What Kind of Editing Do You Need?I spend the vast majority of my working hours editing manuscripts for clients, and I love it. It’s the culmination of my lifelong dream of finding a way to support myself by reading. (I know many of you probably have the same dream, and let me assure you, it is awesome.)

One of the challenges of this work, though, especially as someone who runs her own business, is that the definitions of the various types of editing differ from person to person. So I thought it might be helpful for me to share the ways I define the key kinds of editing.

I’ll be using the metaphor of landscape design, as taught to me by my talented father, because I love him, and well, I’m thinking about my garden a lot.

The Landscape Design Phase – The Developmental Editing Stage

For most of us, including me, who do developmental editing, this work is the big picture stuff.  Here, an editor may help you take a loose concept of a book or shorter piece and pull into full flesh, or she may help you do big work to make your book stronger. Typically, developmental editing is done with nonfiction manuscripts, but on occasion, I have done it for novels as well.

Oftentimes, developmental editing includes:

  • Working with you to create an outline or structure for your book idea.
  • Suggesting complete reorganization or restructuring of a draft.
  • Recommending additions or deletions from the text.
  • Offering advice about the visual layout of the text on the page.
  • Providing advice as you revise the book over a period of months.

Because this is substantial work – and is, thus, sometimes called “substantive editing” – the cost for this kind of editing is high. For example, a developmental edit of a book of 80,000 words could cost at least $5,000, but for this price, you’ll be getting a professional guide for your entire book.

A good developmental edit will help you create a book that serves your purposes, is accessible to the readers you seek, and is beautiful, too, just like a stunning landscape design for a building.

Existing Landscape Consultation – The Content Editing Stage

In my work, content editing is the next tier on the editing cake. Here, the edits are about making a manuscript that already exists as strong as it can be, and typically, the feedback is less intensive and requires less overhauling of the whole manuscript.

A content edit often includes:

  • Suggestions on specific changes to specific scenes of the book.
  • Notes about characters and what we may need to know or not know about them.
  • Questions about the details of the story in an effort to bring in more description or clarify a point.
  • Observations about inconsistencies in the manuscript.
  • Feedback on the style and formatting of the text on the page.

Typically, here, the book-wide changes in organization and focus have already been done – either by the editor himself or with the help of a developmental editor – and now, a content editor is going to help give more consistency of shape and function to your manuscript. The cost here is still going to be relatively high because you are getting specific assistance with the text, so expect prices similar to or maybe slightly less than a developmental edit.

Think of this level of editing as having a master gardener come into your space and suggest adding a few more hydrangea here or taking out that particular crepe myrtle because it’s shading out that part of the story.

Pruning, Trimming, and Edging – The Line Editing Stage

In the line editing stage, which is sometimes called copy editing, an editor will move through your manuscript line by line to make it more readable, clear, rhythmic, and correct.  The feedback here is much more about the language than it is about the content in this level of editing.

Often, a line edit will include:

  • Direct changes to the sentences to add sentence variety, correct errors, and improve the readability.
  • Corrections in grammatical, mechanical, and typographical errors.
  • Suggestions about paragraph breaks and/or sentence combination or devision to improve clarity.

Here, you will get an edit that makes your manuscript more readable and accessible. The work here is still time-consuming, but given that the editor isn’t thinking about the overall book as much as the individual sentences, the price is usually lower than a content edit but higher than a straight-forward proofread.

I find it helpful to think about this stage as the work that we do to make our books as healthy and vibrant as they can be. Just like we prune trees, trim hedges, and edge flower beds, a line edit makes everything as pretty and pleasing as possible.

Weeding and Dead Heading – The Proofreading Stage

The last part of any writing process needs to be proofreading, and sometimes, people mistake proofreading for all the editing that a manuscript needs. (I have never known that to be the case, by the way.)  Proofreading is detail work, the final thing that is done once the content and the sentences are set. It does no good to proofread a work if it’s going to change again, so this is always the last thing that happens to the text of a book before it goes to print.

Proofreading includes:

  • Eliminating all typographical, mechanical, grammatical, and spelling errors.
  • Reviewing the text for consistency in the use of dashes, hyphens, citations, etc.
  • Confirming consistency in heading format.

Here, you are hiring someone to make your work look polished and professional, which is crucial to effective book sales and a good reputation as a writer. Because the work here is relatively quick but still comprehensive, your cost will probably be a bit lower than line editing.

Sometimes, a line editor will do this work as well, but often, proofreading is separate work. Consider it to be like the weeding and the dead heading of your existing landscape to make it gorgeous just before the big garden tour comes through.

But Wait, There’s More

On this continuum of editing, we also have services like ghost writing or co-writing (i.e. the landscape architects and installation crews), manuscript reviews (a landscape consultant who gives you an overall analysis of your existing grounds and offers general tips for how to improve it), and fact-checking (the garden center specialist who can tell you whether that plant grows in the shade or needs more acidic soil). If these are services you need, you will want to seek out an editor that does that kind of work specifically.

Different Editors Do Different Things

These are MY definitions of these terms, and every editor has a slightly different way of defining these services. So when hiring an editor, think first about what you need and then find an editor who provides that. Set up a consultation. Ask for a sample edit. Talk through what you’re expecting and don’t rely on the terms as a way of knowing what service you’ll get.  If you do, you may end up disappointed because the service doesn’t provide all you need.

One final note here – editing is not a cheap endeavor, so save up your funds and budget for this in your plan for book launch.  A professional editor will elevate your book in ways you cannot imagine, and you will only be shooting yourself in the foot if you skimp here.

So now, what questions do you have about editing? I’ll do my best to answer or get some of my colleagues to chime in.

Thanks to Anaik Alcasas of Reflect Editorial, Andrea Hultman of The Polished Opal, Megan Langston of Megan Langston Copy, and Lisa Thompson of Write By Lisa for all their help in thinking through our various definitions of these terms.