Getting the Words Right is full of detailed explanations of how revision can improve a piece of writing. I’m especially fond of the first section, Reduce. (For more on that topic, see my article, "Samurai Editing".)
"A merely good piece of description can be transformed into a memorable one by cutting away what disguises it."But the later sections, "Rearrange" and "Reword", are terrific as well, with plenty of concrete suggestions to make your writing shine. While some authors make recommendations that seem too vague to follow, Cheney doesn’t just tell writers to, for example, revise their word order. He tells how to do that, giving several examples of poor word order, and making clear just how and why he would revise them.
Usually, editing is said to have three levels. Publishers and editors differ on how these levels are divided, but what I offer here is a pretty typical breakdown. You should check with your particular editor for details.
Light editing involves checking for obvious errors in grammar, word choices, verb tenses, spelling, and punctuation. Publishers may choose a light edit because of a tight budget, or because an author is known to be sensitive to editorial changes. In addition, some experienced authors can edit their own work, so that only incidental errors remain.
Medium editing is the most common form of copy-editing. The work will be checked for all of the things that are included in light editing, plus editing sentence by sentence for clarity and correctness. The editor’s duties include the following:
The editor will not rewrite, though she may suggest alternative wording for a phrase or a sentence or two.
Substantive editing, also called heavy editing, requires the editor and the author to work closely together to solve problems of overall clarity or consistency. This may include rearranging or rewriting sections of text to improve readability.
Writers who choose this type of edit know that they have the option of accepting or rejecting any suggested change. They tell me that they enjoy seeing their writing improve, and learning by looking at their own examples.
The short answer is that agencies and publishers describe editing in many different ways. Line editing is often another name for copy-editing. Content editing or manuscript editing is more likely to refer to substantive editing, or a stronger involvement, called developmental editing.
When books were printed from individually set letters (in metal), the proofreader would read the proofs, that is, would compare the manuscript (as edited) with the typeset version. Typographical errors, literally errors in typography, would be corrected this way.
These days, proofreading is sometimes erroneously used to mean light copy-editing. It is better understood to be a final reading, for the purpose of locating typing or typesetting errors. These are errors that are created by the process of moving words from the author’s mind to the physical world, rather than errors made in the writing. A piece should be well-structured, well-written, and edited before proofreading is undertaken.
The best writing is natural, like speaking. However, when we speak we do not organize our thoughts precisely, and our words disappear shortly after being spoken.
Writing is more permanent. Readers have different expectations from written words than from words that are spoken. Editing is simply the process of taking the natural flow of words that makes a first draft and shaping it into a self-contained and clear book, essay, speech, or other piece of writing.
As we write the draft, recording the flow of thoughts through our minds, we may cover a topic, move on, and then add things that should be included with that initial topic. The edit will catch these things.
For example, one author introduced a character, then a few chapters later, decided that this character should be the father of another character. He added that information to a later chapter, and moved on with the process of writing the novel. By the time he was done, he’d forgotten all about it.
Fortunately, his editor caught that, and mentioned to the author that it seemed awkward.
Other authors I know have benefitted from discovering that their sentence structure was monotonous, that they used a pet phrase too many times, or that they have a habit of dangling modifiers.
Getting a small segment of your work edited as a sample can be a good way to find out if you want an edit at all. I offer that service, but so do many other editors. Just do a google search! And also read the answer to “How do I choose an editor?”
Any prospective editor should allow you to sample her work. For a book-length manuscript, you would send a section of the writing (I’ve seen as low as 500 words; I ask for 1000) and the editor would provide the same level of editing that she is offering for a fee. The editor will also advise you on what sort of editing she believes you need. You can then review the information and determine whether you want to hire an editor, and if so, whether this is the editor for you.
Here are some important things to look for.
Then don’t accept it! Your editor should make it easy for you to understand her reasoning, and be open to discussing any chances. Often, you can just ask how important she thinks a change is. She should be able to tell you why she thinks it’s vital, even offering links to more information if needed.
And many changes aren’t vital. There’s no reason for you to accept a change that seems wrong to you.