So you’ve written a novel – or a thesis, or website copy, or an annual report, or a journal article, or a short story. At the very least, you’ll want to make sure it doesn’t contain any typos or grammatical errors. If you’re hoping to get a literary agent or publisher interested in your work, or if you’re self-publishing, you’ll want your manuscript to be as perfect as possible. You need to be kind to your readers, whoever they may be.
Why bother having your work edited and proofread?
As a writer, you’ll want to do as much work on your text as you can yourself, working through several drafts, setting each draft aside for a while and revising the text again and again.
But there will come a point when the next best thing to do is pass the manuscript on to an editorial professional. Nothing beats getting the objective opinion of someone completely unfamiliar with the text who will put themselves in the shoes of potential readers, flag up any problem areas and help you polish your text ready for the next stage in the process.
A fresh pair of eyes on your manuscript will spot everything from plot holes and flaky characterisation to typos and punctuation and grammatical errors – things that you, the author, have become blind to because you’re too familiar with your text – and take your work to the next stage in the publication process (in whatever format), increasing the chances that YOUR work will be read and enjoyed.
Especially for writers who plan to self-publish, having your work edited and proofread is almost a necessity in today’s crowded market. But it’s not just about the value the editorial process adds for your readers; you can learn a great deal from working with an editor. By studying the changes in the edited manuscript, you can see what the editor has done to improve the text and go on to apply those lessons for yourself in other work.
The Society for Editors and Proofreaders has compiled a collection of ‘befores’ and ‘afters’ – real life examples that show what a difference good editing can make – in ‘Why Edit?‘.
TYPES OF EDITORIAL WORK
There are several different types of editorial work you can have done to your text (to confuse matters even more, UK and US/Canadian editors often use different terms to describe the same thing). Here are some of the main types of editorial work, listed in the order in which they follow in the publishing process:
Manuscript assessment/critique/appraisal is a broad assessment of your manuscript by an experienced reader (often an author or editor) that gives the author objective, honest, constructive feedback. Typically, you will receive a report, ranging in length from two to twenty pages, giving an editorial overview of your manuscript, pointing out its weaknesses and strengths, any inconsistencies, where improvements can be made and offering advice on the best publishing route to take. The report will look broadly at things like structure, style, characterisation, pace, dialogue, etc. but the reader will not work on the text itself.
Development editing (also called substantive, structural or heavy editing) is the most extensive (and expensive) type of editing. A development editor works on the text itself and looks at the big picture to suggest (or make) revisions that improve the text as a whole. In a novel, for example, the development editor will draw attention to structural issues, plot holes, unconvincing characterisation, clumsy writing and bad pacing. Chapters, paragraphs and/or sentences may need to be moved around, deleted, added or rewritten. The editor may rewrite/rework the manuscript themselves (with the author’s agreement). Alternatively, they may give detailed advice for the author to follow. A development editor may also produce chapter outlines, plotting timelines and character summaries to pass on to the author to help them take the text to the next stage in the process.
Copy-editing gets down to the nitty-gritty of the text. This is your last chance to improve your text. The copy-editor makes everything consistent (all British English spelling, for example) and corrects problems of spelling, grammar, punctuation, syntax, style, repetition, word or phrase overuse, and appropriate vocabulary. With non-fiction books, the copy-editor is often also responsible for checking facts and citations, footnotes/endnotes and bibliographies, and for cross-checking references, figures and tables.
For a more detailed description of the copy-editing process, see the SfEP’s Frequently Asked Questions about Copy-editing.
Proofreading is the lightest form of editing and usually comes last in the production process, once the text has been copy-edited, formatted and paginated, and just before the text is published. The proofreader checks for errors only, correcting those that have been missed (or introduced) at the copy-editing stage – spelling, grammar and punctuation. If a text is revised as a result of a proofread (even if only small parts are re-written), a second (or even third) proofread is advisable. A final proofread should find no errors at all.
For a more detailed description of the proofreading process, see the SfEP’s Frequently Asked Questions about Proofreading.
Indexing is the process of categorising information in a book to compile a back-of-the-book alphabetical listing of names, places, events, subjects, themes, etc. to help readers quickly locate information in a book or large document. Typically, only non-fiction books are indexed. It is usually the last process before publication, often done at the same time as proofreading (because the page numbers need to be stable).
More information about the task of indexing can be found on the Society of Indexer’s website.
If you aren’t sure what type of editorial work you need, a professional editor/proofreader will be able to assess your work and help you decide the best approach to take.
HOW TO HIRE AN EDITOR, PROOFREADER AND/OR INDEXER
When you contact an editor, proofreader or indexer for the first time, it’s usually best to do it by email. There are a number of things they will need to know before they can give you a quotation and/or tell you if they are available:
• what the text is, e.g. a novel, a family history, an academic book, a children’s book, a thesis for Masters or PhD at university
• in the case of academic texts, what the subject matter is, e.g. astrophysics, English literature, gene therapy
• if you are a non-native English writer
• how many words are in the entire text
• when it needs to be done by, or if you’re flexible with timescale
• what your plans are for the text – you will be self-publishing; you want to try to find an agent
Most editors/proofreaders will ask to see samples of the text in order to assess the level of work required. They will then give you a quotation, tell you how long they estimate it will take to do and when they can start. Some editors are willing to do a few pages of a sample edit, so there are no misunderstandings later on down the line.
Bear in mind that most freelancers are booked in advance. You may be lucky to get a slot immediately, but by and large, you should expect to be added to a waiting list. If you really want to work with a specific editor, it’s best to think about it well in advance (months in advance) and not leave it to the last minute.
If the editor, proofreader or indexer can’t take the work on they will explain why (perhaps they’re unavailable when you need them, or the work is beyond their scope), but they may be able to suggest someone else to try.
The SfEP has a useful list of FAQs about using copy-editors and proofreaders.
HOW THE WORK IS DONE
Every editor, proofreader and indexer has their own way of working. However, there are some things many of us have in common.
Most communication is by email. Not only is it fast and efficient, but it also means that both you and your editor have a written record of what has been agreed, so you can refer back to it if necessary.
Work is usually done on an electronic copy of the manuscript. The early stages of manuscript preparation – writing and revision, development editing and copy-editing, and for self-publishers, proofreading – are all done in Microsoft’s Word. Most editors will use Word’s ‘tracked changes’ facility to make insertions and deletions and input comments for the author. The other most commonly used document format is PDF, often used by publishers to forward text after it has been typeset and laid out, for example, for the use of proofreaders and indexers, and to allow authors to check the final layout of their book.
HOW MUCH DOES EDITING, PROOFREADING AND INDEXING COST?
This is between you and the freelance you choose to work with. The SfEP suggests minimum hourly rates for various editorial services, as does AFEPI.
Some editors and proofreaders prefer to quote a flat fee for an entire job; others prefer to charge an hourly fee and estimate the number of hours the work will take. Work not included in the initial brief/quotation will, of course, cost extra. You may also need to renegotiate the fee if the work turns out to be more complex or to take longer than either you or your editor/proofreader originally estimated.