Hi, kids. Since people seem to have been interested in the last post I put up about editing, I thought I’d put this one up, too. This, as well, was previously posted at Women and Words, where I am an administrator.
At any rate, the last post I did here on my site about editing dealt a lot with the PROCESS a manuscript goes through prior to publication. Here, I’ll talk about all the different TYPES of editors you might run across in the publishing world, including those who might call themselves acquiring editors and/or managing editors and things like that. The publishing world involves business, and many editors are thus tied up with the business itself of publishing.
We’re not just mechanics for your manuscript. We are also gatekeepers and observers of what goes on in the publishing world, tracking trends and looking for the next big kind of genre that people might want to buy. Literary agents are often editors, too. They have to be. They’re assessing manuscripts and thinking about how to get that manuscript the best placement possible. They’re looking for manuscripts that might be trendy, but with new and interesting twists. And they’re also looking for the Next Big Thing, whatever that might be.
So yes, the nuts and bolts of actually editing a manuscript are important. But there are all kinds of other things at play, too, and these are tied to the publishing world and to the business. So let’s go have a look.
EDITING ROCKS! Read on to see why.
OMG, I’ll bet THAT got your juices flowing. Nothing says super fiesta like editing, huh?
As un-glamorous as it sounds, editing is actually part of the infrastructure of the publishing industry. Granted, you obviously need writers to create things, but it’s editors who ultimately help you craft the best work you can. It’s also editors who, most of the time, make the decisions about what will and won’t be published, and it’s editors who work with authors after contract. There isn’t a published author out there whose work has not been touched by an editor. At least, one HOPES there isn’t a published author out there whose work hasn’t been touched by an editor. Sometimes, I wonder. . .
That said, there are different types of editors, and there are different levels of editing. So if you’re an author who’s getting her manuscript ready for submission for consideration for publication or if you’re an author who’s just beginning the publishing pipeline, I’ll try to demystify this process and the strange, arcane world of editors. Keep in mind, too, that I’m dealing with publishing through a traditional house. If you’re a self-published author and you haven’t worked with a traditional house, well, you’ll be dealing (hopefully) with substantive editors, copyeditors, and proofreaders. Nevertheless, some of you out there may be hybrids — like me — and work both with traditional houses and also do some self-publishing.
Now, before I launch into the different types of editors that exist, a little bit about me: I started formal editing as a graduate student. I learned the craft of editing in an apprentice-type of situation, where I just jumped in at a publishing venue and learned it from experienced editors. I spent 8 initial years working in various editorial capacities at a(n) historical journal and an academic press. In 2000, I was hired as a permanent acquisitions editor at said press, and eventually became managing editor there, which means I was responsible for every manuscript the press published, from author through production to printing. The press where I worked published about 100 books a year, and I dealt with every single one of them. I left formal publishing back in the day, but I still do freelance editing for publishing houses/individual clients and I’m versed in academic, professional, and fiction styles.
It’s important to understand that editing with regard to publishing is very different than, say, editing a paper to turn in for your English class. When you’re getting a story or a novel ready for submission to a publisher, the editors you will deal with are people who most likely learned their skills and craft working in a publishing house. They are versed in editing geared toward publication, versed in publishing trends, genres, and what’s “hot” and what’s not.
There’s nothing wrong with having a background in English if you’re an editor, but that English degree may not have given you the background in publishing you need to be an effective editor in that milieu. (note emphasis) An English background is not imperative to be an editor who works in publishing, though it does make you sensitive to reading, reading styles, and encourages you to learn spelling and grammar. You do need an excellent command of the English language (unless, of course, you’re working with non-English languages), its rules, and various “styles” (e.g. adhering to, say, the Chicago Manual of Style), but you can learn these things working in a publishing house as well as through reading the genres in which you’ll be working.
Again, I am not dissing English majors. I learned the basics of proper grammar and spelling at home, from my mom, who is an English and theater major. I then became that total word nerd who took all the advanced grammar courses in high school, who LOVED diagramming sentences and learning word origins. I’m just pointing out that if you’re trying to get published, you’d probably be better-served working with an editor who has experience in the publishing world than even an English major who does not. Publishing is a strange animal, and no matter how good someone’s command of grammar and spelling and plot arc is, not knowing the industry and its trends could prove less helpful than you hoped.
At any rate, when I explain what editing is (and I did this in my previous post, here), I generally compare it to being a mechanic. That is, it’s my job to tinker with your style and craft to make your manuscript cleaner, more streamlined, and logical. It is NOT an editor’s job to re-write your work. Good editors are good at figuring out where an author is going with a story, what that author’s style is, and how to help that author get from point A to point B. A good editor looks at the map of the story and with the author, finds better routes through the narrative. I might make suggestions about plot directions, but it’s ultimately up to the author where she wants to go. I thus work within the parameters the author has already set. Note emphasis.
So, to continue with our mechanic metaphor (which I’ve already mentioned elsewhere): you might bring a 2005 red Toyota Camry to my shop. I’ll lift the hood, check the engine, replace a few parts that’ll reduce engine noise, replace your spark plugs, change your oil, oil filter, air filter, check your fluids, and then I might even have your car detailed. The point is, when you leave my shop, you’re leaving with a red 2005 Toyota Camry that runs better, sounds better, and is clean. You won’t be leaving with a 2005 silver Ford Explorer, and sadly, that’s what many editors try to do — to re-write an author’s work to fit the editor’s vision or the publisher’s vision of what that manuscript should be.
To that, I say to the publisher: “if you didn’t want the manuscript in its current incarnation, then you should not have contracted it.” It makes little sense to contract a manuscript that you, the publisher, are intending to completely re-write. Which is why most publishing houses have the first line of defense in place. These are
Acquisitions (Acquiring) Editors. In most cases (and it is the norm), the first contact you will have with anyone at a publishing house is an acquiring editor (AE). These people are trained in editing — that is, copyediting, substantive editing, proofreading, and publishing. They are versed in the genres in which they acquire, they track trends in those genres, and they look for new talent in addition to looking to older talent. Acquiring editors will consider query letters that “come in over the transom” and they’ll also go out looking for new talent. That’s why they have to be versed in their genres, so they can find the best new talent. They may not call themselves acquiring editors. They may just call themselves “editors.” If you hit up a publishing house that DOES list an acquiring editor in your genre, address your query to that editor.
The AE is the gatekeeper. She evaluates the manuscript and whether it’s something her house should pursue. Most often, an AE can tell within a paragraph or two what kind of writer the author is. The decision to reject the manuscript most often comes within that first page. That’s why you, the author, need to know a little something about craft, hook, and style. The AE is the dragon at the gate. Prove you’re worthy to pass.
Let’s suppose your manuscript DID pass (WOOO!). In most publishing venues, the acquiring editor who agreed to take you on is the person who’s going to be your primary liaison at the publishing house. She’s going to pitch your manuscript to the publication committee and she’s going to negotiate the contract with you (NOTE: the process may be a little different in some genres, like lesfic). She’ll also develop the budget for your book, and she’ll work with the managing editor and the sales/marketing departments to do a schedule for publication. She’ll also be working with you on revisions. The AE wants you to do well, because if your book makes money, then the house makes money, and the AE has another feather in her cap for acquisitions. This is how AEs build reputations for themselves and their houses. The books they acquire sell.
Okay, so your manuscript is contracted. WOO HOO! GO, YOU! ROCK ON! At this point, you might work a bit with the
Managing Editor. She’s the bridge between editorial and production departments. There is a caveat, here. Not every publishing house has a production department. They might use designers on contract/freelance to do their covers and interiors. But that person needs a liaison at the publishing house, and it’s usually someone like a managing editor.
If the house has a production department, well, that’s the department that typesets your book, works with the printer (for print versions of your book), supplies files to printers, and does interior and exterior design.
Sometimes a freelance designer will do your cover/interior, but many times, it’s somebody in-house. The ME hires and fires copyeditors, devises publishing schedules in conjunction with other departments, hires and fires indexers (if applicable), and ensures that all accompanying material for the manuscript (most often applicable to nonfiction — photos, tables, charts) is in-house or en route, and suitable for the production department/designers. She will tell you when you’re supposed to get your final draft in so she can send it out to a copyeditor or she might even do the copyediting herself, depending on her workload. MEs, too, are trained in copyediting, proofreading, and often substantive editing. So go, you, it’s time to work with your
Copyeditor. There are different levels of copyediting, most often “light,” “medium,” and “heavy.” Click here for a nice break-down of what that entails. At its most basic, “light” means you’re cleaning up typos, spelling, grammar, and checking consistency of spellings, names, and making sure things like chronology are correct. “Medium” copyediting does all that, ensures that things like subtitle size matches throughout the book, makes sure that table of content chapter names in the TOC match the actual chapters in the book, ensures consistent style and usage. “Heavy” copyediting is “medium” plus maybe smoothing out transitions, incorporating author-suggested changes, eliminating wordiness and maybe inappropriate jargon. The copyeditor is not only working with you, but she’s also getting the manuscript into house style and ready for typesetting. In most publishing, by the time a manuscript reaches a copyeditor, it’s just about ready for publishing. At this stage, a manuscript really should not be undergoing a substantive edit, which we’ll talk about in a minute.
It is NOT a copyeditor’s job to re-write your work. A copyeditor can query you about things that are unclear (which you, the author, need to address) and make suggestions about how to fix it, but a copyeditor is not there to re-write your work, change plot lines, move paragraphs without your consent, add characters, subtract characters, add scenes, delete scenes. A copyeditor is going to SUGGEST these things to you, if she feels something isn’t right, but she is not going to do it without querying you and/or making suggestions to tighten craft. Many people conflate “copyediting” with “substantive” editing and though substantive editors are, indeed copyeditors, not all copyeditors are substantive editors. So let’s talk about a
Substantive Editor. You may see this as “developmental editor“, “macro-editor”, sometimes “line editor,” though that’s not always correct. In a perfect world, a substantive edit comes BEFORE copyediting. An AE may actually do the substantive edit herself. Think of a substantive edit as “substance.” The editor reads the manuscript in its entirety and points out things you, the author, need to fix and think about. She’ll move paragraphs, delete things, make sure that your facts are correct, your characterization consistent, your narrative logical, your dialogue sensical. A substantive editor can actually work with an author to create a manuscript from an idea, rather than simply dealing directly with a completed manuscript. One of the problems with this, however, is that the editor needs to be very, very careful about “ghost-writing” that manuscript: Ghost writer: One who writes for and gives credit of authorship to another.
A good substantive editor serves as a guide, pointing out the trailheads. She does not walk on the trail with the author, but she may hover overhead in her hot air balloon (hot air — appropriate for an editor, yes? Heee!) and point things out, but it’s up to the author how to negotiate obstacles or occurrences. And for some editors, that’s a very difficult line to toe. And speaking of lines…
As the term “line editing” implies, a line editor literally goes through a written piece line by line, taking the time to be extremely thorough and meticulous. Line editors may read a piece several times to ensure that it has been thoroughly edited, often starting with a rough pass to look for basic issues like spelling and grammar problems and then digging in deeper with each successive pass. source
Line editors are the anal retentive microsurgeons of the editing world (and yes, funny you should ask. I am also a line editor. It feeds my little anal streak). Most often, they’re charged with going through a manuscript after a substantive edit and subsequent re-write. Yes, a line editor is a copyeditor of sorts, but line editors are also looking for words that authors use as crutches, for words that authors overuse, for words that don’t quite fit. Many copyeditors are also line editors, so if someone says she’s a copyeditor, she’s probably also a line editor. But line editors may not call themselves a copyeditor, since a copyeditor might just do light proofreading. That’s why it’s important for you to know the differences between the types of editors, so you can determine what’s going on with your manuscript and what sorts of things are involved.
There you go. A reasonably mellow breakdown of editing and its role in publishing. I now have another caveat, which is
Self-editing. It’s important for a writer to learn and develop the craft behind writing. Learn effective techniques to create smooth dialogue, characterization, showing and not telling, and ways to express yourself. Get a feel for your own writing, and what doesn’t quite work. As you work on craft, you are also developing your sense of your own writing, and what’s working and what’s not. Lori Handeland provides a nice piece on what you should look for as a self-editor of your own work. It’s not an editor’s job to make you a competent writer. It’s YOUR job to do that, and you can by working on your craft (take some workshops and join writers’ groups for critiques). You should already have a good command of craft before that editor at the publishing house has a crack at your manuscript. An editor can help you focus your ideas and streamline your work, but you, the author, aren’t going to derive much from that if you don’t already have a sense of craft and a sense of self-editing.
To that end, it’s time for a little pimpage. I leave you with THIS advice: run, don’t walk to Chris Roerden‘s books on craft and self-editing:
Don’t be put off that the first deals with mysteries. The 24 tips therein and examples she provides from published works can apply to fiction writing of any genre. The second provides more of those tips, plus ways to ensure that you get that manuscript past the publishing house gatekeeper. These books are great places to start if you want to see what sorts of things to look for in your own writing to develop your self-editor.
All rightie, there you go. Some info on editing. Thanks a bunch for hanging out with me and happy writing!
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Well put, Andi. It’s very true about the English degree being good, but not the end all. I’ve got several degrees in English of some sort, and while useful to some degree, editing is a whole different kettle of words.
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