What type of editing you need and what an editor can do to improve your work depends a lot on where you are in the arc of your project. Wherever you are, a precision edit is what you want.
Sending your book to an editor can stir up scary or triumphant feelings – or both. You are exposing yourself and your work and inviting scrutiny, but editors are there to help.
What you need from an editor depends on where you stand in the story development queue. Are you still developing your plot, characters, or setting? Are you on draft number 20? Just combing out the last typos?
Stories develop over time, from initial idea to full detail. How well have you done and how will a reader respond? Ask an editor.
Editing services come in different levels of invasiveness. Pick the right editor to help you hone anything — from big to small — from your story concept to poltergeist typos.
Story: Ideas guru
An ideas guru can help you weigh up possible story ideas or hone your pitch for an idea you love. This is an editor of ideas – the “big stuff.” Your guru might lead a writing workshop or retreat or be a writing coach you work with in a brainstorming-and-sanity-checking capacity.
Literary elements: Developmental editor
A second ideas consultant is the developmental editor. Like the ideas guru, this type of editor also checks if your story “works,” but usually after you produce a working draft. Development editing means reviewing all your literary elements (characters, plot, theme, setting) to make sure they are all fully developed.
Style and Consistency: Line editor
If you are happy with your content and structure, consult a line editor to tidy up the details. A line editor will make stylistic suggestions and hunt down breaches of consistency.
Conformity: Copy editor
If you just want grammatical consistency, get a copy edit. Is everything spelled correctly, all the commas in the right places, and people and place names consistent? Copy editors will check for conformity to reference manuals, like the Chicago Manual of Style.
Proofing: Proof editor
This type of master editor finds the camouflaged typos only non-mortals can see. You are ready for proofing only once your text is fully polished.
Picking your editor
Sending your work to an editor can be a real eye-opener. Editors have a special perspective because they read so much. They build up a rare and powerful comparative perspective on writing. They also specialize in diagnosing and fixing problems. The good ones also love giving kudos to the fabulous parts of your work.
Be ready to throw away a lot of ideas if you go to an ideas guru. Be prepared to undertake a nuts-and-bolts re-think if you get a developmental edit. You might end up with your “story engine” dismantled and all laid out on the floor for exchanges and re-assembly. That’s why you asked for this in the first place, right?
A good editor will justify any changes, as far as possible, with relevant theory of craft. Perhaps, in general, you should work on your dialogue, your sense of expressing time, or your plot. Perhaps you need to work to get rid of glue words to tighten up your style. Getting an edit not only helps one particular draft but, hopefully, educates you as a writer for future drafts.
What you want most is an editor who understands you, understands your work, and encourages — even inspires — you! Best of all is when you take a leap forward as a writer as a result and your work heads out the door for publication!
No matter what kind of edit you get, you want a precision edit. It’s not just general comments but precise feedback you want.
It’s great to get overview comments on your work, like, “I love this!” But when you get suggestions for improvements, doesn’t it help to get as much detail as possible?
Making precise edits requires marking up your text. You can do this with pen and paper, but today most editors swear by the benefits of going digital.
The general comment of “your writing is too dense” is helpful, but having examples of the densest text pointed out puts you on the path of fixing it. Having your best and worst work pointed out is a great learning aid. Now you can judge what “too dense” looks like. Do you think it’s too dense? You can reply with specific follow up questions.
Sometimes you don’t need a fix so much as an alert that you still have decisions to make. Do you mean this or that? Can this be clearer? Why not move this story element up? Or this one down? Here’s where inserted questions, comments, and suggestions can provide the most precise feedback.
You can make these types of edits with collaborative writing software. With electronic editing, you can also make inline edits. Why circle a change when you can just go ahead and fix a typo?
Collaborative writing software
If you want to give or get a precision edit in digital form, you need appropriate software.
Software for collaborative writing is designed to help people edit shared documents. Basic word processing software like Microsoft Word can serve this purpose. Turning on “tracking” means it’s easy to visualize, find, and change any aspect of the text, from formatting to word choice, in a trackable way. Tracking appears in the text. Comments appear in bubbles down the right-hand side of the page.
If authors are working with readers and/or editors, anyone can see who contributed what. Tracking “overwrites” only the parts of a document a user alters. At each step of editing, it’s obvious what is new and what’s left to do.
Acquiring the basics
If you get a professional edit, you’ll likely need to deal with tracking. You can get up to speed quickly by learning these key functions inside your writing software: turning tracking on and off, displaying edits for review and action, making new edits, and accepting and rejecting changes.
For example, here is the “Review” menu from Microsoft Word. With these options, you can work with comments, tracking, and manage changes.
- Comments. If you want to add a comment, pick a place in the text, click the “New Comment” button, and start typing! Delete any comments by clicking on it and clicking the “Delete” button. Jump from comment to comment in your document by navigating with the “Previous” and “Next” buttons.
- Tracking. Click the “Track Changes” button to turn on tracking. With tracking on, you’ll see a trail of edits as you type (in a new color). Select “All Markup” to see them and “No Markup” to hide them.
- Changes. Highlight a piece of tracking you like and click “Accept.” If you want the original, click “Reject.” You can navigate changes with the “Previous” and “Next” buttons. You can accept or delete all changes at once with the menu options under the little arrows at the bottom of the “Accept” and “Reject” buttons.
You can get an incredible precision edit on paper, and you might prefer this, but once you try the digital version, you’ll appreciate the depth and clarity digital editing makes possible as well as the ease of managing changes.
Collaborative editing software is a great way to maximize the flow of communication while minimizing the time and effort required to find, discuss, and make changes.
Best of all, after you make all the fixes you want, your project takes a big leap forward towards publication!