So, you’ve written a book and you think you might want or need an editor, but you’re not sure what kind of editing you need. You’re new at this, and you’d like to understand what an editor does before you go looking for one. Let me try and help you sort this out.
The first—and deepest—level of editing is developmental and/or content editing. When I perform this type of editing, I look at the big-picture items. If it’s fiction (and please don’t describe your book as a “fiction novel”—a novel is fiction so “novel” is all you need to say), I look at your plot development. Are there holes? Is it hard to understand how your protagonist gets from Point A to Point B? Does the plot feel contrived—are things happening to your protagonist because it’s what you want to happen even if these things don’t make sense?
I also look at your character development. If you’ve shown me that your protagonist is an honest, trustworthy, very serious guy, but all of the sudden I’m not supposed to believe what he’s saying/thinking, that will raise a question mark for me. I’m not saying your honest, trustworthy guy can’t tell a lie, but he ought to have a pretty good reason for breaking out of his character—something I could get behind and understand and probably something that’s moving the plot ahead and deepening the conflict.
Those are brief descriptions of how I approach developmental editing for fiction.
For nonfiction, it’s more about your organization, your content, and your voice. More often than not, I know very little about the subject of the nonfiction books I edit, which is actually good for the writer. It makes it easier for me to judge if the book makes sense because I’m learning about the subject as I go. If there are holes in your logic, I’ll tell you that you need to elaborate more on this point or that point, or that you need to give an example (or a better example) to illustrate your point. Another problem could crop up if you explain “C” before you get to “B” and I need to understand “B” so that I can understand “C”; in that case I’ll point that out and likely fix it by moving big chunks of the book around. (“Big chunks” could be a few paragraphs, a few pages, or maybe a whole chapter.)
When it comes to voice with nonfiction, I ensure that if you started out sounding conversational (and that’s the voice you wanted), your voice remains conversational throughout the book. The opposite is true as well: if you want to sound professional and detached, I ensure that the words you’ve chosen and the way you’ve structured your sentences come across in that manner (and I fix them if they don’t).
This last point bleeds us into the next level of editing—line/copy editing. At this level, I look specifically at how you’ve written your book (or your paper, or your newsletter, etc.). I look at your word choice, your sentence structure, your grammar and mechanics. But I also look to make sure the voice remains consistent and things make sense. If I’ve worked with you on developmental editing first, then I ensure the changes that needed to be made were made and that they worked and that we didn’t create different problems when we made those changes.
Finally, for the last round of editing, I proofread the document. This is a quicker, more superficial round of editing. I look for typos and any other grammar or mechanics mistakes we might have missed in the copy-editing round. (If you’ve ever read a book, you know that even best-sellers get published with a typo or grammar mistake here or there.) Proofreading is the last line of defense when it comes to publishing a clean manuscript.
Again, these are quick descriptions of what you can expect for each level of editing from most editors who know what they’re doing. In order to decide where you need to begin with an editor, I recommend giving your book to someone who will read it with a critical eye and be honest with you about the problems they find. If they come back to you and tell you that the book made sense but your grammar stinks, you can likely start with copy/line editing. But if they come back to you and tell you they couldn’t follow your train of thought or they couldn’t connect with your characters or something else big like that, you’re probably better off starting with the first level and hiring someone to do a developmental edit. (Please keep in mind, if you put your book through developmental editing, copy editing shouldn’t happen until developmental is completed.)
As a writer myself, I know it’s hard to think about handing your writing over to someone else to cut and splice, chop and dice. But we editors don’t just spill blood—we also polish and shine. If you hire a professional, trustworthy editor, your book will be better for it.