What Is Editing?

I keep thinking about editing. This may be because I’ve been having conversations about it. And from people’s responses, I’m seeing once again that “editing” is a chameleon word. It blends into its environment so much that it can have very little meaning of its own.

As a teenager, I was an editor for the school paper. Editing in that context meant assigning stories, laying out the pages, and writing an editorial for each issue. Oh, and polishing up the texts that came in from my fellow students. When I edited an online magazine at the turn of the 21st century, I had a similar collection of responsibilities, except that the sheets of newsprint had become web pages.

While planning and shaping content for a publication is definitely rewarding, that work usually comes hand in hand with the work of tracking down the articles, double-checking that all the intellectual property rights are secured, and other solid opportunities for hair-tearing. Nowadays, when I edit my clients’ books, presentations, and other manuscripts, I can focus on the writing — which is the best part.

hand holding a red pencil
Image by HeatherPaque from Pixabay,
altered by AMC

Even when it’s limited to the writing itself, though, the work of editing is unclear and often not well defined. Which raises the question – what is editing?

Ask two people what an editor does, and you’re likely to get a lot more than two answers, especially if those two people work in publishing. I did that the other day, actually — more on that in a minute.

To begin with, the worlds of writing and publishing recognize several distinct flavors, often including — from most specific to most general — proofreading, copyediting, line editing, and developmental editing. In the life of a published manuscript, those typically happen in reverse order, with copyediting the last step before the final proofread. Proofreading isn’t always included, but for our purposes we’ll include it as a form of editing, since a manuscript isn’t complete without it.

What’s a Line Edit?

Complicating things, those terms take on wildly different meanings depending who you’re dealing with. Take a look at the term “line edit.” Although this stage is likely where a majority of editing takes place, the online writing and publishing resource Reedsy doesn’t even include line editing in their categories of editing services. At Reedsy, a copyedit includes “consistency” and “attention to style/tone,” while a developmental edit embraces “major restructuring,” clarification, improvements to characterization, plot assessment, attention to craft, and more. I find Reedsy’s definitions baffling. By omitting one of the four steps, they scramble the timeline that begins with rough draft and ends with a polished manuscript that is ready for proofreading.

hand holding blue pencil
Image by HeatherPaque from Pixabay,
altered by AMC

The Editorial Freelancers Association distinguishes line editing from copyediting, saying “In copyediting you’d check things out and ask the author, ‘Why are you doing this?’ The line editor will simply go ahead and make the changes.” —Ally Machate, quoted in an EFA publication.

And the New York Book Editors delineate important distinctions, including when in the writing process the two occur. To them, copyediting is “like an incredibly high-end proofread,” while line editing takes place earlier and addresses “creative content, writing style, and language use at the sentence and paragraph level. …[focusing] on the way you use language to communicate your story to the reader.” They also use the term  “general” editing for this line editing stage. Others call it “content editing.”

The Four Stages • by Three Sages

Chatting over drinks on a recent spring evening, I asked two publishing colleagues what a “line edit” is, and they added some nice commentary. Not surprisingly, the two did not agree — at least at first. After a while, I think we came to a consensus. First, we zoomed out for a look at the four stages of the entire process of drafting and polishing a manuscript. Here’s what we came up with. (Feel free, of course, not to agree).

To us, the polishing process starts with developmental editing. Here, the editor works with a rough draft, and will generally ask the author more questions and make fewer alterations to the text, focusing on qualities like overall structure, narrative arc, character development (in fiction and in narrative nonfiction), voice, point of view, and shape.

The next stage occurs when the author has returned with a new draft, after incorporating the developmental editor’s suggestions. Now someone reviews and revises the manuscript to polish and clarify the text and sustain its momentum — which I call line editing. Craft, plot, character development and more can be enhanced here. Author queries show up at this stage, for larger questions for which there’s no clear answer. Whatever you call it, this the kind of editing I most enjoy. At this stage, the overall shape of the book is usually established (although there are exceptions – I’ve worked on projects where, late in the process,  the author agreed to move, add, and/or omit chapters and sections).

hand holding pencil
Image by HeatherPaque from Pixabay

Line editing can be iterative (as can developmental editing). Sometimes, after the first line edit, the author, excited about how much better their book can be, gets inspired to make further changes, to make the book even more effective. Another line edit follows, and so on.

After the author approves the final line edits, the manuscript is considered very close to complete. It will be typeset now, so it looks much the way it will when published. This often means the text moves from a word processing app like MS Word to a page layout app like InDesign. At this stage, the copyeditor zooms in on every sentence, looking for small errors and marking them all for correction: footnotes, bibliography, abbreviations, captions, capitalization, citations, titles, proper nouns, punctuation — these kinds of considerations. And if the work is to be produced according to an in-house stylesheet or style book (like Chicago, AP, or APA), this is where all those items get handled. A manuscript looks a lot more professional after a good copyedit.

Once all those fixes are made in the pages, another set of eyes is necessary before publication. Ideally, the proofreader sees the typeset manuscript for the first time at this point, and will often not interact with the author at all, as the changes remaining to be made are not considered controversial. (Some authors feel very strongly, however, about punctuation!) Spelling, grammar, punctuation, and consistent layout elements (like bulleted lists, for example) are generally the scope of the proofreader’s work. Often, an editor or production person supervises the proofreader. Proofreading comes last for a reason. No more edits can be made without risking the introduction of new errors.

As Deanna Griffin pointed out, the four overall stages we outlined — developmental edit / line or general edit or content edit / copyedit / proofread — occur in many life pursuits, not just writing. It’s a familiar progression, traveling from high altitude overview down to individual blades of grass.

Why Line Editing Is Fun

I find it a great pleasure to dig into a writer’s manuscript and help the meaning emerge. I love to adopt — temporarily — the writer’s tone of voice. It’s almost like immersing in a theatrical part.

hand holding blue pencil
Image by HeatherPaque from Pixabay,
altered by AMC

There are many creative aspects to line editing. It may seem surprising, but I can say that the a-ha moments I experience when I’m editing resemble the a-ha moments I have as a writer or composer. Sometimes a choice as small as replacing one preposition with another can make the author’s expression of an idea just click into place. Sometimes shuffling paragraphs around sharpens the focus. And sometimes landing on just the right verb can be amazingly rewarding. As my colleague, Abigail Wiebe, put it, the good editor is “hearing what the author is thinking.”

Which leads us to one essential fact in editing – it only happens after a writer writes something. To all the writers I have edited, and to all the writers whose work I hope to edit in the future, Thanks! Can’t do this without you. Seriously. Editors like me love to peel away the distractions and get to exactly what you want to say. It makes us happy.

Definitions of the stages of editing may be unhelpfully vague, but the impact those stages can have on a piece of writing is real. Maybe it’s because I was trained as a musician, but I love it when words sing. Helping that happen is such a great feeling! And everybody wins. My life thrives, the author’s intentions are fulfilled, and the reading public gets something new to enjoy.

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Her company, Chenille Books, provides creative coaching and full-service editing to authors. Decks of 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, at the Chenille Books website, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase at Central Virginia booksellers and on Amazon. #becomingunstuck 

Proofreading and Editing

Like every reader, I’ve come across typos and small continuity errors in novels and short stories, but few created the world-wide uproar as the error found on page 667 of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the First American edition, July 2000.

Voldemort and Harry’s wands had met in battle and the result was Voldemort’s ghostly victims spewing out in the reverse order that he killed them, that is, his last victim coming out of his wand first. When Harry’s parents appeared, his father came out of the wand before his mother.Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

My son was seven years old in the summer of 2000. My husband, my son, and I were reading aloud this fourth book in the beloved Harry Potter series and we immediately realized the mistake. Since it was Lily Potter’s love of her son, Harry, which destroyed Voldemort, she should have come out of Voldemort’s wand before Harry’s father. See http://www.hp-lexicon.org/about/exp-wandorder.html for more details about the wand order problem.

What lessons did I learn?

Primarily, I learned that even one of the bestselling authors of all time makes mistakes! (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_fiction_authors).

Secondarily, I learned that writers must utilize many proofreading tools to minimize typos and continuity errors.

Here are a few of my favorite proofreading techniques:

One:  Read what you’ve written and then read it again. And again.  Read it until you can’t find any errors. But don’t submit yet. Your proofing has just begun.

Carolyn at her desk

Carolyn O’Neal. Editing, editing, always editing.

Two: Read it out loud. Hearing your words is like turning on the light in a dim room. Errors shine in the spotlight of the voice. Words should flow off the page. If you stumble as you read your own writing aloud, imagine how it will sound to others.

Three: Record your voice as you read what you’ve written. My favorite way to record my voice is with my I-Pod. Under Extras, I select Voice Memos. I record a piece and listen to it over and over until I catch all the elusive logic and continuity errors.

IPod Shuffle, Nano, Classic, and Touch
IPod Shuffle, Nano, Classic, and Touch

Four: Ask others to read your work. This is when being a member of a great writing group REALLY pays off. Having three or four or five other people read and discuss your work helps you find everything from simple typos to major plot problems. Yes, you can ask your parent or spouse to read your writing, but can they give you objective feedback?  Probably not. For more information on creating a great writing group, go to https://baccaliterary.com/how-to-create-a-writing-group/ the BACCA Literary logo

All of the above works well for small pieces.  Short stories or poems.   But what about novels?   Reading 80,000 words aloud would be exhausting.  The answer:

Five: Text to Voice software. Text to Voice software converts the words you’ve written into a natural sounding voice. This is especially helpful when listening to multiple chapters. I use NaturalReaders. A downloadable free sample of NaturalReaders is available at http://www.naturalreaders.com/download.php.

NaturalReader is a Text to Speech software with natural sounding voices. This easy to use software can convert any written text such as MS Word, Webpage, PDF files, and Emails into spoken words. NaturalReader can also convert any written text into audio files such as MP3 or WAV for your CD player or iPod.

 

 Additional proofreading suggestions

from guest contributor

Constance Renfrow,

courtesy  of DIYMFA

Constance Renfrow

Constance Renfrow is an editor at Three Rooms Press; an editor and publishing consultant at constancerenfrow.com

What to Know Before You Submit Your Novel

 

Check for Dumb Mistakes

It takes the trained eye approximately 0.02 seconds to notice the glaring typo on page one of a submission. And sometimes we editors are so stressed/exhausted/cranky that reading, “The tour-tooted animals” instead of the four-footed ones in the manuscript we’re looking at on our 4 p.m. lunch break is just the dose of hilarity needed to dissolve us into a dripping puddle of laughter-tears.

Read It As An Educated Reader

Now it’s time to read over your manuscript for anything an editor may find problematic enough to make her beg St. Francis de Sales for instant death. Are you making sexist/racist/controversial statements that have absolutely no bearing on the story? Get rid of them. Do you spend an entire chapter claiming your senator eats paint? Prove it with facts or rethink it. Does the book rely on stereotypes? That’s boring. No one wants to be bored and editors have especially short attention spans.

Exterminate all clichés. Even if they’re fairly new to the vernacular, just imagine how many times an acquiring editor sees them. I never want to see a person’s face described as a “mask of” horror/terror/ugliness/anything ever again.

Another thing. Pay attention to how many times you repeat words or phrases. Have you ever said a word so many times in a row that it loses all meaning? That’s what the editor will feel like if you use the phrase “so-and-so snorted” 381 times in a two hundred-page novel. I once had an author who used “shared” instead of “said” every single time, and I still can’t say/hear/read/think the word without wanting to throttle whatever good Samaritan is sharing her fruit platter with the rest of the office.