The Different Types of Editors on Your Path to Publishing
Updated: Jul 20, 2022
Recently, I was asked by the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library to give a talk on the different types of book editors for those who were curious. It is confusing to know if you’ve not been through the book publishing process who does what. Here is a recap of that presentation:
Think of the phrase, “It’s impossible to see the forest through the trees.” You obviously know what you put in your manuscript, but how does a professional see it? Did it come across? What does a third-party reviewer think of your work?
You are judged by your words, your emails, resumes, texts, dating profiles, stories, and books. It doesn’t matter what type of book you are writing whether it's a memoir or a short story or even a children’s book. It still needs an editor, let’s get into the different types of editors.
There are four different main types of editors: development and line editor, which is what I do, the in-house editor, a copy editor, and a proofreader. I became a development and line editor by working in traditional publishing houses in New York in the trade department. “Trade” means books that are sold in regular bookstores. You start out as an assistant, answering phones, reading lots of manuscripts, writing readers reports, attending editorial meetings, trying to figure out what books to acquire and which to reject. You learn who the players are in the industry - the agents, the publishers, the editors, what everyone publishes, what people are known for.
An in-house editor takes books through the publication process, from negotiating and signing contracts to approving designs, reviewing the copyediting, the proofreading, choosing a jacket, writing copy, writing catalogue copy, giving sale presentations. You keep authors calm about the whole process and walk them through it. You learn the art of development editing and line editing under the guidance of your boss, who hopefully is looking over your shoulder as you edit your first few books. My boss used to tell me when I was starting out, “Do More! You’re being too nice!” Offering criticism is an art. You have to point out what is working and what is not working. Show writers what their strengths are and where they need to work harder. You have to do this without knocking the wind out of their sails, offering direction on where to go next.
As an independent editor, I divide my role into two pieces: first is the developmental editor. To do this you have to check: does everything work? The plot, pacing, characters, dialogue, descriptions, and chapters. Those are all big picture thoughts; if the pieces don’t add up, the reader isn’t going to be happy. That is true for both fiction and nonfiction. My goal is always to make sure the reader keeps reading the book! People have to have compelling reasons to stick it out and not get distracted by everything else in the world, like the next book on their lists, Netflix, their phone, the news, sports, sleep! Statistically, the number for people finishing books is very low. All of these thoughts go into a document called the Editorial Letter. Every Developmental Editor should give you one. The next part of my role: Line Editor.
As a line editor, I—respectfully—make changes with the manuscript, that the author can either accept or reject. Changes to correct basic things, but also to make the words and the ideas flow better. Sometimes I do a lot of cutting of repetition, move sentences around, ask for better word choices, or substitute my own. (This is just a very brief summary of what I do in a line edit; if I were to list it all, it would be boring!)
What comes after a line edit? You revise! Maybe you need another edit. Or, if you think the book is ready, and if you are trying to get an agent and try for traditional publishing, you write a query letter. If you get a publisher, you will get another edit (a light one) and they will provide a copy editor. And if you are self-publishing you need to hire a copy editor.
Who are copy editors? Copy editors are trained, either by publishing houses or certification classes, in the rules of copy editing. They follow the Chicago Manual of Style. New rules come up all the time, they may form opinions around them, or ask you for your preference, but the key is consistency. They all must make style sheets. They have the last word in grammar, punctuation, spelling, and will even fact check certain things for you. Copy editors are the queens and kings of all things grammar, punctuation, and usage. I defer to them in these cases where they are experts, and run any final copy past them. Again, you’ll get a marked-up version of your manuscript in Word with “track changes” turned on, that you’ll have to go through and accept and reject the changes, and answer some questions. Sometimes, there are multiple rounds of copyedits if there are multiple questions that need to be answered.
Once the book is done with copyediting, then the book goes into layout. This is when a book starts to look like a book on the insides, with the title page, table of contents, chapter titles, running heads, and special design elements getting put in. This is where you need a proofreader.
A proofreader might be the copy editor hired to read the book again once it’s laid out, or it might be a new person with a fresh set of eyes. They are not checking for bad grammar, punctuation, etc., they are mostly looking for typos, “widows and orphans,” badly captioned items, any inconsistencies with the layout, to make sure that everything is numbered properly, etc. At this point in the book’s production, to make major changes means that you have to pay the book’s designers additional hours to insert all these changes into the text, so this is not the time to rewrite the book! This is the time to correct mistakes only, or else it gets really expensive. In publishing contracts, we limit the amount of changes the author can make, or else they have to start paying for the time of the layout professional. This stage can require multiple takes to make sure all corrections are made and accounted for, and don’t throw the book into further disarray. On the last complex book I oversaw, the proofreader and the designer went through eleven versions of the books before it was flawless, but that was a complex design with a cookbook and photos. Most normal books do not have that many versions. Something to keep in mind is using a copyeditor/proofreader for the jacket/back cover copy of the book as well as your developmental editor to make sure that it the copy is enticing to the reader to want to purchase the book, as well as error-free.
There are two other editors I want to let you know about, first off, a story editor. A story editor is for novelists. These are not required, but some people love them to start the process. They don’t do line editing, copy editing, or proofreading, but look at a story for the “beats” of a book, to make sure that all elements of a book that need to be in there to make a successful book—along the lines of Save the Cat or John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story—are there. In their mind, certain actions have to happen by certain points in the book, like the “call to action” and the “dark night of the soul” in order to have satisfying storytelling. A class, or analysis by one of these editors is useful, but I don’t recommend ending there because you haven’t gotten a polished edit.
The other editor is called a sensitivity reader, this is not an editor per se, but something to be aware of if you’re not already if you’re a novelist writing about something outside your comfort zone: another race, another gender, a person who has a different sexuality. This is important if you’re writing for the YA and Middle Grade years, which is an extremely sensitive group to this kind of criticism, and increasingly in the adult marketplace. There have been a few books that have had their books cancelled because they weren’t writing from an authentic place or hadn’t done the proper amount of research required. This is not necessarily a professional editor per se, although there are professional sensitivity readers out there for all sorts of issues. Just make sure you know what you are getting for the money. Have them make written suggestions and pull-out places where your writing can be more sensitive.
I hope this article helps you as you move towards the publishing process.
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