How Editing Works

Writers, particularly new writers, often have a lot of questions about how stuff gets edited. Here are the different stages of writing and editing:

Please note that “editing” and “proofreading” are broken out as distinct stages; I do both of these, but the words imply different levels of work on the manuscript. Please note that the circles intersect in many places; similarly, the dividing lines between these stages can often be a little blurry, and the client and the editor must discuss each project on its own to determine together what kinds of editing are appropriate. (On jobs where the publisher is paying the bills, I always discuss the job with the writer as well as the publisher.)

Writing

When I’m reading a manuscript, there’s a moment of epiphany when a writer’s style clicks in my head. That’s when I feel comfortable suggesting changes, when I’m in a writer’s head.

Writing and editing are steps in the same process that produces clean, reader-ready copy. This is your part of the process, when you get your words down on the page. Looking at it from my end of the process, editors use many of the same skills that writers use, but with different goals.

Also, as editors, it’s vital for us (ahem) to be clear that writing is not our job: We’re here to make the book smoother, more consistent, and make it flow in the way the writer intended. This is the anchor of what I do. (When in doubt about a sentence or a paragraph, I leave it alone and ask the writer about the problem.)

Editing

In the diagram above, you’ll notice different colors in the “editing” circle. Similarly, there are different kinds of editing that editors can do. There’s editing that comes after the manuscript or article has been written but before it goes to press. There’s editing can mean making the writing flow better by moving a few words, clever use of punctuation to clarify the author’s intent, making suggestions and asking questions all the way.

If an editor starts to do more than these things, it would move out of the realm of editing and into that of “rewriting”, a different sort of job that should be asked for specifically; it’s not the job of an editor to change what you wrote, merely to clarify it and make it easier to read.

Proofreading

This can mean a couple of things. In the sense it’s used for books or other printed publications, it usually refers to catching spelling and punctuation errors, certain kinds of easily fixed grammatical problems—anything that absolutely cannot go into print. The term gets a little vague when used to describe a similar process for the web or other electronic media, but it means more or less the same thing: fixing errors that are critical, or that can be easily fixed.

Rewriting

This circle refers to any kind of work where an author isn’t able to improve a manuscript any further, but the publisher feels it still needs work.

The term “rewriting” can mean something similar to “very heavy-handed editing” or it can slide into the editor actually doing some writing to bridge gaps. This is a separate task that must be specifically requested. Ideally, the publisher (or writer) has specific concerns and goals they need achieved, and this should be communicated to the editor/rewriter.

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