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.
In the meantime, what do all those different kinds of editors do?
The Four Kinds of Editors
Generally speaking, individual editors will specialize in one of the four levels identified above—developmental editing, substantive editing, copy editing, or proofreading. It’s rare, and inadvisable, to work with a single editor through all four. Why? Because an editor is not an editor is not an editor. We don’t all know how to do all the things. We were niching down before niching down was cool.
1. Developmental editing
“Just get it down on paper, and then we’ll see what to do with it.” —Max Perkins
I’m pretty sure you have to mention Max Perkins at least once in any article about editing.
Perkins more or less invented developmental editing early in the twentieth century by being the first editor of record to do more than correct typos and minor details in an author’s manuscript. Before him, his employer even had a policy against excessive fiddling: “I am not suffisant enough to think the publisher can contribute much by counselling modifications,” wrote Scribners’ editor in chief, William C. Brownwell, shortly before Perkins showed up at the Manhattan office and proved him wrong.
Developmental editing describes a sustained, collaborative partnership between author and editor, during which an idea or incomplete manuscript is transformed into a complete and cohesive book. While the intellectual property and final product always and ultimately belong to the author, a developmental editor is present in the writing process from the beginning (or very near to it) to coach the author through the principles, best practices, and practical application of writing a book in a chosen category/genre, and to help maintain an author’s momentum and motivation all the way to the finish line. A developmental editor will help you answer the big questions: What is this book about? Who is it for? Why am I the right person to write it? What’s the best way to structure my argument? What do I need to make sure is included? What needs to be left out? If you don’t know the answers to those questions, or think you don’t need to, you need a developmental editor.
Perkins is renowned for an exemplary experience with author Thomas Wolfe: when the latter submitted a 330,000-word novel for publication in 1928, Perkins didn’t reject it outright (as at least three other publishers before him had done)—he read it all, recognized its genius, and then worked closely with Wolfe over the next year to edit it down by nearly a third. When it was published in 1929, Look Homeward, Angel immediately transformed Wolfe into a national sensation, secured his place in the literary canon, and maintained a classic line you may have heard a time or two: “You can’t go home again.” Perkins’ editing investment was enormous by any standard, but what a result for twelve months’ work.
For a more modern look at what developmental editing looks like in real time, check out the Story Grid podcast with veteran editor Shawn Coyne and struggling writer Tim Grahl. You’ll notice pretty quickly that the process of making a book better is intense, slow, and specific. Tim reflected on it once like this: “There have been times when I’m back from the microphone with my head in my hands because Shawn is destroying my writing.”
Similarly, I’ve had authors describe working with me as humbling and nail-biting, but ultimately empowering. One author of mine called the book we worked on together the best of his five books. Another told me, “This book is as good as it is because of you!” To both, I quote Perkins yet again: “An editor, at most, releases energy.” We’re here to help you get it out.
I’ve heard it said that no one does developmental editing anymore, but I think that’s a reference largely to traditional publishing. It’s true that you’re unlikely to find a partner at a traditional publishing house who will work with you as collaboratively as described above, but there are plenty who work independently, including myself and my editor on this piece, Dave Moldawer. Keep looking. Your writing career, your book, and your readers deserve it.
2. Substantive editing
“DELETE UGH” —Mitchell Ivers
If you’ve already completed a solid rough draft, your next step is to engage a substantive editor to review the work as a whole. A substantive editor wants to see your entire manuscript, as good as you can make it. They want to hear that you have done absolutely everything you can on your own, and that you see no other way to improve it before sharing it with them. Not because they won’t see anything—they will—but because that’s how they know you’re serious.
A substantive editor will be editing your complete draft from a 30,000-foot, global perspective. Like a developmental editor, they’re going to be focused on the big-picture stuff like genre, theme, character/point of view, structure, pacing, and depth of research. The difference is that they’ll have your whole best effort in front of them at once, and they’ll be making suggestions with a more concrete sense of how each of their suggestions will affect the rest of the book. If it sounds like they’re going to send you back to the drawing board on something you’ve already spent months or years on, well…yeah, that’s true in many cases. And your book will be better for it.
Whether substantive editing is a better option for you than developmental editing depends on how you work as a writer. If you want feedback, course correction, and encouragement as you write, you want a developmental editor; if you want to chart your own course and then be shown where and how to improve later, you want a substantive editor.
I had an author once who told me she chose developmental editing because she didn’t want to risk writing “too much in the wrong direction” before being pulled back. She wanted to make efficient decisions about what to write, and she needed someone to serve as her compass. On the other hand, another author of mine once chose substantive editing because he said he wanted to keep the “writer” hat on as long as possible before my work tipped him into “editor” mode. Either approach can work, and many developmental editors are comfortable working in a substantive capacity as well.
Logistically speaking, substantive editing is less collaborative than developmental editing. You’ll share your manuscript with a substantive editor, and they’ll dive into it for a period of up to several weeks, during which you may or may not hear from them regularly about how the edit is progressing. Some authors really appreciate this well-earned break, as well as the freedom to review and incorporate the edits independently.
To facilitate that independent implementation process, a substantive editor will supplement their in-line edits with what’s called an editorial letter—a multi-page letter that explains and gives context to what you’ll see in the marked-up manuscript. Then it’s up to you to execute on all the suggestions and return your revision for another round. Repeat two or three times, with ever-narrowing lenses of detail each time, and you have yourself a complete substantive editing experience.
3. Copy editing
“There is a phase in the life of every copy editor where she is obsessed with hyphens.” —Mary Norris
Copy editors are laser-focused on the finer points of your manuscript, such as word choice, syntax, factual accuracy, repetition, inconsistencies, grammar, style, spelling, and repetition. (You’re welcome.) They’re the ones you see celebrating on social media when a new edition of the Chicago Manual of Style is released. Their work is best done and appreciated on a manuscript that has already been through developmental or substantive editing because copy editors will not fix the big-picture things like structure, pacing, theme, or plot. Books that are full of stylistically perfect sentences that say nothing and lead nowhere are…well, they’re an entire genre of literature, actually, but never mind.
Receiving a thorough copy edit can be a truly humbling experience, and necessarily so. Language is a living thing, and standards are important. Grammar, after all, has cost companies millions of dollars, killed off the POTUS’s daughter, and inspired generations of chaos over the US Constitution. If you ask me, copy editing is not a thing you want to leave to spell check, algorithm-based software, or Amazon reviewers.
“I do my best proofreading right after I hit send.” —Unknown
Proofreaders are the final gatekeepers between your book and the rest of the world. They’re the fresh pair of eyes you need when neither you nor your other editors can see the typos anymore, and they’re the last people to sign off on the text before it gets printed and distributed for all the world to read. If you engage a proofreader at the right time (i.e., when your manuscript is a literal printer’s proof), they’ll compare that proof to the final copy edits from the last stage to make sure nothing has been missed. They’ll also correct any lingering textual errors, as well as any word, line, paragraph, or page breaks so that, for example, Chapter 2 doesn’t begin on the last line of a page.
Common Questions and Misconceptions
Aren’t there even more than four kinds of editing, though?
Yes—have mercy—there are. Other editing terms that you may have come across include line editing (for the fluidity and rhythm of your prose), sensitivity editing (for bias, inclusivity, etc.), technical editing (for technical correctness—reserved for instruction manuals and other such documents), manuscript critiquing (a one-pass global review of your book), fact checking (often lumped in with copy editing, but actually a separate task altogether) and textual editing (which groups all four levels in one phrase).
You can indeed hire each one separately if you want, or you can just ask any prospective editors if they include the above services as part of their work. Many do.
I thought X editing was the same thing as Y editing.
There is no global authority that dictates what independent editors call the work that we do. For various reasons, some editors conflate developmental and substantive editing, or substantive and line editing, or copy editing and fact checking, or various other combinations.
Ironically, for an industry that is focused on words, the semantics here don’t matter much. What you want more than anything is an editor who understands the distinctions between the four general levels described above and can, in their own words, explain to you what they do, where they sit on the continuum of book-editing services, and what needs to be done before and/or after their work to ensure a comprehensive edit.
Do I seriously need to hire a whole team of editors for my book? I don’t have the time/money for that!
No. More editors does not necessarily mean a better book. I once worked on a book that, through a series of unfortunate events, had three developmental editors. It turned out worse than it would have had the author just picked a lane. Find one editor you trust for the level of editing you need, and then trust them. One good editor is worth more than several competing voices.
The four kinds of editors reflect the historical process of traditional book publishing, but today, we recognize that very few authors (or even publishers) will put their books through this much work. By way of compromise, you could have one editor perform the developmental/substantive work, and a second do the copy editing/proofreading. I don’t recommend publishing your book without having at least two professionals review it first.
How do I know what kind of editing I need?
When you contact an independent editor, one of the things they’ll ask before agreeing to work with you is to see your manuscript. They’re not trying to steal your idea, nor are they judging you for your writing skills. They simply need to see what they’re working with so they can accurately determine where your manuscript sits on the editing continuum, and whether that aligns with where they sit. The kind of editing you need is, perhaps shockingly, not really up to you. That said, here’s a summary guide:
- If you have a partially formed idea or incomplete manuscript that you don’t know what to do with, you need a developmental editor.
- If you’ve finished the manuscript and think it’s pretty good, you need a substantive editor.
- If your manuscript has been through substantive editing, you need a copy editor.
- If your manuscript has been through the previous levels, you need a proofreader.
- If your manuscript has been through all the above, you need a drink. On your editor. (Interpret that as you will.)
I don’t need an editor because I’m already pretty good at spelling and grammar.
Correcting spelling and grammar mistakes is one kind of editing, but it’s only one, and it’s the last one, and even then, no one should be the only editor on their own book. We simply can’t see our own mistakes and missteps after a while—our brains fill in what’s not there, and our eyes read the shapes of words more than the individual letters. After sitting with something we’ve written for too long, we all lose perspective on whether we’ve achieved our goals. But more importantly than all that, good art doesn’t happen in isolation—not for writers, not for artists, not for anyone.
Do I still need an editor if I hire a writing coach or buy an online writing course?
All developmental editors are writing coaches, but not all writing coaches are developmental editors. Depending on how they structure their services, a writing coach may read your work, be a sounding board, and offer ideas when you get stuck, but they are not going to roll up their sleeves and get right into your manuscript the way a developmental editor will. Choose the professional who best aligns with what you want and need for your book.
Online writing courses do not typically include an editing component, and if they do, it’s less detailed than this article. You may get an overview of how to edit, but no actual editing. Online writing courses are not a necessary complement to or substitute for professional editing.
I don’t know if my work is ready for an editor. Don’t I have to be a professional writer to hire a professional editor?
As long as you’re prepared for the investment, asking this question is precisely how you know you’re ready for an editor. Editors don’t expect authors to be trained writers before they hire us—especially in non-fiction publishing, authors are more often experts in their own niches and decidedly not writers. But authors all along the continuum need editors, from first-timers to Ernest Hemingway. You’re ready for an editor if the book you’re writing is important to you, and you recognize that you can’t do it all yourself.
What if my editor kills my dream / idea / voice / uniqueness?
Despite the extreme exceptions you may have heard of or experienced, authors and editors generally appreciate and deeply respect each other’s work. We are on the same side, working toward the same goal. We want to help you look good! An editor who wants to twist your book to tell their own story or change your vision for the project is not the right editor for you. Keep looking.
Sometimes, when authors ask this question, what they mean is, “What if I hate my editor’s suggestions?” Note first that if you’ve vetted your editor according to the three-pronged process described below, you’ll very likely save yourself from this scenario. If you end up here, though, the first thing to do is have a conversation with your editor. We’re not precious about the suggestions we’ve made, and we can explain the “why” behind all of it. If the “why” doesn’t resonate for you, consider whether there’s some internal resistance at play here—all writers get attached to the ways they’re written things, and it can be hard to let go of that. But if you’re pretty certain that your vision for the book and your editor’s suggestions are not aligned, simply say so. This is your book. A good editor can work with the priorities you’ve identified, and if they can’t, they’ll tell you why and leave the decision up to you.
I don’t need an editor because I have beta readers.
Beta readers can be great. Your friends and family know you well, and they can almost certainly add value to your writing experience. Go ahead and share your work-in-progress with trusted confidantes, or even take your draft to a peer workshopping class. But do these things before hiring an editor, if at all. And don’t mistake the beta reader feedback you get for comprehensive editorial analysis.
I liken this to the time a few years ago when I was planning to redecorate my house. I had a bunch of friends over, and when I asked their opinions about furnishings and colors, wow, did everyone have a few. Blue, red, sectional, marble—everyone had a different idea about what I should do, especially when it came to the living room area rug. I really wanted a nice area rug. And how did they justify their suggestions?
- “This is the one I bought last year.”
- “Saw it featured on HGTV.”
- “Restoration Hardware makes the best stuff!”
I ended up more confused after I’d asked than before. The problem with blindly and broadly asking for feedback, I found, is that good, generous people then feel obligated to give it—even if they’re not qualified to do so, and even if they don’t have any vested interest in, or accountability to, the outcome. By asking a bunch of accountants and engineers and business owners how to redecorate my house, I’d put my friends in an unfair position.
My interior designer friend was the last person I asked—I’d been trying to save money by not hiring a professional, but by that time I was humbled, confused, and flailing. She spent an hour in my house, took measurements and pictures, and came back a week later with a plan that made sense for the four walls we had and the way we lived. “No area rug for you,” was her crowning conclusion, delivered while staring pointedly at my new puppy, who was, at that very moment, peeing on the hardwood right in front of us. How had I missed such an obvious flaw in my plan?
Hers was the only opinion that was based in focused training and experience, and the only one with any actual authority on the topic.
It was her advice I took, of course. Had I just asked her first, she would’ve saved me time, confidence, and sanity—more than worth the price of her services.
Editing a book is the same. When we ask friends, family, and even fellow writers to be our beta readers, we might get some gems, but we’ll also get a lot of conflicting advice based in personal opinion, individual backgrounds, past baggage, and reading preferences. Without the training to separate what they like from what actually works, beta readers simply don’t have the tools to comprehensively edit a book, and it’d be unfair to expect otherwise.
So sure, go ahead and bring beta readers into your process if you’d like—just keep in mind what they can and can’t do for you. I recommend selecting just a couple people who represent your target readers, and/or those who have specialized expertise in a topic that appears in your book. Then, instead of asking them general questions like, “Did you like it?” or “What’s missing?” ask them something they’re qualified to answer authoritatively. For example, if you’re writing a novel set in a small Australian town and you have a friend from Australia, don’t ask her for “feedback;” ask her if you’ve accurately represented the town.
Don’t editors come free with my publishing deal?
Authors who sign on with traditional publishing houses are indeed partnered with an in-house or freelance editor of that house’s choosing, and that expense is covered by the publishing house. That said, you want to go into this with realistic expectations. A few truths for today’s writers:
- Having your work developmentally, substantively, and/or copy edited before you submit it doesn’t replace the work of an in-house editor, and the suggestions you get from an independent editor can make your book a more appealing read for publishers.
- Once your book is under contract, your assigned editor may or may not be prepared to do a great deal of work on your manuscript. In-house editors are indeed devoted, caring professionals; they’re also overextended, and they’re more likely to go to bat for your book if it’s already good and doesn’t need major surgery from them. There are exceptions, but if you want the promise of a dedicated, craft-based editing process, you may want an independent editor.
- Increasingly, publishers are outsourcing manuscript editing to independent editors, so there are a lot of qualified professionals available for hire. More info below on where to find them.
Why Authors Need Editors
Short answer: Because every book you’ve ever loved had an editor.
Longer answer: The mood-lit history of book editing has done more than deify Maxwell Perkins and make authors hope that their own Great American Novel will get comparable care and attention someday. It’s also created a persistent baseline expectation in the reading public: readers are simply used to their books meeting certain standards of readability and correctness, and a quick look through the reviews of any title will tell you they’re not particularly lenient with those standards. You need an editor because your readers deserve the best you can give them.
What’s more, working with an editor will make you a better writer. There’s no other arrangement that gives you direct access to someone who is as dedicated to your book as you are, and who is trained to spot the things you need to do to make that book even better. A great edit doesn’t stop at spotting those things, either; it begins at showing you where they are, and extends into walking you through exactly how to fix them—both in this book and in anything you write in the future. You’ll come out of the process a more confident and competent author, ready to tackle the next book.
How to Find an Editor
As you write and publish more books, you’ll start to learn who the editors are in your genre, and you’ll get more comfortable finding and selecting them.
But what if you’re just starting out? What if you don’t know who you want to work with?
Behold the modest path to greatness:
- Asking fellow writers for recommendations and introductions is a good place to start, but keep in mind that book editors have specialities and sensibilities, just like pros in any other industry. We like (and are qualified) to do a certain kind of editing on certain kinds of books, which means that your friend’s amazing developmental editor on his latest fantasy novel is not the best person to proofread your memoir.
- Check out the Acknowledgments section of books in your genre. A happy author will thank their editor right there, and you can use Google after that to find them and drop them a line. Some book editors work exclusively for publishers, so they may not be available for hire, but it’ll surprise you (or maybe it won’t) how many are independent.
- Reach out to editor-adjacent people in your network, like publishing consultants, literary agents, proposal coaches, and independent book designers. You never know who knows someone. If you’re really stuck on who to ask, I trust everything that Jane tells me, so you’re already on the right blog.
- Follow the blogs, podcasts, and platforms maintained by writers, editors, and other publishing professionals you respect. Pay attention to how they talk about the editing process and the editors they know and work with.
- The Editorial Freelancers Association, Editors Canada, and Editors of Color maintain searchable databases of accredited editors for all kinds of projects. The local chapters of both will share your project opportunity with their members if you want to work with someone nearby or in a particular speciality.
How to Choose an Editor
Going into any editing partnership, you want to have a handle on three things. Let’s call them the decision prongs: technical competency, logistical details, and personality fit.
1. Technical competency
Is the editor you want to work with actually qualified to do the job? As in any industry, there are a lot of frauds out there pretending to be competent editors, and a lot of books and authors suffering for it. A few questions you can ask to make sure your editor knows how to wield a darling-murdering weapon:
What training/experience do you have?
A degree in English, communications, or a related field may not be required, but you do want your editor to have an advanced understanding of how the English language works, and how books are built. Editing is not a “feels good, so it must be right” kind of profession, or at least not entirely. There is intuition and risk involved, sure, but there are also some clear rights and wrongs, and your editor needs to have learned what those are so they can at least tell you if your book is doing something weird. So maybe they have a university degree, or they apprenticed under a senior editor, or they worked their way up at a local small press. However they’ve done it, you want proof that your editor is dedicated to mastering the craft and science of editing. If they aren’t, they’re a beta reader.
NB: Being a published writer does not qualify someone to be an editor. As one of my editor colleagues is fond of saying, the last person writers should be asking for help with their writing is other writers.
What level of editing do you specialize in?
Refer to the four levels above. Again, they may use different words to describe the work they do, but it should fall under one of those general umbrellas.
What level of editing do you recommend for my book?
Share your manuscript with prospective editors so they can assess the work on its own merit. Good editors will need to see your work before they’ll even agree to work with you—again, they need to know what kind of writer you are so they know if they can do their best work for you.
And yes, sharing your unfinished book with someone new is a scary thing. We understand. Do your research, and then share your work-in-progress in good faith—good editors honor your bravery, and we aren’t interested in stealing your idea, divulging your secrets, or breaking your trust. Many of us have non-disclosures in place to ensure your privacy and security, but these aren’t really necessary in an industry that prioritizes discretion.
Have you worked on books like mine before?
Editors are readers first. We have specific tastes and specialties, and we want to work on books we enjoy reading. If your editor has worked on books like yours before, that’s a great sign. If they haven’t, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially if 1) your editor can identify ways in which other books they’ve worked on are similar to yours in some unanticipated way(s), and 2) your intended readers are beginners, and you need an editor to represent that position.
An editing professor of mine once described the editor’s role as that of the “designated idiot,” and that’s always stuck with me. Your editor is tasked with asking all the dumb questions so that you have a chance to fill in any gaps before sharing your book with readers.
Do you have testimonials/references?
These will likely be on the editor’s website already. But it’s worth asking, anyway, just to see which projects and clients they think best represent what they can do for you and your book.
Can you provide a sample edit?
I’ve listed this one last on purpose. Proceed with caution. Asking for a sample edit might work if you’re looking for a copy editor or proofreader (with limitations when it comes to things like whether the editor uses a heavy or light touch, and individual style choices). Be prepared to pay for the editor’s time, and note that unless you’re a qualified editor yourself, it’ll be a challenge to assess the sample. Asking for testimonials and references is a far more efficient use of everyone’s time.
I wouldn’t bother asking for a sample edit from a developmental or substantive editor. Because their work is global in nature, they’d need to read your entire manuscript and/or spend hours on the phone with you to give you a sense of what they can do for your book, and that’s not realistic for anybody. Instead, read the books they’ve edited before yours. Do those books make sense to you? Do you enjoy them? Do you want to keep reading? If so, that’s a good sign that the dev or sub edit was a success.
Beyond that, talk with your prospective editor. Get to know them over coffee or video chat. Consider working with them on a shorter piece of your writing, like a guest post, to see how they work and how your writing improves as a result. Refer to prong #3 below for more on building trust and rapport with an editor.
2. Logistical details
All editors work differently. You want to know:
What is your editing process?
How do they begin a project? What are the expectations on both sides? What do the milestones and deliverables look like? What are the metrics for completion? Which writing/editing software do they use?
What is your communication process?
Will you hear from them while they edit, or only when they’re done? Do they prefer email, text, phone calls, or something else? (More on communication in prong #3 below.)
What is your availability?
Many editors book a few months out, so plan accordingly. Let them know if you have a quick turnaround, but understand that good editing takes time. Quality over speed, whenever possible.
What are your rates?
Independent editors set their own rates based on all kinds of factors, including their training, experience, familiarity with the topic, your timeline, and the needs of the manuscript. The Editorial Freelancers Association shares some average rates for all levels of editing, and you’ll see quite a lot of fluctuation from there. On the premium end, for a full-length manuscript of ~60,000 words or more, you can expect developmental editing to be a five-figure investment, substantive editing to be in the mid- to high four figures, and copy editing and proofreading to be in the low four figures or sometimes hundreds of dollars if the job is very light. As in anything, you get what you pay for.
3. Personality fit
In my experience, editors are pretty connection-driven people. We want to help make your book better, yes, but even more than that, we want to help you connect meaningfully with your readers.
Editors will employ different ways of meeting those two goals: some will be abrupt and direct about what you need to cut, add, and change, while others will phrase everything as a question, a suggestion, an opportunity. Some will physically move text around to show you what they’re asking for, while others will want you to make the move yourself to activate and strengthen your own editorial muscles. Some will hand off their edits like a bouquet (or a bomb), and tell you to come back when you’re done, while others will walk you through every single comma change on the phone. Most editors, if we have our boundaries in place, fall somewhere in the middle.
So, consider past scenarios that have empowered you to do your best work. What were the circumstances of those successes? How did you behave, and how did the people around you behave? Generally speaking, do you like to be told exactly what to do to make things “right,” or do you like having a puzzle presented to you for solving in your own way? Do you like/expect constant communication with project collaborators, or do you like breaks to refill your own tank from time to time? Do you do your best work with more freedom or more constraints? Know these things about yourself, and share them with your editor. Then continue the conversation to find out:
- Does the editor “get” you and your book?
- What circumstances and behaviors allow them to do their best work?
- Have they worked with an author like you before? How did it go?
- Do you understand each other in conversation? In writing?
- Do you trust each other’s insights and ideas?
- Do you respect each other?
- Can you be vulnerable with this person?
- Do you feel comfortable challenging each other and being challenged?
There’s only so much we can guess about our own responses before we actually get into the work of editing, so be prepared to surprise yourself from time to time. Being edited is hard, and brave, and worth it.
When reviewing challenging edits, keep in mind that your editor hates your book out of love. They really do want you to succeed, and they wouldn’t ask you to do something if they didn’t know you could do it. Remember that they believe in your vision and in you—maybe more than anyone else in the early stages (including you). They already know how hard it can be to open yourself up to critique, and the more honest you are with them about who you are and what you need, the better the process and the book will be.
Fun side note: Before he’d hire me, one author years ago wanted to know my Myers-Briggs score, and he shared his with me. I thought that was a fun, low-stress way to learn a lot about our default working and engagement styles, and I’ve since found a lot of value in being upfront with authors about my own particular brand of crazy. (ENFP!)
Though I (and the developers of Myers-Briggs, it turns out) would actually caution against making hiring decisions based on the results of a self-administered online test, you do want to consider early on how you and your editor might instinctually handle the everyday sensitivities of editing a book, such as delicate conversations, internal and external pressure, scope creep, and editorial disagreements. Tools such as the Enneagram, the Caliper Profile, and the Gallup StrengthsFinder 2.0 assessment are other options for learning about yourself and others in any professional partnership.
What Your Editor Can and Cannot Do
To give you the best chance of a successful editing partnership, and to help you manage your expectations, keep the following in mind about what your editor can and cannot do for you.
Your editor can…
Tell you why your book doesn’t work. Editing is a craft full of mystery, yes, but it’s also a legitimate industry full of best practices. To that end, a qualified developmental or substantive editor can itemize the exact ways in which your manuscript aligns with the best practices of writing a book in your chosen genre or category, and the ways in which it deviates.
Likewise, a qualified copy editor or proofreader can tell you what specific rules of language and style you’re breaking. That itemized list will help inform the work you’ll do together to get the book ready for publication.
To be clear, a book doesn’t always have to follow all the rules, but an author does have to be aware of them in order to break them effectively. If you don’t know what the rules are for a book in your genre, make sure your editor does so they can guide you through the process of deciding which ones to follow and which ones to break. Following no rules at all is a great way to write a terrible book.
Show you how to fix what needs fixing. Upon identifying the things that need fixing, an editor can suggest specific ways to fix those things. At the developmental or substantive level, an editor will offer ideas to help you—among other things—clarify your theme, streamline your structure, strengthen your characters, and smooth out your pacing.
Copy editors and proofreaders will mark up your manuscript line by line with questions like, “When you say X, do you actually mean Y?” and “I’ve fixed the spelling of this word to reflect US spelling conventions. OK?” They won’t do it for you unless the error is so obvious or obscure that it doesn’t need your sign-off.
Help your book realize its full potential. Editors are trained to spot the nuggets of gold buried in your themes, chapters, paragraphs, and sentences. If you trust their expertise, you can follow their advice knowing that they want you and your book to look good.
Help you become a better writer. Most editors I know love it when authors want to learn the “why” behind the edits they are receiving. If you’re up for a lot of excitement about mythology, archetypes, etymology, style guides, and descriptive vs. prescriptive dictionaries, an editor is the best person to ask. We know why certain books work and connect the way they do, and why others don’t. We can help you make specific decisions at the structural and sentence level that will help you become better at your craft.
Your editor cannot…
Fix your book for you. It is not your editor’s job to implement their edits on your book. The reason for this is two-fold: first, implementing edits is called revision. It has a different word because it’s an entirely different scope. If editing is suggesting things for improvement, revision is incorporating those suggestions. Revision is not editing, and an editor is not qualified to revise your manuscript. In fact, the only one qualified to receive, interpret, and incorporate the edits is you, the author.
Second, the edits themselves are suggestions, not directives. Even when they’re phrased as “do this instead,” edits are best read as growth opportunities. Your editor may suggest you do a specific thing to fix a specific problem, but the real takeaway is that the existing problem needs a solution. Upon reading the editor’s suggested solution, you may think of a better one yourself. Go ahead and implement it, then refer back to the first thing your editor can do (above). We’ll let you know if it works.
Guarantee anything. Working with an editor (or any industry professional) is not a shortcut to a perfect book, a publishing deal, a bestseller, or a bunch of 5-star reviews. Publishing outcomes have many contributing factors that are entirely unrelated to the editing process or the quality of the writing or editing. While a good edit can indeed contribute to the possibility of your book achieving any or all of these outcomes, none of them is the singular goal of an editor or an edit.
Do not hire or trust anyone who charges you to write a bestseller or makes similarly grandiose marketing promises. While publishing professionals can indeed itemize and expound on why already-published books were successful, the truth is that even then, we are adding a narrative arc to disparate factors that include luck and timing. The strategy cannot be reliably or ethically reverse-engineered. Anyone who tells you differently is being dishonest.
There’s no one-size-fits-all definition of a good editor, but here are a few final takeaways that I hope will serve you well.
A good editor:
Says yes far more often than they say no. I learned this years ago from an editing professor of mine, and it’s been my golden rule ever since. We’re not out only to tell you everything that’s wrong with your book—we’re here to leverage our training and experience in identifying what you’re already doing really well so that you can do more of that. Even if you don’t think so yet, you write in a very unique, particular way, and we want to help you develop that.
Watch for those places in the manuscript where your editor points out a great choice you’ve made and/or acquiesces when you decide not to implement one of our suggestions. Those moments of enthusiasm and compromise are there for two reasons: to encourage you in your craft, and to demonstrate that your editor recognizes and respects your talent. We want the editing process to be an insightful and encouraging growth opportunity for you, not a demoralizing attack. We want you to finish this book, and to write another one. We’ll say yes to your choices and ideas as often as we can so that when we say no, you pay attention.
Says no far more often than they say yes. (We contain multitudes.) Good editors get a lot of inquiries, and they turn most of them down. It’s no reflection on you or your work—we simply specialize in and are qualified to edit only certain kinds of books. Your book won’t be for every reader, and it won’t be for every editor, either. Keep looking until you find one who’s enthusiastic about and qualified to work on your project.
Doesn’t have all the answers. Who wants to work with someone who thinks they know everything? I’m over 15 years in, and I still feel like I’m just getting started. Publishing is a mercurial industry, and despite the best efforts of authors, editors, and publishers, no one really knows what’s going to connect until it does. Anyone who says otherwise is either lying or under-informed.
So take that as a permission slip to write the book you want to write, and remember it when working with an editor. We want your book to exist, too. We take it on because we think it’s great, and because we think we can help you make it even better. You can trust that we’ll do our best work for you, that we know a lot, and that we have good reasons for our decisions. But we don’t know it all, and we’re still here for the ride. Besides, you’re not hiring us to give you all the answers, but to be your champion and challenger every step of the way, and to offer advice based on our knowledge of books, language, and the publishing industry.
“Works in disappearing ink.” That’s a quote from Michael Pietsch, who edited Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and DFW’s Infinite Jest, among many other notable titles. Max Perkins’ fame aside, editors work really hard to stay invisible in the final product that is your book. It’s your book. We’re proud that it’s yours. We want to help you turn it into the best possible version of itself, and make you look really good in the process.
If you’ve made it all the way to this point, congratulations—you are taking your book and your writing seriously, and editors all over the world commend you. We look forward to reading your work and helping you take it to the next level.
Chantel Hamilton is a non-fiction developmental editor specializing in business, self-help, and memoir. Her Sunday newsletter, 10 Things for Writers This Week, collects the internet’s best reads and resources for anyone who needs to get an idea down on paper and then out into the world. Find out more at her website.