Whether you’re an unpublished writer or in the process of publishing your first book, it’s important to know what different types of editors actually do. Without understanding what different editors do, you might make a common mistake which is just to think ‘editor’ means one job only! You may also react with fear and horror when one of your editors sends you a giant document full of feedback!
Many newbie writers don’t understand how to work with an editor and can really shoot themselves in the foot, so-to-speak, by overreacting to suggested changes.
The way different types of editors approach your manuscript varies widely depending on the the publishing house, their level of expertise, and how many other projects they’re juggling.
If you read last week’s post where I suggest writers always set PAID goals, you’ll understand this is because I feel it exposes you to different types of editors (in newspapers, print and online). This will really improve your writing and make you much easier to work with when you submit your book.
I put together the below guide to the different types of editors you’ll encounter in a publishing house, what to expect, and how you can work with them. I truly believe good editors are the unsung heroes of the publishing world. They exist for nothing more than to make your writing better, they’re often juggling multiple projects (depending on the size of the publishing house, your book editor could be working on 5-10 manuscripts at a time!), and when you work with a good editor you learn so much about storytelling and story structure – if you keep an open mind to their suggestions.
Read on for a breakdown of different types of editors.
Note: you may receive anywhere between just one or 4-5 different edits once your manuscript is signed to a publisher. It depends on the quality of the manuscript and their staff and budget.
Developmental / Structural Editors
You need to read this bit if: You’ve just inked the deal with your dream publisher, the cheque is in the mail, you’re singing and dancing because your manuscript sparked a bidding war…. Etc. etc. etc. Yes, celebrate. But also be aware that there’s more work still to do! I once met a first-time author who truly thought once she’d submitted the manuscript, the publishing house would do the rest. She was SHOCKED when she received their (extensive) feedback report.
You need to work WITH your editor. That will mostly be with your developmental editor. Read on for what they do…
Developmental / Structural editing is big-picture editing. A good developmental editor will spot inconsistencies in your plot or character development (my excellent editor Alexandra Nahlous gently brought up a few embarrassing inconsistencies in the early draft of Love & Other U-Turns). They read through your manuscript considering what works in the story and what doesn’t. Is the theme consistent through-out? Does every chapter add to the growth of the main character or the narrative arc as a whole? Where does the story ‘go’? A developmental editor will also look at chronology and pacing and suggest changes.
When I originally submitted Love & Other U-Turns to Allen & Unwin, I had it in a flashback sequence which was quite complicated (one chapter current day, alternate chapters in the past, meeting in the middle then moving to sequential…. not sure what I was thinking!!). Alex painstakingly re-ordered the story to be chronological, suggesting some deletions so that we kept the pace moving.
The structural / developmental edit is typically the first edit you’ll get once you sign with a traditional publishing house and may come a month or more after you’ve submitted the manuscript (you should get an idea of timelines when you sign a contract).
As well as a ‘marked-up’ (annotated) manuscript – most editors track changes and the author can either accept or reject them – you will typically receive an editorial feedback report. The feedback report will give you this general feedback and then the annotated manuscript will include individual comments and suggestions for how you could approach each issue (by deleting, merging or re-writing certain parts).
Structural editing focuses on chapter sequences, chapter length, and whether or not your chosen structure (linear or flashback, for example) is working. You may also get some notes on whether you’re mixing up past and present tense (I did!) but generally these more specific grammatical edits will be more detailed later on in the publishing timeline.
For A Letter From Paris, the first feedback report on my manuscript was almost 30 pages long! It’s easy for writers to be overwhelmed at this stage, if there’s lots of suggested changes, but rest assured that you will learn so much by going through your editor’s notes and considering each and every change.
Most editors will start with what’s working (so you don’t feel completely devastated by their critique!!) and then move to high level feedback , chapter-by-chapter feedback, and/or feedback on certain characters or any legal issues.
I didn’t accept every single change suggested by my first editor from A Letter From Paris (I left the chapter about my dad’s Commando service early in the book) but mostly I did. I knew she understood my ultimate goal with the book, and we had met face to face which really helped.
Remember that your editor is basically your first ‘audience’. If they tell you that you’re coming across in a certain way, trust that you are. Their job is to make your book better than you could make it on your own. This involves some tough love!
Note: This editor may or may not be the commissioning editor for your book: ie. the person who made an offer and wanted to buy it.
If you get a long feedback report and your first reaction is to freak out, try to reframe it as an honour and a privilege. A huge pile of notes doesn’t mean you’re a terrible writer, it doesn’t mean you will never be good enough for this editor…. But these are natural reactions, to feel like we’ve ‘failed’. Remember that editors are paid to notice problems! They’ve given your manuscript as much care and consideration as if they were the one out there, with all their words (and life, in the case of memoir) to see!
Sit with your feedback for awhile before you start re-drafting the book. Read it a few times. Print it out, make your own notes…. Then make a cup of tea, open up your laptop, and start your new draft.
Unpublished author tip:
If you have your manuscript written, and you’re in the process of submitting to publishing houses, and you KNOW your structure needs work, you can either hire a beta reader or a developmental editor to give you a written feedback report. The better your manuscript is before you start sending it to publishers, the more likely it will be snapped up.
As I said, with Love & Other U-Turns, I had worked very hard after two very detailed beta reads (thankfully I have a lot of friends who are English teachers!), using their notes to re-structure & edit my work. If you can’t pay for a beta read or developmental read, find an English teacher or passionate reader in your midst and ask if they would be so kind as to give you some high-level notes.
Depending on whether you have an index, images, or some other aspect of your book that will take a bit more work, you may only receive one round of copy edits or you may receive more than three.
Your copy editor (who may or may not be the same person who did the developmental edit, sometimes publishing houses outsource different edits and use freelancers at busy times), will go over your manuscript with a fine-toothed comb. Sometimes the copy editor is called the line editor.
At this stage, when your manuscript is structurally fairly sound, your copy editor will be looking at clarity, coherency, consistency, and correctness. There may be fact-checking at this stage (because this is getting close to the printed version of your book) and you may receive a style sheet from your editor. The style sheet will include common words in your manuscript that may have different spelling (you need to make a decision and stay consistent), as well as capitalisation, slang, spelling, hyphenation (em-dash versus en-dash, no I still don’t know for sure when you use one over the other!!!), dialogue tags, descriptive inconsistencies, point-of-view, tense changes and more.
The style sheet will also be used at the proofreading stage.
Unpublished author tip:
Search and replace in Word is your friend. Find ‘blind spots’ in your writing by doing a ‘find all’ if you suspect you repeat certain words or phrases. I did a ‘find all’ on one of my early drafts of A Letter From Paris and found hundreds of examples of ‘I’ as the beginning of a sentence. Argh! A common problem in memoir. Try to mix these things up a bit. Also be sure to print your manuscript out, leave it for a few weeks, then look at it with fresh eyes. It’s amazing what you can pick up after you’ve had a break.
Congratulations, your book is almost ready to be sent to the printers! By the time you’re up to an editor proofreading your manuscript, it has usually been typeset. You will get the chance to look at the proofread copy (and any notes they may have or final questions). You may receive a proof copy of your book (this is when the manuscript is typeset) with a plain cover, sometimes called an ARC (advance reader copy). These are cheaper than printing the book in colour and allow problems in layout and formatting to be picked up before much more money is wasted!
The proofreading stage is a final chance for you to find any errors, typos, and basically the same sorts of grammatical errors that a copy editor would look for with a focus on the visual side of things. What do I mean?
Awkward page breaks, widows and orphans, captions, page numbers, layout of sentences, that sort of thing. This is important for you to realise as the author, because if you suddenly decide you want to re-write an entire chapter, or do anything that influences the number of pages and the visual layout at this stage, things can get really, really tricky.
So, to give you an example from my own first proof copy, after crying a few times in happiness at seeing my book for the first time with a spine and everything, I realised the moniker I had given someone was a bit too close to his real name. So when I considered changing it, I made sure I chose a name with the same number of letters.
You will usually have to provide a response to the proofed copy with any page numbers and typos or errors you spot, either as a word document or on the physical copy, depending how your publisher works.
There’s a saying in publishing circles that if you want to find an error, send a book to the printers. It’s horrifying to have that beautiful experience of publication tainted by spotting an error, but rest assured that it’s more common than you think.
If there’s lots of structural changes at the final stages, it can really increase your chances of errors, so publishers like to allow lots of time for the different edits. But humans are fallible. And books are written by humans, after all!
Don’t forget to download your Memoir Revision Checklist!