After that first draft is finally written, an author experiences an incomparable elation, followed almost immediately by blind panic. The cause of the panic? Editing.
At a glance, you might think cost and timing are the most important factors when approaching this phase of the publishing process. And you’re right, but there is another factor involved that affects both of those factors: the level of editing needed. This is a question most often asked and generally hardest to answer. Because of the nature of the work, editing is done in “passes.” So to answer the big question, I need you to understand the purpose of each “pass.”
What level of editing do you need?
First, understand that there is no exact formula for every author and every book. Each book requires a slightly different approach. Deciding how to best approach your book is easier for an editor to do because we’re completely objective. Figuring this out on your own to save time is a bit more difficult, but still possible. This is where understanding editing “passes” comes in handy.
Before I get into that, though, we need to talk about playing pretend. You’re good at pretending. Don’t shake your head at me, I know better. You’ve written a book, so you’re good at pretending. When you’re “in the zone,” you’re pretending to experience the story just as your PoV character does. And you’re also pretending to be your favorite author (don’t even try to deny it, it’s part of the fun of being a writer). Or maybe you pretend you’re a famous, award-winning, best-selling author, just plugging away at your next great book (personally, I prefer this fantasy). Either way, you’re good at pretending. To understand what level of edits you need, you have to pretend you’re an editor. Grab a red pen, a giant mug of coffee or tea, and find a nice, quiet place to review your work with a critical eye.
The First Pass
Not everyone likes to outline first. I get it, really I do. But an outline is tremendously helpful at this level. If you didn’t start with one, consider making one. If you want to do this the hard way, fine; let’s do it the hard way. If you write in Scrivener, you’ll have the corkboard to refer to quickly. In Word, you can use the Navigation panel for quick reference. And that’s the key to this pass; quick reference. Scrivener is great for this pass, actually, because you can write a short summary on each scene’s index card. With Word, the best you can do is move between scenes quickly, but you’re still left scanning for information. You can add a summary as a comment or at the beginning of each chapter, just make sure you delete that summary before publishing. The best way to do this pass, in my opinion, is to have an outline with scene/chapter summaries to refer to. It’s much easier to flip through just a few pages and read summaries than to scan hundreds of pages looking for key information.
Now that we’ve covered how to find what you’re looking for, you need to know what to look for. At this stage, you’re to question everything. Why is that character so mean to the other one? You know the answer; as the writer, it’s in you. It’s already there. You have to confront the answer and make sure it comes across to the reader. So as you browse through each scene and each chapter, make notes of any questions that come up. Make sure those answers are apparent to the reader, or reasonably assumed. Otherwise, your characters won’t make sense. Check your timeline at this stage, too. Look for plot holes. Be merciless. If you think something may not make sense, make a note. If you find a hole, make a note. If you’re struggling to fix the issues you find, then you probably need a developmental editor. If you’re struggling to know which questions to ask or how to find the answers to these questions, you definitely need a developmental editor. Developmental editors can also help you with structure in addition to ensuring a character’s arc make sense. So if you’re struggling with “big picture” issues, start looking for a developmental editor. Feel free to skip ahead to the list of questions at the bottom of this article.
The Second Pass
If you don’t need developmental help, then this will be your first pass. But assuming you’ve put your manuscript through the development ringer (and it never hurts, really, except maybe your budget), your second pass will likely include a combination of copy and line edits. It’s reasonable to assume that you will need this level of edits. I can’t see any reason not to hire an editor to go through and ensure your paragraphs and sentences flow well, and that you’ve written with clarity. This is not the same as proofreading. But I’ll get to that in a minute.
In my opinion, every book benefits from this level of editing. I say level, but it’s actually two combined into one. I’ve not yet run into a project that required the separation of the two, so I’ll just stick with what I know. What I know is that the big picture should be solid before I get to work on the line edits. I may do some line edits in the first pass while I’m there, but if the text changes significantly, these edits will need to be done again. If there is a big picture issue and a significant revision is required, you lose time by performing line edits twice. That’s why it’s important to start with a developmental editor if you even think you might need one. Regardless of whether or not you start with a developmental edit, I definitely recommend hiring a good copy/line editor. You can’t tell what won’t make sense to someone other than yourself. An objective editor can.
The Third Pass
A good proofreader is worth their weight in gold, but it’s not their job to point out when the PoV slips or that a character has green eyes in chapter two but brown eyes in chapter eight. Those issues should be corrected in the second pass (or first pass, if you don’t need developmental editing). If you hire a proofreader and they spot a significant number of these types of errors, they may very well send the work back to you and advise you to hire an editor. Understand that when you hire a proofreader. You aren’t paying them to correct all the issues in your book, only very specific issues. Grab a copy of a style guide (I like Strunk and White’s, but Chicago Manual of Style is popular among fiction authors, and the Associated Press style guide is popular for non-fiction work). Browse through it and look at the type of information within. Grammar rules. Punctuation. Usage. That’s proofreading, and that comes in the third and final pass, not in the second. And I always recommend a separate proofreader; it doesn’t hurt to have a third pair of eyes and can only help ensure the highest accuracy.
Programs, like Grammerly, are an option for proofreading if you’ve had a good line edit, but I wouldn’t rely on that unless you are confident in your editor’s ability to proofread (which requires a different skill-set from editing) as well as your own. But if you’re pressed for time and money, and you are confident in the product you and your editor have polished, these programs may be an acceptable option. But don’t skip this step. There’s just no reason to.
Here’s the thing to remember, the short version:
A good proofread makes you look like you’re literate (and accurate).
A good copy and line edit ensures you’ve conveyed what you meant to and with clarity.
A good developmental edit should take your manuscript to the next level.
If you’re on a tight budget, you may skip either the developmental edit or the copy/line edit, depending on your strengths and weaknesses as an author. But understand that you’re taking a huge risk in doing so because you’re relying on your ability to spot your own strengths and weaknesses. You cannot see your flaws like an objective person can. If in doubt, save your money, look for viable options, and research, research, research.
I’ll leave you with one last but very important note and a list of questions to ask editors when you’re ready: be careful who you hire to edit your manuscript. In Susan Kaye Quinn’s Indie Author Survival Guide, she talks about the sharks in this industry. (Thankfully, I have recently passed muster as an editor and not been labeled a shark. 😉 Thank you, Susan, for your kind words of encouragement!)
I understand that money is tight and wise budgeting is a must. But you can’t afford to publish a poorly-edited book. It’s a newbie mistake that will cost you more in the long run. So after you’ve determined which level of editing you need and when you’re looking for an editor, be careful. Cost and timing are important factors, but hire a legitimate editor or you may as well burn the money you’ll spend along with your manuscript. I’ll leave you with a list of questions to ask, and wish you all the best in your publishing endeavors.
First, ask yourself: Do I know anyone who has hired an editor recently and might be able to recommend one?
Then, when you’ve found a few editors you’d like to “interview,” ask them the following questions (at least):
Q1. How much does it cost? (Specify what you’re having edited.)
Q2. How long does it take? (Again, specify.)
Q3. How many passes do you make?
Q4. What are my options for communicating with you about your suggestions? (Facebook messaging, email, phone calls, etc.)
Q5. Do you have references or testimonials from previous clients that I can look at?
Q6. Will you perform a “test” edit before I hire you? (Not all editors/proofreaders do this. It doesn’t mean they’re not legitimate, but I wouldn’t recommend hiring someone without knowing whether or not you can work with them. That test edit serves multiple purposes for both you and the editor. Ask for one.)
And make a list of any other questions. If you aren’t comfortable asking and your editor isn’t comfortable answering, then you may not be a good fit for each other. That, in and of itself, is an answer. Find someone you’re comfortable communicating with. You two are about to get real close.