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Should you pay for a copy-edit? For other editorial help?

I often get enquiries asking if I would do "a copy-edit" of a writer's manuscript. The answer is No, because it's a specialist job which I'm not trained for. But almost always it turns out that what the writer really wants is nothing like what the book trade calls copy-editing, but something much more developmental. 

So, first let's be clear: unless you are intending to self-publish, you don't need to have your book copy-edited. But there are all sorts of other processes that writers and publishers put a book through, and it's worth understanding them - especially as NaNoWriMo heads towards 30th November - as a way of thinking about what your crazy first draft needs next. So here's a run down:

Appraisal, assessment, report
An editor reads the whole book and writes a report - maybe some thousands of words - explaining what works, what doesn't, how it might be made to work better, and what its chances are in the market. Writers use this kind of report to get an overall picture of their book's chances, and what to do next. Indeed, publishers, agents, and film and foreign rights scouts use readers for this kind of report, to help them decide whether to take a book on, and a "reader's report" will be less detailed and quite market-oriented. Either way, it is an overall view, but the comments might well be about punctuation and adjectives, as whether the ending is satisfying and the characters strong; it gives you the freedom - or the problem - of working out how to do the work that's highlighted. For help in decoding feedback, try The Fiction-Editor's Pharmacopoeia.

Developmental Edit
This is my own term for the same kind of overall assessment, but not necessarily communicated in a single, one-way chunk of report. It will be all about developing this project: everything from the big architecture of the plot and story, to the close-up of making the prose fresher, richer, more vivid and more powerful. Particularly if the editor is a writer-tutor, as I am, it may think quite a lot about process and writing skills and craft, and less about exactly what publishers want to buy this month, even though it will always bear in mind what makes books sell in our market. It should develop not just the book, but also the writer: if it involves a series of to-and-fro, it can come close to mentoring.

Structural Edit
This is the first process that happens after a publisher has bought a book, and it's all about things that you need to have thought about, and worked on and got help with, long before you go near a publisher: the big architecture of plot and story, the characters' development, and your overall decisions about voice, and narrators and point-of-view. It's also the kind of work that you might do before you send it out to agents and publishers, or with your agent before she/he sends it out to publishers - and plenty of professional authors, especially those whose agents are deal-makers rather than editors, choose to get help from an editor even before that.

Line Edit
This is the second process that your publishers' editor will put your book through. It's all about making sure that those big decisions about story-architecture, character and voice, are carried through into every line of the narrative. It is very detailed: the doyen of editing, Betsey Lerner says in her book of advice for writers, The Forest For The Trees, that she can only do about six double-spaced pages an hour. Mind you, these days, when books need to be pretty oven-ready before a publisher will consider buying them, it's very common for this process to be combined with the structural edit, especially as in many ways the two are like long-shots and close-ups of the same landscape.   

Copy-Edit
This is the last stage of the publishers' work on the manuscript before it goes to the typesetter, and is quite specialised: the MS is marked up for the typesetter, with all the detail of how the book-designer's decisions about layout and typefaces must be implemented; continuity problems of dates, settings and detail will be ironed out; a style sheet will be created or the house style implemented for everything from running heads to -ise or -ize endings; spellings, dates, foreign languages, historical and other details will be checked; grammar, syntax and punctuation will be corrected (this is where many an author gets into an argument!). Line-edit-type problems such as slips in voice or inconsistencies may be picked up too, because there's a overlap; indeed, since copy-editing too is slow, specialised and therefore expensive, the two jobs may be combined in a single pass. But they are, essentially, two different jobs and if you're trying to do this kind of work on your own project, it's really worth doing two separate passes.

Proof-reading
This is not something that a machine can do - though a spell-checker is a good first stage, especially now they're beginning to spot commonly confused words (effect and affect? there, they're, their, th'heir?...). To some extent a copy-editor should pick these things up, but since any corrections you make following a copy-edit are likely to introduce some more errors, a final proof-read is essential. Indeed, publishers would expect to do two proof-reads: one after it's typeset, and one after the typesetter has corrected that first batch of errors. It's also a more specialist skill than you'd think: you need simultaneously to

  1. read ignoring the sense, so you spot incorrectly-typed words which are correct in meaning,
  2. read taking in the sense, so you spot correctly-typed words which are incorrect in meaning.

All this, I hope, makes it clear why neither a copy-edit nor a proof-read is something which will make any difference to whether a publisher will buy your book: neither process is tackling the story, and in selling books, story is king. Provided your manuscript is decently presented, and by hook or by crook you've got the spelling and punctuation slips down to trivial numbers so you don't appear lazy, ignorant, inconsiderate or unprofessional, then the story will come through loud and clear.

What's more, if you just want to save yourself the bother of doing your own fine-toothed-combing, then I'd say it's still a mistake to pay for this kind of help, because what you pay someone else to do you will never learn to do yourself. People who take their writing seriously take seriously the need to be, as well as to appear, hard-working, knowledgeable, considerate and professional: if you're serious, the skills of polishing a manuscript into respectability are skills that you need to develop.

If you're self-publishing, it's quite a different question. Copy-editing is a lot to do with whether a reader will be able to read your book and enjoy it, and a huge amount to do with professionally producing a book. However much you get informal help from fellow-writers, or have decided you don't need it, paying for a professional copy-edit and proof-read is the most essential cost after a professionally-designed cover. You're in competition with professional publishers, who don't spend all that money on all those editing stages because they enjoy spending money. They do it because it gives the book the best chance in the market, and you need to do the same. Plus, readers have the right to expect a professional product, and by the third typo (horrifyingly often among self-pubbers, that third typo is only half-way down the first page!) they'll start feeling they're being fobbed off with an amateurish production.

The only categories of writer who might consider professional line- or copy-editing, before they send work out, I'd suggest, are

  • writers with moderate to severe dyslexia and related difficulties. Even the most gloriously talented writers, if they are dyslexic, often find it extraordinarily difficult to spot when spellings, grammar and all the other close-up detail is awry on the page
  • writers who are not writing in their mother tongue. A line-edit might be appropriate if you don't have quite the grasp of idiom and nuance in English that you do in your native language, but even if you do, it's surprisingly difficult to spot typos and slips: they just don't quite jump out at you as they will in your native language, and as they would at native-English-speakers.
  • just possibly, self-publishers who would like to learn how to do more of this work themselves - perhaps so that they end up only paying for a final proof-read. If you get a copy-edit for this reason, you will need to use it to learn from: consciously taking note of what sort of things the copy-editor checks, works on, corrects or queries, and then teaching yourself to do the same.

If you do decide to get a professional line- or copy-edit, then the first places to look are Society for Editors and Proof-readers, and editorial agencies such as The Writers Workshop, and The Literary Consultancy. The classified ad section of writers' magazines such as the Society of Authors' The Author, and Mslexiaalso list individual editors offering such services. For more about how to get the best out of an editorial service click here. Of course, you may know a writery-type, or teachery-type, person who offers to help you, and that might be fine. I would approach such offers a bit carefully though: your average ex-English teacher may be hot on spellings and technically correct (if rather old-fashioned) punctuation, as might an ex-journalist. But they will not necessarily be good at the other things that a professional editor will, from understanding psychic distance to creating a style-sheet.

Of course, there are ways you can tackle all these issues yourself. The whole concept of "self-editing" is relatively new, but useful, provided you don't think that it eliminates the need to get a different pair of eyes to read your work at some point. As the writer, you are the worst person to spot slips and errors in your work: the "curse of knowledge" holds even when you can be extremely shrewd about others' work. (When I worked in publishing, we never proof-read even simple advertising copy we'd written ourselves: you just don't see the idiocies.)

Still, to learn as much as you can about copy-editing level work, and reduce how much you need to pay someone else, there are a good few things you can do: 

  • read a professional book to get a handle on the professional skills involved. The industry bible is Judith Butcher's Copy-Editing, now in its fourth edition. 
  • buy some of the other bibles on The Itch of Writing list of reference Books for Writers, such as Fowler, New Hart's Rules, and The Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors, and keep them on your desk.
  • sign up (shameless plug alert) for our Self-Editing Your Novel course. Again, it can't teach you everything, but it can help teach you to stand outside your work, and train your eye for some of what you need to learn. (and I see there are only 2 places left for January...).
  • have a nose round the resources pages of the Society for Editors and Proof-readers, where there is lots of useful information. 

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