Thursday, March 20, 2014

Finding Your Perfect Editor and Editing Level

By Jordan McCollum, @JordanMcCollum

Part of the Indie Authors Series

Editing is possibly the #1 most important budget item for an indie author. Depending on your skill level and your process, you may need several rounds of editing to produce a beautiful book—and isn't that what we all want? Working with an editor can seem daunting, but once you're familiar with the process and the levels of editing, you'll be ready to find the best editor for you.

Finding & Working With an Editor

Finding an editor can seem like a daunting task—and it is. Although thousands of editors of varying skill levels have hung out shingles, you don't want just anyone to help you perfect your story. You need someone who can capture your vision, see how to make it even better, and work within your timeline and budget.

A great place to start is with similar works to yours, or what you'd like yours to be like: similar genre, tone, style and/or voice. Then look at the acknowledgments or contact the authors to find out who their editor was. You can ask for recommendations from other writing friends as well, of course!

Next, research the editors on your list. Look at their websites to find testimonials, editorial philosophies, perhaps even sample edits, availability and prices. You may find something that just doesn't mesh well with what you want or need, so drop that editor to the bottom of the list and research the next one.

Once you've begun to narrow down your list, you're ready to begin contacting your top choices. Be sure to ask about all your important criteria, from pricing and timeline to technology and editorial philosophy. Do you need a developmental edit, a content and line edit, or only proofreading? Do you want to use Word comments and track changes?

Most editors will offer a sample edit of the first ten pages or first chapter of your work. Take advantage of this! A sample edit is often the best way to tell if the editor is a good fit for you and your work. When they return your edit, go through the comments carefully. Do they make your work better? Are they delivered in a manner you can live with? Does it seem like the editor captures your vision for the project and can help take it to the next level?

Once you've found an editorial fit, be sure to get the price and timeline in writing before s/he begins. Many editors will use a contract, which is a good way to protect both of you. Be sure the contract doesn't include anything like signing over your rights to your work or their edits.

The search may be long, but it will be worth it. If you can find the right editor, your work and your career will benefit immensely. Your relationship could last for years. Work with your editor as with any other service provider: make your expectations clear and communicate honestly, openly and respectfully. Remember that your editor wants you to be a satisfied customer!

Levels of Editing

There will be a lot of overlap between the levels and styles of editing, which vary from editor to editor. Always be sure to make your expectations clear when you engage an editor, and ask about their procedures and style.

The basic levels of editing fall into several tiers:

Developmental, Content, Structural, Substantive Editing

The highest level of editing can take different forms and different names. On this level, the editor looks at the overall structure of the story, characterization, ideas, clarity, flow, logic.

To my mind, developmental editing helps to fix broken books and improve ideas. Structural editing focuses on the structure of the story and individual chapters and scenes to adhere to the principles of good storytelling. Content editing focuses on improving the story and characterization. Substantive editing may cover any of these. However, the terms are often used interchangeably. Be sure to talk to an editor about your expectations, and their usual services.

Although this level of skill is rare, an excellent critique group can help with developmental editing, especially when you use a format that can help them take a higher level look at your work. In addition to my two excellent critique partners, I attribute the success of our group to the format. For two months, we focus on one person's book, and read the entire thing, a quarter at a time. We make some notes on line and copy editing, but we don't delve too much into more granular levels of edits. Instead, we're able to focus on these higher-level problems to improve the story craft.

Line Editing

Once you've made the story the most it can be, you can turn your editorial eye on the writing craft itself. This is where we dig into imagery, style, tone and voice. Line editing focuses on the flow of the writing at a more granular level, paragraph to paragraph and sentence to sentence. Here, the editor can drill into the logical flow from sentence to sentence in building your storytelling.

For more examples of excellent line editing, I suggest reading through the line editing examples on Edit Torrent, a blog by editors Alicia Rasley and Theresa Stevens.

This is where a typical critique group setup excels, in examining the writing craft chapter-by-chapter.

Copy Editing

Copy editing concentrates on grammar, spelling, syntax and usage. This will also catch consistency errors and may include fact checking where appropriate.

At this stage, the editing focus shifts from improving the story and the writing in substantive ways and moves instead toward removing errors. The copy editing phase may comment on places where the voice of the piece is inconsistent (or nonexistent), but the voice of the piece should be set enough that a copy editor should not try to change it substantially.


Proofreading is a final polishing pass, the last step in removing errors. It may address some issues of line editing and copy editing, but mostly focuses on finding typos, homonyms, and minor inconsistencies.

I often see line editing, copy editing and/or proofreading combined into one service. If possible, ask if your editor will be making more than one pass when performing different services. That method is ideal, so that the editor can focus on finding one categories of errors at a time. As with higher-level edits, the terms may be ambiguous or interchangeable, so always check with your editor to find out what s/he'll be focusing on.

A good editor is worth their weight in manuscript pages. Finding one you can work with to make your story the best book is can be is worth the time and effort. Good luck!

For a sneak peek at Jordan's new writing book cover, head on over to her blog.

Jordan McCollum is the (indie!) author of the romantic suspense series Spy Another Day which begins with I, Spy. She enjoys teaching writing craft through her writing craft blog at, as the Education Director of Authors Incognito (an online writers' support group with over four hundred members), and through her book CHARACTER ARCS (with a foreword by Janice Hardy).

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Photo credits: EDIT sign—Matt Hampel Red pen—Angela


  1. Thanks, Jordan. I admit, I've been resisting this. It's a big investment with no guarantee that your book will sell. But I've read a few indie published books that clearly didn't get filtered through an editor. I'm certain they could have been much better if they had been. Thanks for the great advice.

    1. It *is* a big investment, but it can make such a huge difference, as you've seen. Aside from improving your book, there are a few indirect benefits: a "stamp of approval" of some kind and a pass with those book review blogs that won't consider an indie book unless it's been professionally edited.

  2. With the last two developmental projects I took on, I wound up recommending both authors take writing classes. I always feel uncomfortable doing that. But I also feel badly that an author will wind up needing several expensive rounds of editing, all because they have not taken any time to learn their craft--or even seem to be aware there is any craft to be learned.

    Luckily, that will not be the case with any of the readers of this blog...

    1. What a hard position to be in! You make me glad I'm not an editor ;) .

  3. I'd also recommend finding an editor that specializes in your genre. Someone who is well read and learned in one area can offer more than someone who is trying to be a jack of all trades. I do mostly YA

    1. Yep!. Hence the suggestion to start by looking at well-edited books in your genre.

  4. As a freelance editor with over 15 years of supporting fiction and non-fiction authors, I thank you for your article encouraging authors to enlist the support of a committed editor.

    The most difficult issue I believe any author faces, but especially first-time authors, is determining the status of their manuscript and the most appropriate corresponding edit service.

    Line editing and copy editing are more often than not lumped together in the world of self-publishing. Developmental editing is the process most often overlooked or ignored - and the one that will give the author the most benefit.

    I say that last bit because I believe no story will succeed that hasn't undergone a developmental edit. A story with no grammatical errors and no writing slipups can still fail miserably because the story itself doesn't work.

    I have done more of what I call 'ghost-editing' in the past 2-3 years for new authors who are self-publishing, especially non-fiction authors who have excellent concepts with original material, but their writing skills never moved beyond college papers. Yes, they could take writing classes, but that probably won't happen and they'll wind up finding an editor willing to work on their manuscript and produce a truly marginal book. My process of ghost-editing allows the author to produce a book under their name with substantial re-writing support.

    I urge every author considering self-publishing to use every tool available to vet your work - from beta readers to book club reviewers to submitting chapters on your blog or website to slugging your way through a minimum of three edit passes.

    Then, take a deep breath and attack your query letter, synopsis, tag lines, and back cover copy. :)

    Again, thanks Jordan for a great article and for bringing this essential step in self-publishing forward.

  5. You're so right...hiring the right editor is a major part of the indie process. I took advantage of the sample edits. I knew right away which editor I'd choose, based on the sample edit. I've been really happy with A Little Red, Inc.

  6. Thanks for all the information. Shared it with my writing students.

  7. I hired an editor for my first book in a large series. She missed things like its and it's, like one second one-second. The name of characters spelled wrong and changed literally everything that could be a contraction into one. Sentences with a word in them twice, some numbers, off beat not offbeat.. I mean there is a pretty long list going here. At this point I don't know what to do. Do I go back to her and ask her to redo it? I don't have a lot of confidence in anything she may have done. It feels like she didn't read it but commented on things all over the book so maybe no editor is perfect? Can I ask for at least a portion of my money back? I paid less than 1k though is this what to expect for less than 1k?
    So frustrated I can see the horrible reviews now... author didn't bother editing, and I did... I did I want to yell!
    Thanks for listening.

  8. I should mention she did edit the first chapter free as an example and told me what dictionary she was using up front.. but I don't know this just doesn't feel right. She did mention she had a migraine one day?

  9. Hi Jordan
    Great post, thanks
    I found my editor through a recommendation and was very lucky. We share taste in books and the work he does on my writing is excellent.
    I have decided, I think, to continue getting a developmental edit on every book, but possibly not a full line edit. On the last book, I made notes on everything he did in terms of the line by line stuff and am now incorporating the lessons learned into both my writing and my current editing project.
    It's a tough call to make, but budget-wise having both is expensive. I think the benefit of the overview from someone not directly associated with the book is priceless, whereas the line edit stuff I should be improving as a writer anyway.
    Hmm, still undecided... :)
    Do you view any particular edit as more important, or more useful to have done by a separate person?

  10. Thanks, I'll keep these in mind.

  11. A very helpful article, thanks! I've been trialing editors for my current romance WIP, including industry stalwarts from The Big Four, to freelancers and hobbyists, *budget* options and the gurus who cost a pretty penny. From 9 to 5 I'm an editor myself, so it's been great experiencing the process from a writer's perspective. I've documented some tips below on what to look for in an editor (and what should send you running) , which you might find interesting.