’ve written is clear as a bell and easy to read.
Stage 4: Proofreading
The human brain skips quite easily over typos because it tends to see what should be there, not what’s there. Taht’s wyh yuo cna qiute esaily raed tihs setnecne!
That means proof readers are worth their weight in gold. For every one of my books, literally hundreds of people read them prior to publication. And while those people did pick up errors and alert me to them, in every case, when my proof reader did her thing, she picked up heaps more tiny mistakes, errors and inconsistencies.
Shouldn’t the line editor have picked these things up? Not really. The line editor is busy ensuring every single line reads well. They can’t be expected to pick up every proofing error too (although they will pick up most).
I want my blog posts edited – do I need all of the above?
In short, yes. Which sounds crazy, but the reality is, the editor of any online publication or magazine is doing all of the above as a matter of course every time they assess an article for their site.
In my role as editor of Flying Solo, I work through every piece I accept for publication and ensure:
- The idea is one that is relevant to, and will resonate with, our readers.
- The article is structurally sound. (The first paragraphs contain a good hook and introduces the premise, the mid-section presents an argument to support that premise, and the conclusion wraps everything up nicely.)
- The grammar is good, each line is crystal clear and words, lines or paragraphs that aren’t necessary are removed.
- Formatting is consistent and there are no spelling errors.
What if you’re writing a book?
Then I’d highly recommend at least three, if not four separate people do each stage noted above.
While a good developmental editor is usually also a strong structural editor, the former approaches your book with from a marketing point of view. They will help make your book saleable by figuring out the best angle/premise for your idea to ensure it will resonate deeply with your intended market. The latter is all about setting up the bones of your book to best deliver that idea via strong narrative flow. These are related, but discrete skills.
Line editing is a different skill again. Where development and structural editing take a higher level view of your book, line editing goes deep into the weeds. As someone whose skills lie in the realm of structural editing, I’m well aware of my ability to be a ‘good enough’ line editor, but not a great one.
Finally, as already mentioned, asking someone to both line edit and proofread your book is setting both of you up for failure. Once your line editor has been through your book once, they would need to go through it again to proof read it. And once they’ve been through your book once, they lose the ability to proof read properly because proof reading should be done by a completely fresh pair of eyes.
If I can’t afford all these people, which should I choose?
I do understand that if we’re talking about a book, getting it edited by four different people is costly. So, if funds are limited, where should you spend them?
Line editing would be first. It doesn’t matter how good an editor you are of your own work, a good line editor will make everything so much clearer and make you sound so much better. They will also pick up most proofing errors.
Structural editing would be second. One, because a good structural editor will likely examine the book with a developmental mindset first. And two, if your book is not set up in a logical way, flow will be compromised and it will be hard to read.
Proofreading would be third. As I’ve already mentioned, you can send your book out to 10 people to read and they will get most of the proofing errors. A good proof reader simply takes the level of professionalism in your book up another notch.
Which leaves developmental editing to last. The one time you would bring developmental editing to the top of the list is when you’re self-publishing a book and it’s super-important to you that it goes well. In this situation, a developmental editor will be invaluable to you with regard to clarifying your idea, ensuring the angle you’re coming at that idea from will hook the intended reader strongly and also inspire them to share with their friends.
How to avoid being let down by an editor
The short answer is – make your expectations very clear.
For a book, ask the editor if they’re doing all four stages outlined in this blog post, or just one. It it’s all four they’re doing (and I really advise against one person doing this), the price difference will be much more than if they’re only doing the line edit.
If it’s a blog post you’ll want one of two things:
- A ‘full edit’
- Determine whether the core idea of the post is relevant to the target readers
- Determine whether the post is structured to deliver that idea in a logical and satisfying way
- Check for grammar and ensure each line ‘sparkles’
- Proof read
- A ‘line’ or ‘copy’ edit only. In which case you would expect they will:
- Check for grammar and ensure each line ‘sparkles’
- Proof read
Keep in mind that if it’s #1 you want, it will cost more than #2.
The final word
Editing is a process that’s poorly understood. Editors can help by establishing expectations before they quote. Writers/bloggers can help by making their expectations clear. My hope is that by reading the above, we all now know the right questions to ask at the start :)
* Many in the writing industry combine the first two stages above and preach a three-stage editing process. I strongly believe the first two stages are quite discrete skills and need to be discussed separately.