The Importance of Being Edited

editing-188x250 copyBack when I was writing Getting Naked for Money, a memoir focused on how I came to be a travel editor and writer, I figured the book had better be as damn near close to error free as I could get it to ensure its credibility. I was also on a mission to prove that self-published books can be as good as — or better than — traditionally published ones.

I raised funds through Kickstarter not only to get great cover art and design and to pay for copies to be produced by Amazon KDP but also to get excellent editing at all stages of the process.

Since I’m currently spending a lot of time on the other side of the editorial desk,  I decided to bring back this handy primer on what exactly it is that editors do — and why they’re needed. A lot of people still don’t have a clue.

It doesn’t help that the terms are all over the map.

Editing 101

When I said in a Kickstarter update that I sent my book to be copy-edited, many people took that to mean — correctly — that the end was nigh. But definitions of the term “copy-editing” vary, and my book went through several other editing phases before that.

Macro: Developmental editing

Coaching (sports or birth), cheerleading, tough loving… I’ve seen all these metaphors applied to this initial stage when someone looks at your manuscript or book proposal/sample chapters and gives you big picture advice. Developmental editing does not delve into individual sentences or style issues, except to enumerate patterns that the author might need to pay attention to.

Who needs it and when?

Fiction writers, nonfiction writers… pretty much everyone who isn’t writing a book that has a strict format to follow needs developmental editing. Am I Boring My Dog: And 99 Things Every Dog Wishes You Knew, which was organized around 100 questions, was a typical exception. Most nonfiction — and perhaps especially memoir — needs shaping.

I was appalled to find the following statement on a blog post discussing the costs of self-publishing a nonfiction book:

“I felt developmental editing wasn’t worth it (the events really happened, so I thought I was safe enough relaying real events while leaving out the boring bits!)”

Anyone who has ever been cornered at a cocktail party knows that very few people can judge whether or not they are being boring. I find pretty much every aspect of my life riveting. Others don’t always agree.

Getting Naked went through several rounds of developmental editing:

  • When I was looking for an agent, many years ago, I had an editor cast a cold eye on my sample chapters and proposal.
  • After finishing the Kickstarter campaign, I hired an editor to review a manuscript that was about half-way completed.
  • Before I sent the finished and revised manuscript to copy-editing, I had it read for consistency and pacing.

I also had friends, some of them professional writers, look at chapters along the way. They made many useful suggestions and, especially, offered support. But I also wanted the opinion of experts who didn’t know me and would be willing speak honestly without fear of insulting me.  In the nicest way, of course.

Perhaps the need for developmental editing is more obvious in fiction because authors don’t usually have facts as a safety net to fall back on. A good editor will tell you if your plot makes sense, if characters disappear for no reason or say or do say things you wouldn’t expect them to do or say based on earlier descriptions — to cite just a few things.

Micro: Line editing, copy-editing, and proofreading

These three types of editing–it’s arguable if proofreading really belongs in this category–are more difficult to distinguish from one another and they’re sometimes conflated in editing packages (see next section). When I was looking for a copy-editor, I found a wild variation in the level of changes made in the samples I asked for. (Yes, you can ask for samples. And yes, you can expect to pay, though not everyone charges.)

In general, line editing looks at things like sentence structure, wordiness, use of passive voice, and transitions between sentences and paragraphs. A heavy line edit can improve a manuscript dramatically.

Copy-editing changes are usually more superficial. Using a guide such as The Chicago Style Manual or the Associated Press Stylebook as a reference, a copy-editor will provide consistency for details such as book titles and film titles, punctuation (hoorah for the Oxford comma), and spelling. Copy-editing should also correct basic grammatical errors.

In theory, proofreading just makes sure that the changes made in line editing and copy-editing have been implemented correctly. Some proofreaders, however, suggest corrections that go beyond that mandate. More power to them, I say!

A la Carte vs Prix-Fixe Editing for Self-Publishers

I vetted and chose different editors for each phase of the process and consider the freedom to select an editor and to take or leave suggested changes to be one of the prime advantages of self-publishing. Traditional publishers have become notoriously lax about developmental and line editing while at the same time remaining inflexible bout imposing copy-editing strictures.

Stories of authors having to wrestle stick-in-the-mud copy-editors to the ground to get them to accept their preferences are legion. The copy-editor for Am I Boring My Dog decided that every “like” in my book — when used to express “for example”  — needed to be changed to “such as.” I’m as fond of a well-placed “such as” as the next girl but “like” is more colloquial and fit the voice of my book far better. I won that battle, but it shouldn’t have been a struggle to begin with.

I was mocked for my desire to control all phases of the editing process by a professor friend who had published several nonfiction books through university presses and decided to self-publish a mystery/thriller with a cheap Createspace package program (these no longer exist).

You get what you pay for.

The book spent way too much time in the mind of a serial killer and the author eventually knocked off the very appealing narrator, thus eliminating any possibility of a sequence or a series. That’s pretty basic stuff that any regular reader of the genre could have told my friend; it should have been job one for a professional editor.

In addition, there were spelling errors, typos, and inconsistencies in the style of the dialogue.

All in all, it looked amateurish. Because I only saw the book when it was already in print, it was too late to say anything.

Mea not culpa, my friend. You coulda hired me. 

Edie’s Edits: On the Other Side of the Red Pencil

That’s true now more than ever.

With my travel writing and dining review assignments on hold, I’ve been doing a lot more editing — which I really like. It’s restful for me to nudge people other than myself to generate words.

It’s especially gratifying when I am not only paid, but openly appreciated. For my last project, the author wrote:

Thank you to Edie Jarolim for sifting through scraps of stories, for gently encouraging and coaching me to give them form, and for her professional editing.

The cherry on top? I subsequently discovered that potential clients do pay attention to names in acknowledgement sections.

This past weekend, I got an inquiry about editing a contemporary romance from a newbie writer. In addition to asking me about my rates — I use those posted by the Editorial Freelance Association as a guideline — she wanted to know which well-known practitioners of that genre I had edited. I truthfully answered “none” but noted that I’ve worked on a variety of fiction and nonfiction books. Good, well-paced writing cuts across literary categories, I said.

She decided to go with beta readers — that’s a whole other post — but we had a pleasant, productive dialogue. I finally asked her how she found me since I didn’t seem to fit one of the key criteria of her editorial search: experience with contemporary romance books.

It seems that one of her favorite romance writers thanked “Edie’s Edits” in her acknowledgements — and was the first to come up on a Google search for that phrase.

Good to know. I bought the domain name, just to be safe.

But you can still reach me through this site’s contact form if you’ve decided this is the perfect time to resurrect the novel you’ve been hiding in your sock drawer or to write a family history or memoir — or anything else. I and my editing portfolio contain multitudes.

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About the Author

Edie Jarolim is a writer and editor living in Tucson, Arizona. Sign up on this blog to get updates about her humorous tell-all/memoir, GETTING NAKED FOR MONEY: An Accidental Travel Writer Reveals All.

6 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Great blog post! I may have to read it several times. And now I feel funny I asked you to look at some very premature essays. Oops.

  2. David B. Crawford says:

    That sounds like an expensive ordeal.

  3. Karyn Zoldan says:

    I don’t have the focus to write a book but in my next lifetime, I’d hire you in a New York minute.

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