Book Editors (Everything You Need To Know)

The relationship between an author and their editor can be one of the most important that any writer can cultivate. The book Max Perkins Editor of Genius shows just how important that relationship with an excellent editor has been for authors like Thomas Wolfe, Earnest Hemmingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. It can be argued that without Perkins, Wolfe would have been utterly unreadable and might never have published a single book. Toni Morrison herself was an editor for Random House and is credited with ushering in and bringing to life numerous titles of tremendous importance that might not have made it to publication without her careful tending and cultivating of each author’s talent.

Yet many in the industry, and especially in the world of indie authors and self-publishing, see editing as an annoying or even unnecessary expense. 

Before we get into just how much an editor can do for you, it’s important to understand the different kinds of editors available. The main types are developmental editors, copyeditors, line editors, and proofreaders. 

If you go to a developmental editor expecting only proofreading, you will end up wasting a lot of both your and their precious time as well as a lot of your editing budget. Be sure you fully understand what kind of editor you are looking for and what kind of services that editor offers. 

Here’s the rundown:

Developmental Editor

Developmental editors look at the overall picture of what you are trying to do. They help you develop the flow and content of your story or nonfiction book. They look at the structure, tone, character development, pacing, plot problems, and will often spot flaws the author might not have seen. They can coach an author through major problems and help with directing big rewrites in the book. 

This type of editor is like a mini-collaborator, except that you pay them upfront instead of splitting the profits. Developmental edits are usually fairly expensive and cover your story at the largest levels. 

How cohesive and coherent is your plot? 

How clear are your characters’ motivations? 

How consistent is the narrative in your story? 

Developmental editors may suggest major changes to the direction of a book in addition to smaller refinements that will make your plot and characters sing. 

Relationships with developmental editors often start early, sometimes even before the actual book writing has been begun. Most independent authors don’t work with developmental editors, but sometimes writers who work collaboratively with other storytellers essentially get a developmental edit from their partner. Developmental edits can be extremely useful and rewarding, but they are also cost-prohibitive for many indie authors. 

Line Editor

Line editors go a step further than copyeditors (which we’ll cover in a moment) in fixing issues of clarity and style. They won’t go into the substance and structure of the book the way a developmental editor would, instead they will approach your project in more of a line by line way. They may point out issues with the way one character speaks throughout the book as being inconsistent with that character’s background and education, or help to alter language choices to be more consistent with the chosen tone. They’ll suggest changes to the structure of sentences, removing or revising redundant text, rephrasing where needed, making word substitutions, and grammar and typo fixes. 

Good line editors know when to use semicolons versus commas, and will point out when pronouns have unclear antecedents. They’ll spot unintended sentence fragments, tell you when you’re being verbose, and flag grammar gaffes like the improper use of the word literally.

We highly recommend that indie authors hire line editors. You might not be excited about the expense, but you should be grateful that they will keep you from looking like an unprofessional indie to your readers. 

Copy Editor

Copy editors look at grammar, punctuation, awkward phrasing, inconsistent language, and other minor issues that crop up after all of the major development of the book is done. They’ll never go as deep as a line editor, but if that’s all you can afford, it’s always better to have a copy editor than nothing. They will eliminate at least some of the errors you might otherwise miss. 


By the time you get to needing a proofreader, pretty much everything in your book should be done. The story doesn’t need any more development, the style, tone, and voice are all where you want them. You feel like the manuscript is finished and ready to publish, you just want to check for any last-minute missed mistakes. 

The proofreader’s job is to catch those mistakes. They don’t suggest extensive changes, or even explain why they’re suggesting changes. They don’t reword sentences for you. The proofreader is the last line of defense against typos, misspellings, missing words, formatting problems, incorrect use of homonyms, and grammar mistakes. 

If you are sure about the structure, development, language, tone, and everything else in your story, but need the final polish to make your book shine, you are ready for a proofreader. 

Before sending your draft to an editor

You should always run your work past an editor, but you will get better editing suggestions if your draft is as clean as possible before you send it off. If your draft is riddled with errors then your editor will be overwhelmed by noting them and won’t be able to ease into the story and catch deeper, more subtle issues that could really make your manuscript remarkable. 

Self-edit as thoroughly as possible before passing your draft forward — this is always to your advantage, and a skill you will continue to improve with each subsequent manuscript. But only so long as you do the hard work of paying attention. 

Self-edit first

Whenever I finish a draft, I read back through it inside of Scrivener first, stopping to smooth out sentences that clang in my ear as I go through it. Anything that gives me pause will likely do the same thing for my reader. If something nabs your attention enough that it adds a hiccup in the reading experience, take the time to stop and smooth it out. Reading should feel effortless, so make sure your sentences aren’t any more complicated than they need to be for the best possible story. 

You want your reader to be in a flow state when they read. Make your editing decisions based on what will best serve that flow. If your primary reading audience is American, then use American spellings, even if the author is British or Canadian. Your character might sit down for a cup of yoghurt in Canada, but that spelling might not work for your reader, and will at the very least make her stop and think about what you’ve written. Go ahead and make it a cup of yogurt so you don’t pull your readers out of their flow every time they see a word that will look misspelled to them, even if it isn’t. 

This isn’t meant to be ethnocentric. If your primary audience is reading in the UK, go ahead and have your character in the centre of town instead of the center, but think about your reader, and always put her first. Design the writing around your readership. 

The one caveat to this is dialogue. If you want a character to be British and speak like a Londoner, then, by all means, keep the UK spellings and slang in the dialogue. But remember that character voice is different from narration. You never want your narrator’s voice to clang in the reader’s ear. 

If you start your edit shortly after finishing your draft, the ending you recently wrote should be clearer in your mind. Focus on removing any loose ends you might have written along the way when you weren’t 100-percent sure about how everything would turn out. At the same time, you can add in the occasional bits that will more effectively and faithfully steer the story toward your conclusion. You can even use this pass to reverse seed some of the smaller details that will help to support your story’s ending. 

Tighten the prose as much as possible. When in doubt, cut any passages that seem to over-explain something or are redundant. As Stunk and White’s writing dictum states, Remove needless words. Second draft often run about 10 percent trimmer than the first. Removing that excess will invigorate your prose, guaranteed. 

The more you do this, the better you’ll get at it. You’ll learn to read with a reader’s ear and notice things like unclear pronouns and sentences that just sort of hang without enough explanation. You should be constantly improving the quality of your copy. 

Find an editor that understands you and your work

Find and develop a relationship with an editor rather than thinking of them as a disposable person you hire for one-off deals. Spend the time required to find the best possible editor for your work. Base your decision on referrals, track record, testimonials and recommendations from writer friends. 

One of the best ways you can do this is to try out a few editors and have them all edit a smaller piece of work as part of a trial run. Some editors will suggest changes that will make you roll your eyes and wonder if they even read the piece at all since their suggested changes would invalidate the point of that specific exchange or passage. 

You want to find someone you jive with, who gets what you’re trying to do with your writing, and understands your catalog as a whole rather than just as individual works. The relationship with your editor is a little like dating. At first it will be a bit awkward as your editor gets to know your writing style and you get to know their editing style. In time, the edits will become more aligned with your work as she comes to understand your style and voice. 

Once you’ve found an editor you want to work with, be clear about your expectations. Make sure you listen to them and understand their expectations. The more seasoned an editor is, there they are likely to be working with multiple clients and planning their workload months in advance. If you tell them that you’ll deliver your manuscript by a specific date, stick to that deadline. If you aren’t going to hit your target, communicate with them early so they can make the necessary adjustments to their calendar. 

Missing your editor’s deadline isn’t something to take lightly. Your relationship is built on mutual trust and respect. If you want them to perform to the best of their ability, they must be able to count on you.

See editing as a teaching tool you pay for

Start by eliminating all ego from the process. This can be difficult to do. Many authors are in love with their own words and handsome phrases, that clever bit of wordplay their cleverest friend will really appreciate when they read it. A lot of authors don’t want anyone messing with their baby (aka book). They take every suggestion to change something as a personal affront to what they have written. This can lead authors to argue with their editors. But if you approach the process as a learning tool that you are paying for, the same way you pay for classes, workshops, or to learn from others at conferences and live events, you will get much more out of editing than a functional service. 

Every time you get edits from your editor, see them as something to learn from, and yet another way to improve your craft. They will identify areas you need to work on as a writer. If you take it all in, absorb the lessons, and incorporate that learning into your writing, then your next manuscript will likely have fewer issues and edits. 

Get better with every book and soon your editor will be freed up focus on the bigger picture of your piece rather than being bogged down with the smaller stuff that you can start to catch on your own.

If you notice that you repeatedly misuse commas or semicolons in certain situations, open your Stunk and White and learn the rules around that usage once and for all so you’re not paying someone to keep making those same corrections for you. If an editor points out that you frequently let your participles dangle, get clear on exactly what that means and how to fix it so you can keep that mistake off the page.

The goal with editing is to always make every new draft better than the one before it. Don’t blindly accept or reject edits from your editor. You are hiring them for a service and the best use of your time and the money spent is to constantly learn about your own writing through the editing process. 

What if you don’t agree with the edits?

There will be times when an editor suggests a change you don’t agree with. The element they want to change will fundamentally impact some aspects of story or character that you simply don’t want to change. And that’s okay. In the end, it is your book, your project, and you have the final say. However, if you think that your editor didn’t understand just how important this element is in the book, it’s worth asking for clarification. If, after reading your entire manuscript the editor didn’t understand how important this particular thing is, it’s also possible that your reader won’t get it either and you may need to do a little more work in the story to make its significance clear. 

It’s always okay to request clarification from your editor on their comments or edits. But if you expect them to do an entire second pass on the manuscript, you can expect to pay a second editing fee — unless a second pass was specified in your original agreement with them. 

Always be considerate of your editor’s time. It’s likely that they’ve moved on to another project for another client once they have delivered your manuscript. Don’t stop and send a separate email to them every time you get to yet another question in the draft. Go through the entire project instead, reading all of their edits and comments, making a list as you go along of things that may need clarification as you go through it. 

You may answer some of your own questions as you move through the story. Or it may become clear that although you understood something about one of your characters because you know everything there is to know about them, that hasn’t come through clearly because your editor is missing something. Maybe you need to add in another section or scene to make sure the reader understands something about the character’s backstory or motivation.

When and if you do go back to your editor with questions or to ask for clarification, be courteous and respectful. Your editor may be up to their eyeballs in another draft that has nothing to do with you and may need a reminder about a particular comment they made as well as a little time to get back to you now that they are working on something else. 

Clearly communicate your needs and expectations. If you are up against your own deadline and need to hear from them right away, let them know the time frame you are working with, but be aware that once they have completed their work for you, your deadlines are no longer theirs. 

If your editor is doing you a favor, then treat it like a favor and make sure to thank them.

The 80/20 rule of editing

If you aren’t familiar with the 80/20 rule or The Pareto Principle, it simply suggests that for many events, 80 percent of the effects are created by 20 percent of the causes or inputs. 

Basically, only 20 percent of your actions result in 80 percent of your results. If you can identify the 20 percent actions that result in the 80 percent results, you can stop doing most of what you are doing without reducing your effectiveness. Let’s look at this in terms of editing.

Some traditionally minded people will tell you that you need all kinds of editors to generate a respectable manuscript. Hiring a developmental editor can help with your story. One or two line editors can help you get the wording right. Several proofreaders can check and double-check for errors. And if you get beat-readers, they can let you know about any mistakes, inconsistencies, or plot holes that all the rest missed. 

Is this the comprehensive book editing ideal? Maybe. For some. Perhaps for a traditional publishing house it might make sense. But to me, this sounds like overkill for indies. To start with, there’s simply too high a cost. It’s hard to earn back that kind of money on a single self-published title. 

Employ the 80/20 rule for editing instead. Get good, not perfect editing. Even the most expensively and extensively edited manuscripts can still end up with one or two errors. So get a solid line editor and hone your own ability to self-edit. Then find a few decent beta readers to smooth the edges. 

Do an 80 percent job of using 20 percent of the potential cost and time so you’ll still have a reserve of both time and money to go out, write, and publish more books.

Now get out there and change the world with your story! 

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