What type of editing do I need?

In this post we looked at what the different types of editing are. But how do you know which you need?

I’m going to assume here that we’re talking about a book, as opposed to an article or a dissertation, although the principles are similar. I’m also going to assume that you’ve carried out several rounds of your own editing and you’re pretty sure you’re at the final draft stage. And that you’ve decided what you intend to do with your book.

If you’re planning to submit it to publishers or agents then your editing needs will be
different from someone who’s planning to self-publish.

A developmental edit

What is it? – getting another point of view on your book as a whole. A developmental edit is concerned with the ‘big picture’, looking at issues such as pacing, plot, characterisation, and setting.

Do you need it? – yes, at least in some form. Whether you’re going to go down the traditional route of trying to find a publisher, or you’re going to self-publish, it’s important to have fresh eyes look at your work as they’ll often notice things you were just too close to spot. There are several ways to achieve this. You could:

  • hire an editor for a full developmental edit (sometimes called a substantive edit)
    They’ll take a critical look at your work, analyse its content and structure (such as pacing, plot, characterisation and setting) and suggest how it could be improved. They’ll also look at the style of the writing and will alert you to issues such as repetition and wordiness. This can be a very detailed process which results in major changes, so you’ll need to have a thick skin and be prepared to work with your editor.
  • hire an editor for a manuscript critique/assessment
    This is similar to a developmental edit, but somewhat less involved. You’ll receive a report listing areas that could be reviewed and strengthened. This report can be in great depth or it may be shorter. Shop around and find the right service for you.
  • find some beta readers or a writing group
    Competent beta readers read draft manuscripts and give feedback to the writer on the same kinds of areas that a developmental editor would look at. There are professional beta readers who will charge for the service, while others do it for free, because they enjoy doing it. Or it can be a reciprocal arrangement amongst members of a discerning writing group. Note the terms ‘competent’ and ‘discerning’ – you’re going to need to find people who know what they’re talking about.

It’s totally up to you which method you choose. Clearly, a full, professional developmental edit is going to give you the highest level of feedback, but it’s an involved, specialist service from an expert (and will cost accordingly – be prepared!). But not every writer will want this, and your budget simply may not stretch that far. You may prefer to choose one of the other options. But don’t skip this step. An objective opinion is vital.

Can you just get your friends and family to read it? Well, of course you can, but are they going to be able to give you honest, constructive criticism, or are they just going to be kind? And will they be able to spot problems like weak characterisation or pacing issues? Only you can know!

A copy-edit

What is it? – the process of reviewing and correcting a manuscript to improve readability and ensure accuracy and consistency. It covers issues such as spelling, punctuation and grammar; repetition and wordiness; sentence structure; and character and plot inconsistencies and impossibilities. There isn’t one standard definition of copy-editing, or even a consensus among editors; some editors will look at issues that others don’t (see this post for more of an explanation). When hiring a copy-editor, don’t worry too much about what they call their service, but it’s ALWAYS a good idea to make sure you understand exactly what they are going to be doing and how much line editing or structural work is included.

Do you need it? – maybe.

If you’re planning to submit your book to a traditional publisher, then I’d suggest you don’t need a copy-edit. If a publisher decides to publish your book they’ll have their own copy-editor work with you, so paying for the same thing beforehand is rather a waste of your time and money. However, if your manuscript has been through several drafts and you’re sure any big picture issues have been ironed out, then a heavy copy-edit that involves line editing and structural issues might be a good alternative to hiring a developmental editor.

Whatever you choose at this point, you will need to do your absolute best to ensure your manuscript is error free before submitting it to publisher or agent. A book riddled with spelling and grammatical mistakes is not going to be an attractive proposition, no matter how good the story is, and your chances of acceptance may be reduced.

If you’re planning on self-publishing, then I strongly advise you to have your book copy-edited. You really don’t want to print several hundred copies only to have someone point out that one of your characters changes hair colour halfway through, or for reviews to criticise the sub-par grammar and inconsistent spelling. Self-publishing is no longer looked down on as it once was, but there are an awful lot of badly written books out there. You want yours to be of the same high standards as a traditionally published book.

A proofread

What is it? – a final quality control check before publication. A proofreader looks for spelling, punctuation and grammar issues, typos, and obvious errors and inconsistencies.

Do you need it? – maybe

Again, if you’re going to pursue traditional publishing, then you don’t need to have anyone proofread your book. The publisher will take care of this after the copy-editing is complete and the book has been formatted. However, if you have concerns about spelling and other issues causing your book to be rejected, you could choose to have a proofreader tidy up your manuscript before you submit. That’s a judgement call just for you!

If you’re self-publishing, then, yes, you absolutely need a proofread to pick up on those sneaky little typos that have managed to elude everyone up to this point. You really don’t want your reviews full of negative comments about spelling errors.

Costs, budgets and compromises

If you’re planning on self-publishing, you’ll no doubt have noticed that I’ve recommended you need all three – developmental editing, copy-editing and proofreading. In an ideal world, that’s true, and will make for the highest quality book. But in the real world, it’s highly possible that your budget won’t stretch to all three, and you may have to make some compromises.

We’ve discussed working with fellow writers to provide manuscript assessments for each other. You could have a similar set up for proofreading, leaving you with just a copy-edit to pay for. But be sure the people you’re working with are conscientious and meticulous.

Think laterally. Instead of hiring a developmental editor, it may be effective to work through several drafts of your book with beta readers then hire a copy-editor who’ll include line and structural editing. A good copy-editor will soon let you know if they think your book isn’t ready for this stage yet and still needs work.

Shop around to find an editor who is sensitive to your budget. Many will offer a discount if you book them for more than one round of editing on your book, such as copy-editing and proofreading. Or they’ll be willing to accept payment in instalments. Or they may offer a discount if you’re happy for them to fit your edit into gaps in their schedule, even if that means waiting longer for it to be completed.

There’s even one way in which friends and family can definitely help you with your book. Instead of buying you yet another sweater for Christmas, ask them for a donation to your editing costs instead!

There’s never one path to success. Your ultimate goal is to have your book polished to its best
and looking professional, but in the end only you can decide how much or how little editing you want along the way.

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