Why you need an editor
It’s not just you! Everybody needs an editor. It’s just a function of the human mind that you will gloss over errors in your own writing. You see what you intended to write, not always what you did write. So don’t sweat the details – that’s what an editor is for.
Editors bring a fresh pair of eyes to your writing, seeing every word for the first time. Missing words or repeated words will pop right out (whereas this might be your 27th time re-reading your draft and you’re too familiar with it!).
Types of editing
Here are three basic types of editing that self-publishing writers should know about; knowing what kind of editing you need will help you find an editor that’s the right fit for your book.
The big picture phase (aka The Forest)
Often called developmental or structural editing, this is where an editor focuses on the structure, flow, and organization of the content. Does the order of your chapters make sense? Do they unfold in a rational and logical way? Are your transitions solid? Do your ideas flow in a way that will make sense to your reader? At this stage the goal is to set the content in its optimal order.
The details phase (aka The Trees)
Often called copyediting (or line editing or stylistic editing), this is the phase where the editor gets into the nitty-gritty details, smoothing over problem areas in grammar, punctuation, and overall consistency. An editor will also consider things like biased language, use of jargon, plain language, and sentence variety.
Writers tend to associate editing with correcting overt typos, spelling, and punctuation errors – i.e., a manuscript with lots of red ink, or in this day and age, track changes. But there are other not-so-obvious errors that copyeditors are pros at spotting.
For example, copyeditors also ensure consistency in hyphenation, abbreviations, numbers, and capitalization, and they even fact-check place/character names and timeline considerations. This is on top of all the language and style preferences that copyeditors compile in a style sheet, where they keep track of all the rules and preferences applied across the document.
The copyeditor will also catch details like a character’s name spelled in multiple ways or the fact that the main character’s eyes are suddenly blue in chapter 6. Consistency across all these different dimensions is what keeps your reader glued to your narrative: a book riddled with errors, even minor consistency errors, can jar the reader out of the flow of the narrative. When this happens, they go from reading the story to reading the words – stuck at the surface of the page. Copyediting is the magic that keeps your reader happily immersed in your story.
Quality control phase
This is the proofreading phase. Although a lot of people conflate copyediting and proofreading, proofreading is technically the final phase of the editing process. Once the manuscript has been copyedited and formatted, the proofreader makes sure everything is as polished as possible, catching any remaining typos and formatting errors/inconsistencies (like table of contents numbering that doesn’t point to where it should or inaccurate cross-references, leading you down a rabbit hole). Essentially, the proofreader works on the final copy to ensure maximum quality control.
In an ideal world, a different editor would work on each level of edit (structural, copyedit, proofread), but time and budget constraints often mean that one editor will do several or all of these. One thing is for sure though – finalizing the structure of the narrative happens before handing off your manuscript to a copyeditor or proofreader to polish the language.
Resources for further reading
Conscious Style Guide for more on bias and conscious language considerations around gender/sexuality, age, disability, ethnicity/race, and more.
The Copyeditor's Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications, by Amy Einsohn