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Understanding The Many Types of Book Editing

Writing a book is notoriously one of the harder things that humans attempt to do with their lives. There is little in the cultural imagination about books that were easy to write; it’s always toil and heartache. The exception being those stories that came fully formed and packaged as if delivered by the gods themselves, like the Bible, or The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Other times, drugs deliver the stories on a platter, à la Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. A quote from which Raab & Co.’s founder Josh Raab embarrassingly has tattooed on his wrist.

But for those of us not in drug-induced states of euphoria and inspiration, or without a personal line to God, the work becomes long, hard, and tedious. This is where editors come in.

It’s helpful to remember that much of what we’ve written, loved, and held up into the canon of literary achievement was presented to us only after a lengthy process of revision, courtesy of dedicated editorial teams. For a good albeit extreme example of just how heavily the works you know and love have been touched by the editorial graces, consider the relationship between Gordon Lish and Raymond Carver, or this piece, originally published by The New Yorker, that shows the drastic edits Lish made to Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

While not all editorial processes are as intense (or invasive) as Lish’s, the fact of the matter remains that diving into a book alone is an often isolating process—consider the number of writers who have compared beginning a new work to striking out into the dark, without matches, map, or guide. An editor can serve as a friend, carrying the lantern that lights the cave.

But not at all editors are created equal—nor do they even all perform the same tasks. Editing can be broken down into the following categories: developmental, assessment, copy, line, and proofreading.

Developmental Editing 

The editorial process often begins with developmental editing. Think of developmental editing like a sort of cosmic school counselor: you know you have to meet certain marks, you have a few specifics you’d like to hit, and the person meeting with you knows how to get you to where you need to go. Developmental editors also have the added benefit of going into your project with emotional distance from it, so while you may be knee-deep in a single sentence that’s taking up the entirety of your cognitive process, the editor can look at your piece and see the forest for the trees.

Developmental editors help you look at the bigger picture: your structure, whether certain chapters need to be fleshed out or moved around, questions your book inevitably raises within the reader. Ideally, books should raise some questions—what does it mean to be human? How do I rise and meet the challenges and calls of my life?—but a developmental editor can help see where the crux of your story lies and help you guide the writing back toward it so that your readers are left with better existential questions than, “Why did I spend three hours reading this book?”

Editorial Assessments    

For those lost in the cave without any sense of up or down, an editorial assessment may provide the same sense of guidance that developmental editing offers to a finished manuscript. Editorial assessments serve to answer some of the larger questions that developmental editing deals with: what works, what doesn’t, where is it going, where should it get out of. Unlike a developmental assessment, which will work on your manuscript directly and return it to you, annotated and marked throughout, an editorial assessment operates by essentially reading the manuscript-in-progress, reviewing the work done so far, and offering back a letter that addresses the overall quality of the unfinished manuscript.

Editorial assessments are lifesavers for those of us meandering around in the same familiar landscape of writer’s block, pacing up and down our little mental cells and unable to proceed. They’re also incredibly time-efficient as far as receiving feedback early on or getting guidance for what to do with characters, plot, structure, or other big-picture issues with the work: it takes time and distance for us to view our own work with the same clarity and precision that an editorial assessment can give us with half as much effort (and nearly zero percent of the usual angst) as doing the assessment ourselves will cost us.

Copy Editing

Copy editors, on the other hand, ignore the bigger picture and dive down into the nitty-gritty— namely, the copy. Keeping track of past-present tense, spelling mistakes that your word processor doesn’t pick up on, correcting punctuation, counting the number of times you’ve used the same adjective to describe the same character—a copy editor does all of the above and more. Did you write your first draft with a blonde character named Susan, but then decided Susan would be more likely to have pink hair somewhere in draft two or three, then accidentally forgot to edit a sentence in which you referred to her blonde hair somewhere deep in the middle of the book? Your copy editor will catch that for you.

Any forgotten remnants of earlier drafts or descriptors are caught by a copy editor, who will mark up and help you polish your work. Copy editors also deal with basic grammar, which is a relief for those of us too caught up in the existential dread and delight of world-building to remember the proper use of effect vs. affect or who vs. whom (or for those of us who—or is it whom?—despite many years of schooling and professional freelance work, just can’t remember the difference).           

Line Editing

Line editors, despite many people referring to them interchangeably with copy editors, are in fact a different breed of editor entirely. Line editing is also sometimes called stylistic editing, because both are true: it deals with the work line by line, and it also works to keep the style of the book or piece consistent and cohesive throughout. Line editors essentially take the manuscript and read sentence by sentence to determine what, if any, changes are necessary to bring the sentence in question up to par with the rest of the work. 

Occasionally we writers experience bursts of creative energy (the arrival of the muse) where we dash off a thousand or more words in one sitting; other times we drudge and trudge and mess our way through a brutal hour that brings up only a paragraph (or less) of work. But whether working from the heights of inspiration or the pits of despair, occasionally a sentence feels off. This is where your line editor comes in: they make sure all your sentences, whether you have thirty or several thousand, work together to create the tone, style, and description that your manuscript needs to carry it forward—essentially, your voice. 

It’s equivalent to the way that you switch voices in different parts of your life: you speak one way in an email to your boss, and quite another lying in bed with a lover (and yet another when you’re lying in bed with your cat). Separately, each voice works for its own occasion—but when you integrate or switch them up, you leave your listener or reader feeling confused (and possibly wounded). A line editor makes sure that the voice you’re using for the occasion works, and what’s more, that the other voices in your head don’t make their way into the draft, causing confusion or contention between the pieces.

The one thing that might be confusing to someone reading this is that almost no one ever actually hires a line editor. Either your developmental editor is doing the line edit, or your copy editor is doing it (hence all the confusion about the names).

Proofreading

The final editor you work with—the final boss at the end of the video game—is the proofreader. But unlike the final boss at the end of the level, a proofreader is there to help. Proofreaders are essentially the tollbooth between your work and the wider world—the final step in which inspections are made, mistakes are marked, and the work is allowed to go forth to find its audience. Proofreaders deal almost exclusively with grammar and spelling mistakes, so anything that’s been missed by you, your copy and/or line editors, and anyone else who’s been invited into the inner world of the book can be found before it’s printed en masse or uploaded onto the internet for millions to read. Same goes for your book proposals; typos can make or break your publishing deal!

We’ve all experienced the embarrassing ping in our chest of printing off an essay or sending out an email only to realize we misspelled bourgeoisie for the thousandth time. We’ve all also felt the small, smug glow of reading through something we’ve written and realizing there’s not a spelling or grammar mistake in sight. This is where proofreaders work their magic— to make sure that no potentially distracting or embarrassing oversight is let through, and that the quality of the work can speak for itself, without inconsistent spellings or little grammar mistakes distracting the reader.

Conclusion

Ultimately, this is the job of all editors: to help you keep the reader in a state of wonder, curiosity, or awe (whether it’s of you or your work itself), holding them up ever so delicately in that mysterious state of flow, without them even noticing they’re being held. From the big picture questions—Do I kill the main character? Do I kill everyone?—to the small—a sentence that feels slightly less-than-perfect, or the overuse of the word “however”—the work is a delicate balance between these elements, a dance between the overarching themes and plot and the minutiae of spelling, word choice, and comma placement.

Editorial work, in all its stages, seeks to bring balance between these two realms, to bridge the gap between the two levels every story operates on: the story that is being told, and the words used to tell it. So whether you’re writing about your trip to the Andes, falling in love with your best friend, the geopolitical climate of NGO work, or anything else in the world and beyond, editors are there to do the work you can’t—namely, to step back from the individual word or sentence or idea you’re stuck on, the obsessions and neuroticisms and blocks that every writer occasionally falls prey to, and to help you draw your gaze outward, from the singular tree, to the whole forest in front of you.

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