The Good, the Bad & the Ugly of Editing Manuscripts

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What do you get if you pay an editor to copy edit your manuscript? Several things, but it depends what you pay for, how much you pay and who you pay. Under editing there are many types, but the three most often used and confused are copy editing, substantive/structural editing and stylistic editing. New writer often say they want their manuscript proofread when what they mean is copy editing. Here are brief definitions of the three types mentioned above:

  • Substantive/structural editing: this is reorganizing a manuscript and clarifying its intent/plot. The editor might make the changes or direct the author on what has to be changed. Substantive editing looks at the continuity of the plot. This stage will often happen once a manuscript is bought by the publisher but individuals can hire editors to do this as well.
  • Stylistic editing: this is editing for a consistent style, which includes language, jargon, reading levels, themes within the manuscript. Sometimes this is combined with copy editing but it is often charged separately.
  • Copy editing: this is really the first step for any writer and looks at grammar, spelling, punctuation, mechanics of style, internal consistency of style and facts (there are other aspects not mentioned here but these are the basics). It can be done by the publisher but authors might go through a copy editor on their own if they’re not sure of the writing skills or the overall plot. If someone has written their first novel but hasn’t spent much time honing their craft through courses, workshops and critiques the it’s highly recommended to have the manuscript copy edited before sending it out to publishers.

Competition is quite fierce these days and some publishers will toss a manuscript if there are too many grammatical and spelling errors. If you haven’t spent years working on writing and taking constructive criticism, it’s possible you may not get far. Also, many people decided to publish on their own in one format or another and this is where it’s essential to have a good editor go through the manuscript.

An editor can’t guarantee you’ll sell your manuscript or that a publisher will like it. There are many factors in editing. Of the many manuscripts I’ve looked at over the years, both for publishers and for individuals, the skill of the writer has varied considerably. If a publisher buys the manuscript then the head editor negotiates changes with the author, even those done by other editors. If an individual hires a copy editor, then it is up to them to incorporate the changes into their final manuscripts. I have worked in hard copy and digital; digital allows incorporation of corrections at a faster pace for the writer but can actually take longer for the editor.

A writer may decide not to accept all edits, may not take the suggestions, might not do a suggested rewrite, and might decide to change things after the editing has been done, thus introducing errors to the manuscript. I have had clients do this and more, which means that should they submit the manuscript to a publisher it might not look like it was edited. Some have wanted to credit me or list me as the editor for which it’s been an embarrassment and could be detrimental to my career. I have always told clients, You’re not paying me to tell you your story is great. You’re paying me to make it better.

On the other hand, there are bad editors as well. A writer is not necessarily an editor and a nonfiction writer is likely to not be a very good fiction editor. Likewise, if you write mysteries, a romance editor may not help. This is for substantive and stylistic editing. For copy editing there are the basics of grammar, spelling and punctuation that any editor can handle, but there can be a subtle nuance to genre writing and if you’re looking for a stylistic editor or even substantive you want someone who knows that genre. As a copy editor I have done books on the gold rush, Canadian film, IT handbook, cookbooks, thrillers, SF, romance, autobiographical, poetry (which is its own special niche) and others. An editor needs a good foundation of information and be wiling to question some things. Fact checking is separate from editing but it’s good to query the author if it says “he parachuted from the hang glider” and you ask “Can one actually parachute from a hang glider? It’s then up to the writer to fix it or not.

One of my clients had first taken his books to an editing company that charged him $10,000. When I received the manuscripts it was hard to tell exactly what they had done. They had charged more than me, had not put the manuscripts into a proper word document format, had not checked headers or number, had not fixed all spelling or punctuation or grammar issues. There were major problems with the plot and the structure that my client chose not to fix, after I warned him that it would be unlikely anyone would publish it. I did fix formatting and the basic copy edit, as well as giving copious notes on the characters, dialogue, language, plot and settings.

It’s hard to know what to get when you’re shopping for an editor but it’s fine to ask questions, get an estimate (I always give one) ask for a sample edit (and pay for it–editors will not work for free) and compare. Like everything else, you should know what you’re buying. Editors cannot get your story published but they can make it better.

1 Comment

Filed under art, Culture, entertainment, Publishing, Writing

One response to “The Good, the Bad & the Ugly of Editing Manuscripts

  1. Mick Sylvestre

    An informative write up you’ve done. As I finish writing my novel, I wonder how much of it will need reediting.

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