I’ve asked my friend Tom Bentley, editor extraordinaire, to answer some FAQs about working with an editor.
Should you ask for a sample edit?
Yes. A sample edit can demonstrate an editor’s skills, acuity and even editing style. I have sample edits of developmental editing, copy editing and proofing from both fiction and nonfiction projects that show my efforts. It’s also reasonable to ask an editor to edit a representative number of pages (perhaps 15-25) of your work to see how they deal with the specifics of your writing. Some editors will roll a fee into project charges for that if you take them on as your editor, some will do it for free.
Should you initially call your editor for a video or audio chat or just work with them through email?
I think it’s best to call and talk about the project. When having a conversation, questions and their answers arise that never would have occurred in email exchanges, even detailed ones. I learn more about the project and the client needs than I ever would have by looking at the writing and email information alone. That said, I have edited a couple of books solely through email exchanges, and they have gone well. Since I have a face made for radio, I prefer a call.
What tools do editors normally use (like Word’s Track Changes commands)?
I use Word’s revision and commenting tools as the mainstay of my editing work. I work on a Mac, and if the writer has a fairly new version of Word, Mac or PC, there are usually no compatibility problems. Sometimes I have to explain some nuances of the revision tools, but there are clear, explanatory videos online that I can point a client too.
Other than those, I have copies of the AP Style Guide, the Chicago Manual of Style, and a bunch of other style, editing and general writing books (like William Zinsser’s excellent “On Writing Well”) that are helpful. Software tools like Grammarly and the Hemingway Editor online can be useful.
What ground rules should a writer and editor have before the process begins?
I think both parties should have a good sense of milestones (when the first round of edits is due to the client, when the return round is due back) and fees, such as paying for a book edit in installment payments. Both parties should have some flexibility for life events, and for round-to-round changes in the original body of work that could affect deadlines.
In a developmental edit of a memoir I just finished, where I suggested the addition of a References and Addendum sections, I charged slightly more for the copyedit phase, because of the added material. Both parties should be communicative about any changes or unforeseen events that affect the work.
What are the types of editing an editor performs?
Developmental editing (which I also call content editing), is the big-picture stuff, incorporates the book’s structure and style, and can also be considered substantive editing. For me, content (developmental) editing is where chapters or chapter sections are shifted about or possibly eliminated, suggestions made (if needed) for the addition of substantial pieces of new material, checking if the information flow is logical, and for fiction, figuring out whether characters feel real and consistent (while still being able to evolve). But if you’re comfortable with those structural issues already being addressed in the book, an author can go straight to copyediting.
In a content/developmental edit, I usually examine the work for broad issues of continuity, theme, and voice—if the story’s arc actually does arc, in a compelling way. I look for whether the narrative starts/ends at the right place, has good transitions, that the story has a current that pulls the reader through—things like that.
Copyediting and line editing, in my view, are the same: for me, my copyediting normally includes deeper suggestions of editing changes—if needed—sometimes found in a content edit, and a sense of editorial assessment, also often found in a developmental/content edit. My copyediting approach might be thought of as a more complex, fine-toothed (and interpretive) way of proofreading, where I make simple in-text corrections for errors, but sometimes also suggest re-workings of sentences and entire paragraphs, in trying to mediate omissions in ideas or undeveloped ideas, or with fiction, difficulties with plot or character consistency and story arc.
This is where I both look at grammar and writing mechanics as well as at the flow of the work. I often suggest in detail where sentences/paragraphs could use some bolstering.
When I proofread, I’m attentive to common typos and spelling errors, but also attentive to something like “versus” being spelled one way in one chapter and seen as “vs” later. I have an eye for consistency, so, speaking of a novel, you wouldn’t have green-eyed characters later seen with blue (unless that was their nature).
Developmental editing, copyediting and proofreading are three separate processes, normally done in succession—you have to make the big changes of a developmental edit before copyediting can proceed, and you have to make the changes of the copyedit before a book can be proofread.
Otherwise you would be doing a bunch of extra work: for example, if you add/delete a bunch of material in the developmental edit, any copyediting you did for the deleted material would be wasted, and you wouldn’t have copyedited the new material, which would have to be edited again.
And proofreading must be the last stage, after you input all the material suggested in the copyedit, since the book would change again from the copyedit.
Should you allow an editor to rewrite sentences or even paragraphs or just make suggestions?
I have worked with authors that were fine with my rewriting of short elements of works. That power, of course, needs to be granted by the author ahead of time. When I first review a project with an author, I ask if they want me to do that (it’s tracked, of course, for their approval or rejection), or if they want me to elaborate in a comment about a suggested change. Repairing typos or egregious grammatical errors I do without hesitation.
Do editors charge by the page, by the word, by time, or by fixed fee?
All of those things. They might even try to charge you for the Doritos they eat at lunch, but don’t let them. I have charged by all of those methods, but for the last couple of years I’ve charged by the word. That is flexible: I’ve charged more per word for complex editing projects and less for where I recognize that the writer has a good handle on the base material, so in some regards it becomes a fixed fee.
What can an editor do for a writing work?
Make it sing like Paganini’s violin! On a more down-to-earth level, editors can offer to bring clarity to an author’s ideas in places where the words might obscure or divert the intended concept or in fiction, sense of drama. Editors can see where characters in fiction might behave in ways wholly out of their established patterns to a reader’s discomfort, where the author might think it’s a needed dramatic explosion. Editors can question areas or ideas that might need expansion. Or they can point out where the thoughts or scenes can be too heavy-handed or bloated with too much exposition.
And to be worth their salt, they must tidy up typos and knock-kneed grammar.
What if an editor suggests the deletion of entire chapters of a book, or for a novel, a character?
I have committed that terrible crime before. I worked with an author of a SciFi book that had a great beginning—that was three chapters in. The work’s first chapters had a great deal of dragging backstory that dulled the senses before the good stuff began. Of course they were troubled at the suggestion, but after reflecting and deciding to do the deletions and shifts, the author very much agreed that the work began with more power and appeal.
One of the great thing about how editors and writers work is that the writer can simply say “nope,” and be done with addressing that edit. It is the writer’s work, after all, and their judgment supersedes an editor’s. Editors should be fully explanatory about why they feel a major edit is justified, how it strengthens the work and energizes the reader, but if the author isn’t onboard, there’s no point in arguing.
Do you have any recourse if you think an editor’s work is terrible, and you’ve already paid them, or paid a portion of the fee?
Giving an author a sample edit and having a clear-cut sense between author and editor of project scope and detail is helpful to stave off those kinds of circumstances, but not always. I have never had an author ask for their money back, though I have had a couple of instances where they thought I could have done more. And I went back and re-did some work without charge. I did have an instance of working with a publisher for whom I edited a number of books say that my work on a specific book wasn’t up to my prior standards, and she did point out some places where I’d missed things I would normally fix.
This is not a great excuse, but that impelled me to do something I’d been meaning to do for a while: I bought glasses with a prescription strictly for reading on the computer; I’d been struggling with focus on the screen with my standard lenses for more than a year. My trouble with that book did force me to get the glasses, which have sharpened my screen vision considerably.
I believe an editor should either promise to resolve the inadequacies of the edit without charge, or refund a portion of the fee if the author has lost confidence in the edit.
Tom also recommends this source for self-editing.
I encourage you to check out Tom’s website, The Write Word. Thanks Tom for your answers and usual wit!
P.S. You might also enjoy this video where I and Anna Scheller discuss editing.