Five Types of Editors… and One Strong Warning

A reader wrote to me recently. (Okay, it was Eve Nielsen. Stop twisting my arm.) 

She said, “I’ve been reading a book on how to write and just discovered that there are various kinds of editors.  How necessary do you think a copy editor is?”

Let’s start with the strong warning. Caveat emptor. Seriously. 

There is no real industry standard–especially among freelance editors. Are you thinking of hiring a freelance editor? Caveat emptor.

Even if you are hiring me. I mean, this whole blog could be an elaborate facade, right? How would you know? How can you trust someone enough to transition from non-paying reader to paying client?

And no, I’m not accepting freelance clients, right now. This post is not a pitch for additional work. Really. My plate is full for the foreseeable future.

Thus the reason for this post. When I turn writers down, the smart ones always ask me, “Who do you recommend?” And “How can I find a good freelance editor?” And “How much does a good freelance editor cost?”

One helpful source for understanding freelance editing is the Editorial Freelancers Association. Talk about straightforward branding. Their pricing index gives you a general sense of the different types of editing. It also gives you a conservative estimate if you are pricing out freelance work. (The Writer’s Market has a similar pricing index that suggests much much higher rates, but they’ve put all their content behind a subscription gate now.) Whether a particular editor’s prices are fair or not depends largely on that person’s experience.

So without further ado. Here is the hierarchy of editing as I understand it:

1) Proofreading

The editor is looking for standard grammar, punctuation, and usage. This work is very important. A sloppy final draft tells the acquisitions editor that you are not serious. Or not professional.

Don’t hire someone to proof for you unless you have to. Get some friends to do it, then take them out or buy them something cool. Or proof it yourself. If you don’t understand grammar enough to proof your work, then you need to fix that.

One more note on proofing. The closer you are to a manuscript, the harder is to proof. I try to give myself a week or two between composition and proofing. If I don’t have a week, I read a printed version of the text aloud and follow each word with my finger.

2) Copyediting and/or Line Editing

This includes proofing, but addresses issues of style just a little bit more. When I copy edit, I read three or four lines at a time. That is to say, I look for redundancies of sentence structure, diction, etc. I also look for for places where the language or the content is vague. And I keep an eye out for basic logical problems (like begging the question and hasty generalization), and rhetorical weaknesses (like mixed metaphors or passive voice).

Depending on the state of a manuscript, copyediting can be pretty quick or seriously intense work.

Every writer should expect to copy edit his or her own work. But every writer can also benefit from fresh eyes. (In my opinion as an editor.)

3) Reader’s critiques

The purpose of a reader’s critique is usually to guide the rewrite. This is a common kind of editing that I see freelancers offer. It’s basically self-explanatory. Editors offering reader’s critiques will discuss what works for them in the book and what doesn’t. They typically provide margin notes and summative comments.

A reader’s critique can be really really helpful to new writers, but it can also be really discouraging. Remember, the purpose of a reader’s critique is usually to guide the rewrite.

Most writers I know don’t like rewriting their work.

4)  Book Doctoring

When I am working as a Book Doctor, I will not only point out problems, I will propose solutions. This is where editing begins to feel much more intrusive.

Rather than label something as a mixed metaphor, I’ll fix the metaphor. Rather than point out a logical fallacy, I’ll rework the logic. If the content is vague, I’ll clarify the content based on what I think the writer is trying to say.

Usually, this process goes back and forth a bit. My edits in this kind of situation are more like a proposal to the writer—is this what you are trying to say?

Some writers hate this process. Even if they need it.

5) Ghost Writing

Ghost writing is a way of producing material for someone with great ideas but without the time or finesse to write them down. (Almost always the former.)

Ah, the ethical dilemma of ghost writing.

But it’s really not that complicated. A ghost uses primary resources from the author to shape a book for the author.

The best distinction I have heard between book doctoring and ghost writing is this: If the author brings you a manuscript of some kind—no matter how incomplete—if the author has laid the foundation, anything you construct on that foundation is just editing.

However, if the author brings you primary source material that you repurpose into a new genre, that is ghosting. Obviously, there are degrees of ghosting too. Some ghosts are just writers for hire, producing books for people with platforms. Some celebrity books seem to have this kind of feel. Other ghosts bring the author’s ideas to life after a series of interviews.

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