If you know how to describe what you want, you’ll be able to ask for it.
There are a number of editing modes, but most writers do not know that, nor what those modes are. Okay, fine; rather than present it from an editor’s perspective, let’s start from the client’s desired-result point of view.
If you want to hand someone a bunch of notes and recordings and get back a book, you want ghostwriting, not editing.
If you just want a manuscript evaluation with comments and recommendations, ask for an evaluatory read. Make sure to specify your primary concerns. This requires the editor to read your ms, make some notes, give it some thought, and then compose an evaluation. Takes a lot less time than any full edit.
If you want an evaluation combined with many examples of how to fix things, detailed comments in context, and overall writing improvement tutelage, ask for a developmental edit. These can take a fair bit of time, but can evolve your writing in record time. An advantage here is that needed fixes can emanate from your own creativity. It’s not your editor’s book, right? This mode is not expected to result in a publication-ready ms.
If you just want it done and gone–whether you have been too close to it for too long, or for whatever reason you despair of getting it to a publishable state in an acceptable timeframe–request a substantive edit. These take a long time (time being money), and everything is on the table. In fiction, that includes plot, characters, style, whatever. In non-fiction, of course, the only choice is what to include and the degree of coverage depth. A good example of such a situation would be publishing a deceased relative’s draft memoir or novel, or a project you have tinkered with for twenty years and can no longer see with any clarity.
If you’re happy with the content’s substance, but believe that it could read much smoother, a line edit might make sense. This mode will address tone, style, and consistency. It doesn’t take as long as a sub edit. If James Joyce had requested a line edit on Finnegan’s Wake, that editor probably would have taken up recreational drinking.
Happy with the substance and smoothness, but want to “fix all the mistakes?” A copy edit is what most novice authors think of as an “edit.” It will not rewrite the ms, but will notice missing words, grammar mistakes, misused punctuation, spelling errors, factual errors if applicable, case-related mistakes, and so forth. It can take more or less time than a line edit, depending on many factors, but surely less than a sub edit.
You’ve finalized the content and just want to find typos? You want proofreading, the one step that an author must never skip. Proofreading would not break up Hemingway’s eternal serial commas, but if he committed a comma splice, a proofreader would catch that because mispunctuation is a typographical error.
There. Now, instead of “I need an edit”–which indicates to the seasoned editor you don’t understand what they do, and therefore probably don’t know what you want–you’ll have some idea what to request. If you and your editor agree, that’ll be the first step on the way to a fruitful collaboration.
J.K. Kelley has been a freelance writer and editor for fifteen years. He has a BA in history from the University of Washington.
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