A clean dog is like a clean manuscript—both want you to pick them up for either petting or reading.
By Shelley Widhalm
Do you read a Big 5 published book and see a few grammatical errors that make you flip to the acknowledgements page and ask, “Is there even an editor on the team?”
The last book I read, “Just Between Us,” omitted almost every “and” between independent clauses and randomly used the Oxford comma (the comma before the last item in a series). It’s a suspense, so I got into the story, but the first 50 pages were a bit tedious, especially with the info dump of back story and the only action a bruised wrist and four characters wondering about it.
My current read, “The Lost,” overdoes “says” when action beats will suffice and has a few grammatical and logistical errors despite three editors on board.
Of course, there is a 5% miss rate with any editing job.
But what exactly is editing that makes sure readers get to read without the annoyance of errors? There are many terms for editing, but it can be broken down into three levels from an overall view down to the final polish. There is content and developmental editing, copy and line editing, and proofreading.
Content and developmental editing looks at the structure of your novel or how your story is put together from beginning to end. It’s a review of plot and character arcs and the development of the main and secondary characters, as well as setting, dialog, theme, pacing, and conflict and tension. There’s also the consideration of logistics, such as the timeline and space continuum, so that Monday happens after Sunday, and consistency of character, setting and other descriptions.
Here are some questions an editor may consider: How is the story told? How is it organized? How does it flow through the plot and character arcs? Are there any gaps or places lacking a transition? Are characters flat or dimensional? How about the pacing? At what points do readers get excited by the story line and at what points should there be time for reflection?
The result: readers don’t see words but pictures, as if the writing becomes cinematic. The story entices and excites readers. And it makes them pause at your voice and style, use of language and amazing descriptions.
Copy or line editing goes deeper by looking at the story word for word. It’s not just a matter of looking for errors in grammar, spelling, punctuation, mechanics and syntax. Depending on what’s needed, it also can involve checking for consistency in style, identifying areas where voice is lost, looking for word echoes (words that repeat in paragraphs or sentences), cutting what’s overstated, fixing plot points that end up getting repeated, and identifying misses—is there more that needs to be added or something to remove?
The editor might ask: How are commas being used as a stylistic choice (Oxford? No comma before the final “too” in a sentence?)? Are facts accurate and consistently used? Are metaphors and other writing devices carried throughout the story? Are there too many of them that end up being confusing? Are historical facts accurate? Are any scientific and other concepts explained in a way that makes sense?
The result: Good writing results in pages free of those little errors that take readers out of the story and cause them to edit in their heads.
Proofing a book is a matter of reviewing the language, such as a check of grammar, spelling, punctuation, mechanics and syntax (just like with copy editing), plus any typos and missed errors from previous editing rounds.
Reading the proof, especially if it is nonfiction, also involves flagging locations of art and graphics, checking page breaks and aligning chapters and indexes.
So when do you need which type of editor?
A developmental editor helps organize a story so that it meets genre demands and fits with reader expectations. It’s needed if writers get stuck in a story or receive several no’s from literary agents.
Line editing and proofreading give a final polish to writing that literary agents appreciate and readers of self-published authors demand—who wants to be caught up in errors when the idea is to read for story, plot and character and the desire to turn the page?