The Comprehensive Guide to Finding, Hiring, and Working with an Editor

From Jane Friedman:

As an independent developmental/substantive editor, I field a lot of the same questions every day. What is an editor? What do book editors do? How do I find one? How do I hire one?

The questions make sense—like book editing itself, an understanding of the editorial process happens almost exclusively in private author-editor interactions, and the specifics are rarely transferable between writers or projects. What’s an author to do? 

For anyone embarking on a search for your first, next, or best editor, may this article be your comprehensive guide.

What an Editor Is

Much confusion about editors and editing begins right here, at the meaning of the word editor. Consider the following sentences:

  • “I’m working with an editor to turn my keynote speech into a book.”
  • “The editor said I should delete my entire fourth chapter.”
  • “My editor caught all my typos.”
  • “The editor did a final proof yesterday.”

Editor means something (and someone) different in each of those examples. It used to confuse me, too, and that’s because we use a catch-all term when we shouldn’t. We employ the word editor to describe anyone who has anything to do with preparing words for publication, and we don’t realize that editors, in this umbrella sense of the word, don’t actually exist. Nobody out there is just an editor—there’s always a descriptive word that comes before (or instead) to describe where that individual sits on the continuum of the book-editing process. For both traditionally published and self-published authors, the continuum looks like this:

Developmental Editor → Substantive Editor → Copy Editor → Proofreader

Practically speaking, what this means for authors is that you need to know the lingo that editors use to describe the work we do. Looking for “an editor” to “edit your book” won’t get you very far because no one knows what that means—editors included. I’m sure the copy editors are working on that, and maybe that will be funny later.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

6 thoughts on “The Comprehensive Guide to Finding, Hiring, and Working with an Editor”

  1. Developmental Editor: Someone who thinks they know how to write better than you, in which case why are they not writing stories and dominating the market with their awesome work?

    Substantive Editor: Likewise, someone who supposedly knows how to write better than you, in which case why are they not writing stories and dominating the market with their awesome work?

    Copy Editor: Someone who does grammar, and if you lack confidence might offer a writer a way of learning stuff, but unless you have the story done right, won’t be much help.

    Proofreader: Useful person who gives fresh eyes on the manuscript; feel free to ignore their suggestions.

    The truth. Write, learn from your mistakes. Write something new, try not to repeat mistakes, learn from your new mistakes and write some more.

    • Good advice for an author or writer, but not for a real author or real writer. Just ask them.

    • Copy Editor: Someone who does grammar, and if you lack confidence might offer a writer a way of learning stuff, but unless you have the story done right, won’t be much help.

      Wouldn’t that be what the substantive editor is for? I’m reading this as if you’re being tongue in cheek, though, so I’m being cheeky, too 🙂 I disagree with Friedman, I think a good beta reader could address the “Getting the story right” portion, but if someone didn’t have a beta reader, I could see settling for a substantive editor. But I’d try hard to find a good beta reader instead. That said, a substantive editor often does line editing, which is geared to checking how well the words flow on the page. They also can do continuity checking — in chapter two you said the murder victim’s last words were “two by two, hands of blue,” but in chapter three the last words were said to be “three by three, feet of green,” so which one is it?

      But line editing is often moved to the copy editing, and the copy edit shouldn’t be skipped. At any rate, there is zero point in doing any copy editing if a writer still has revisions to do. Add in foreshadowing, drop in the clues, whatever, but no copy editing should happen before the writer is satisfied with the story. The workflow order is something I’ve seen a lot of writers get mixed up about, which is the only reason I mention it.

      In fairness to Friedman, she did mention that the proofreader is for the print proofs, as in, after the book has been typeset. That’s actually where the title of that job comes from. Proofreaders are checking for typos that may have been introduced after the typesetting, and they’re making sure that sentences, passages, or worse, entire chapters weren’t omitted in the layout. Or going the other way, making sure that sentences, passages, and chapters aren’t repeated. Ebook editions still count for the proofreader’s function.

      Ignore a beta reader’s suggestions, sure. A copy editor’s suggestions are not commands, either. Your heroine dreamt of Manderley, but the copy editor wanted her to say she dreamed of Manderley? You win, and everyone can live happily ever after. But proofreaders do not make suggestions; they flag problems or give instructions to the typesetter. Ignore the proofreader’s flags? Not so happy an ending. Proofreaders are like the Men In Black: they are your last, best hope of making sure the reader gets their money’s worth.

      • I think you are commenting from a tradpub perspective of what goes on when you submit a manuscript, and well… how do I say this?… yes, but, no. Don’t go there.

        I ‘m an independent published author, so I have a whole different perspective on the process. Writers are creative artists.

        For example, did Picasso repaint pictures according to a developmental painter suggesting changes? No he did not. Would you pay to own his work? Even his early pieces go for a small fortune.

        It’s a perspective thing. Tradpub has had its day, it’s time for writers to become artists again.

        • I think you are commenting from a tradpub perspective of what goes on when you submit a manuscript

          Hah! Nope! Try again! I am not tradpub, never have been, never will be.

          I will go there, without remorse, because you can’t school me on what being a writer is like: I’ve been one my whole life. I know writing is a creative process, even when writing nonfiction. The editing part is the professional process. Words matter. You know that.

          For example, did Picasso repaint pictures according to a developmental painter suggesting changes?

          Respond to the words that are actually in my post. I’ll help you:

          I disagree with Friedman, I think a good beta reader could address the “Getting the story right” portion, but if someone didn’t have a beta reader, I could see settling for a substantive editor. But I’d try hard to find a good beta reader instead.

          I even mentioned story problems a writer might want a beta reader to help her spot: foreshadowing and continuity checking. If a beta reader wasn’t available for that task, those types of issues are the reason I gave for ponying up for a substantive editor. I then made the point that a writer should never, ever, hire a copy editor before she’s satisfied that she’s addressed any such problems with her story.

          Why care about grammar or spelling errors in a chapter that might be cut? Or a scene that’s going to be cut and pasted from one chapter to another? The old errors get removed, and new errors will be introduced, which is why a copy editor should not be involved before all of that stuff is done.

          I have known dozens of writers — all indies — and have watched many more writers — all indies — try and grapple with what editors are, and what they do, and when to hire them, and if they should be “obeyed.” Addressing the obedience part, I wrote:

          Ignore a beta reader’s suggestions, sure. A copy editor’s suggestions are not commands, either. Your heroine dreamt of Manderley, but the copy editor wanted her to say she dreamed of Manderley? You win, and everyone can live happily ever after.

          That is clearly saying that beta readers make suggestions, and copy editor’s make suggestions, but the writer has the last word. Did the above lines really convey the idea I thought a story should be rewritten to please an editor?

          And I made a special emphasis on proofreaders because that was the part where it seemed you weren’t being tongue in cheek, and your remark would confuse the naive, which I’m against. When I wrote that, I was thinking of one poor soul — yes, an indie — who wasted a lot of money on editors because she didn’t understand what they do, or where they appear in the professional part of the process. I’ve repeatedly seen indies make mistakes like hers, and being pro indie, I like to help writers avoid such pitfalls.

          You will observe that I ignored developmental editors entirely. I will spell out why: Friedman’s description of them sounds abhorrent to me. I don’t see editors as collaborators on a story; I would never encourage a writer to hire one.

          Since you bring up Picasso, I like art history, but I didn’t get to study it as deeply as I wished. With that in mind, I am not aware of any artist, Picasso included, who never had to work on shading, on coloring, on composition, or never benefited from a “beta looker” who could tell them if they’d achieved the effect they were seeking.

          A Picasso asks a beta looker, “Tell me what this shade of blue says to you.” If the viewer thought the blue said “XYZ” but Picasso was going for ABC, do you think he didn’t continue mixing colors until the blue came out as ABC to the viewer? This is not at all in the neighborhood of someone telling him to work in yellow instead. Telling him to work in yellow is something I associate with tradpub. I think I’ve made it abundantly clear I am against that sort of thing.

          • You have. Please accept my apology. There was no intent to argue with you per se. You decided to take my comments the way you did. I don’t own that.

            The difference between us, assuming this is not a misunderstanding from a lack of tone, boils down to quote, “The editing part is the professional process. Words matter. You know that.”

            Sure, but… stories matter more. Editing comes second, and learning to self-edit is part of the process.

            YMMV, and probably does. AFAIC this exchange is over. Take care.

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