What do Fiction Editors Actually do?
[Last updated 10/30/2018]
Fiction editors get something of an undeserved reputation in popular culture. On film or TV, authors are never saying, “Gosh, I love my editor: he really saved my book,” or, “I’m asking my editor to be my maid of honor!” Instead, it’s always, “God, my damn editor wants to butcher my masterpiece, the hack!”
In reality, literary editors aren’t money-grubbers or corporate stooges: they’re professionals with a passion for books and years of experience in the publishing trade. Their job is to bring the best book out of every novelist. In fact, almost all authors — indie or traditional — are so grateful that they give their editors shout-outs in the acknowledgments.
In the independent publishing world, novelists will often struggle to find the right novel editor. It’s not because editors are unavailable: many top editors freelance and can be found online. (Hello, Reedsy Marketplace!) The real problem comes when self-publishing novelists don’t understand what every type of editor does. And when you’re self-funding, you want to know exactly what you’re getting in return for your money.
This article will help independent novelists better understand:
- Whether self-publishing novelists need an editor
- What various types of editor will do for a novel
- Why it’s important to get the right editor at the right time
We spoke to over 30 top editors, asking them what authors should expect from their novel editors, and here’s what they have to say. If you're curious about a specific kind of novel editor, you can jump to the appropriate section in the Table of Contents below.
Is a novel editor necessary for self-published novels?
Traditional publishing uses a time-tested editorial system that passes your manuscript between different types of editors. This gives your book the greatest chance of commercial and critical success. Had they not gone through this process, debut novels (think Harry Potter and The Hunger Games) wouldn’t be anywhere near as good, either.
If you’re a self-published author, that doesn’t mean you’re free from the tyranny of a publishing company. It means that you ARE the publishing company. For the best chance of success, you must be every bit as meticulous as a traditional press when it comes to editing.
But before you open up the purse strings, you need to understand what different novel editors do, and what you can expect from them.
The Developmental Editor
Sometimes called a “content edit” or a “structural edit,” a developmental edit is when the novel editor provides feedback on “big-picture” issues. Significantly, they’ll develop your ideas and build your story.
For Mary-Theresa Hussey, an editor with over 25 years in traditional publishing, one of the most valuable things a developmental editor does is ask questions. “For a developmental edit, I look at some of the larger questions,” she says. “Why are the characters behaving as they do? What are their motivations? Do these scenes add to the overall story? What is your underlying theme and how does it change?”
Of course, no two editors work in exactly the same way. But all authors will receive the following two things from a development edit: an editorial report and an annotated manuscript.
Your novel editor will draft an editorial report after carefully reading through your manuscript. This report falls anywhere from four to forty pages and will contain detailed critique on your manuscript.
“In the editorial report, I address character and plot development, structure, continuity, story arc, theme development, repetition, plot holes, and some general notes on any syntactical errors I come across,” says Bryony Sutherland, a novel editor, former biographer and ghostwriter.
A good editorial report pinpoints not only what isn’t working in your manuscript, but also what is working wonderfully. In this report, an editor will always offer suggestions and potential solutions to your problems. As Gillian Holmes, a former Penguin Random House novel editor, says, a “solution suggested by an editor can often unblock the author’s own creative thinking.”
Okay, so you get a detailed report from the editor — but will the editor actually edit your manuscript? (Spoiler alert: yes.)
On top of the editorial report, authors will also get their manuscripts back thoroughly annotated.
“Line and margin annotations are the bedrock of the developmental edit,” says Jim Thomas, an editor formerly of Random House. “Annotations are extensive, involved, and tend to reference each other as the manuscript progresses.”
It’s often best to think of the annotated manuscript as the editor’s raw feedback, which is then summarized in the editorial letter.
People often ask us whether developmental editors will rewrite your manuscript. The answer is no. A developmental editor is like an experienced sherpa who will guide you through your final rewrites: they will show you the way to the top, but they’re not going to let you jump on their backs.
What if your novel is not quite ready for an edit?
If your manuscript isn’t quite ready yet for a developmental edit, but you want feedback on it, you can always call for a editorial assessment.
“In an editorial assessment, the author typically wouldn’t receive comments and example rewrites in the manuscript,” says genre fiction editor Leah Brown. “Instead, they would receive an editorial letter that focuses on the broad strokes. An editorial assessment best for an author who is early in the process and whose manuscript may be messier.”
Compared to a developmental edit, this is a cost-effective option if you’re unsure what shape your novel is in — and it’s a great opportunity to learn from a seasoned professional. Their feedback may include tough love, but better to receive some tough love now (with tips for improvement) than later when your book is read by an unforgiving public.
The Copy Editor
Once you’re certain that you’ve solved the big-picture issues of your book (and done the necessary re-writes), it’s time to turn the keys over to a master of English mechanics: the copy editor.
“A copy editor’s job is to bring the author’s completed manuscript to a more professional level,” says editor Chersti Nieveen. “A copy edit helps create the most readable version of your book, improving clarity, coherency, consistency, and correctness. The goal is to bridge any remaining gaps between the author’s intent and the reader’s understanding. It will probably be the most intense read your book will go through.”
The things a copy editor takes care of include:
- Usage of numbers or numerals
- Correct word usage
- Dialogue tags
- Unintentional shifts in POV or tense
- Repetitive vocabulary
A copy editor will also search for inconsistencies in characters, locations, and blocking (where your characters are on 'the stage' at any given time). If your protagonist starts the scene as a dark-haired man sitting on a couch, he shouldn’t suddenly be standing outside the window with a thick, blond barnet — unless it turns out it’s an evil, fair-haired twin!
In the days before home computing, copy editors would go through a printed manuscript and make little proofreader's marks that may seem strange to the uninitiated.
Today, all copy editors on Reedsy will deliver an edited manuscript with tracked changes.
For a better idea of what track changes look like, check out this passage of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which was copy edited by Reedsy’s Susan Edwards. Arrows were added for clarity.
If requested, a copy editor will also supply a style sheet along with an edited manuscript. This is a document used by proofreaders to ensure consistency: tracking things like notable spellings, listed queries, and the style used.
All copy editors will be able to create a stylesheet if required, but most have found that independent authors don’t require them.
The unsung heroes of the editing world, proofreaders are the eagle-eyed inspectors who make sure no spelling or grammar errors slips through the net. They possess a systematic method to ensure your book achieves the utmost level of professionalism.
What exactly does a novel proofreader do?
Back in the day, an impression of a metal plate would be created as “proof” of a typeset book. Voilà! In stepped the proofreader, who then made sure the publisher didn’t churn out thousands of copies of a novel called A Tale of Tow Cities.
Even with digital typesetting, proofreaders for traditional publishers will still receive physical proofs. In fiction publishing, they will watch out for:
- Inconsistencies in spelling and style
- Inconsistencies in layout and typography
- Confusing or inelegant page and word breaks
- Incorrect captioning on any illustrations and page numbers in the contents
Remember the copy editor’s style sheet? A proofreader will use this as a reference to make sure that errors have not been introduced in the production stage.
How do proofreaders work with indie novelists?
Proofreaders for self-published novels find the mistakes in the manuscript that slipped past the author and copy editor. Like copy editors, they’ll use track changes to mark their changes.
If you can’t furnish your proofreader with a style sheet, they’ll still read it “blind,” identifying any irregularities, typos, or grammatical errors. Unless instructed, US-based proofreaders will work with the Chicago Manual of Style. Other countries such as the UK use their own style guides (in particular, New Hart's Rules) that codify rules for everything from punctuation to footnotes.
In all cases, your proofreader will return a marked-up Word document.
Once you’ve fixed the inconsistencies, you can confidently send your manuscript into production — either by working with a typesetter, or using a free tool such as the Reedsy Book Editor to export your ebook.
And that’s pretty much all there is to working with a freelance novel editor. Now that you know what they do, you’re probably thinking: are self-publishing authors really expected to hire a developmental editor, a copy editor, and a proofreader?
The importance of doing things in the right order
As a self-publishing author, you ARE the publisher. The most important skill you can bring to your project is perspective. Too often, an author will jump straight into a copyedit, only to be told that substantial changes need to be made to the story or characters. Then they find themselves facing the cost of going back for a developmental edit and another copyedit.
If you’re in doubt, ask a professional editor. Before you commit to collaborating with an editor, tell them exactly where you are in the process and what your concerns are. Freelance novel editors work for the money, sure, but there isn’t a single one of them who is partial to the idea of doing work that is counter-productive to an author’s success.
There are ways to build a team of insightful beta readers who can provide you an outside perspective. But if you intend to become a successful author (whatever that means to you), there’s no replacement for professional assistance.
If you have any questions about fiction editing, or would like to share your experience of working with professional editors, leave a message in the comments below.