There are three basic types of editors (and they each have various names). Each type of editor requires a different skill set.
A developmental editor, sometimes called a comprehensive editor, looks at big picture issues. For fiction this includes items such as story arc, character development, writing voice, and plot issues. Nonfiction looks at theme, organization, structure, writing consistency, and so forth.
A developmental editor must read widely and have knowledge of your genre and the publishing industry.
A copy editor looks at sentence structure and the flow between sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. They will identify awkward sections and poor phrasing. They may point out character inconsistencies and possible factual errors to check.
A copy editor needs to know the genre. Having a college writing degree helps, but a more beneficial characteristic is having taught writing and graded a lot of papers or has experience in a career that requires a lot of editing.
A proofreader looks at the details: word usage, punctuation, and grammar. A proofreader should enjoy specificity and be able to focus. A proofreader must know and follow a style guide, such as the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS).
Some proofreaders know multiple style guides, but others specialize in using just one and therefore only take jobs that use that style guide. The key requirement is having mastered a style guide and knowing how to apply it.
No one can do all three types of editing at once—nor should they. And most editors will only ever do one type.
The ultimate qualification to become an editor is having successfully done the work. This makes it hard for people to start as an editor because few writers will hire an unproven editor.
Some writers say they can’t afford an editor, but I say you can’t afford to. No one can.
But if you want options, here are three ideas come to mind:
First, look for an editor who will barter. They edit, and you perform a service of equal value. It might be writing-related or it might not. But since most editors need actual money, this may be hard to pull off unless the editor is a friend or just starting out.
The Beginning Editor
Second, the next option is to seek a beginning editor who wants to edit but has no finished projects to show people. Maybe the first-time editor will edit your work for free or at a reduced rate just to have something in their portfolio. Remember, every editor must have a first project to get a second project. But the first one is hard to get. You can help them as they help you.
A University Connection
Third, contact the writing department at a nearby college. Maybe they have a promising student looking for experience.
These are all long shots, but they’re worth exploring.
The one thing you don’t want to do is find an editor who isn’t qualified, such as a person who majored in English or who likes to read. These people may make good beta readers, but don’t ask them to edit.
I once signed up for a trial of grammarly.com. It’s a most impressive grammar checker.
The problem was that it was too sophisticated for me. It flagged many things to check, but I lacked the needed background to comprehend the issues. Many of their suggestions were beyond me. However, I recently took a fresh look at it, and it seems they’ve made it easier to use.
Regardless, the built-in grammar checker in Microsoft Word is a great place to start. Though this still requires the writer to decide which suggestions to accept and which ones to reject, it’s easier to manage. While this won’t catch everything, it covers the basics.
In my experience as a publication editor, most of the submissions I receive could benefit from doing this basic grammar check in Word before they submitted their work. It seems many people have turned off this option (I once did), and some don’t bother to run spell-check either. Don’t make that mistake.
Writers who don’t spell check their work. This is so easy to do. Why do they skip it?
Writers who use “creative formatting” of their text, with bold, italics, underlines, and combinations thereof. Along with this are UPPER CASE phrases, sentences, and even paragraphs. I need to undo all this before I can start working on their submission.
Writers who use multiple exclamation points and question marks, sometimes in combination, to end a sentence. Use just one but only when it’s appropriate. And before adding an exclamation point, consider whether it belongs or if a period is correct. Most people overuse exclamation points. When in doubt, use a period instead.
Writers who slap something together and assume I’ll fix all their mistakes. That’s lazy, and sometimes it’s more work than I’m willing to do.
Writers who send a draft and ask me to let them know what changes they should make. It’s their job to send me their best work and not expect me to do it for them. And if they really have doubts about their work, then they’re not ready to be submitting their writing.
Writers who request feedback on their writing. While I understand their desire for feedback, so they can improve (we all want that), it should come from other sources, and not a person who expects to read a finished piece. (From a practical sense, whenever I’ve tried to give feedback, it’s never gone well. So even when I want to help someone who asks for feedback, I know from experience to not try.)
Writers who miss deadlines. Sometimes we can’t help asking for more time, but usually, it’s a result of poor planning and a lack of priority. Besides, it’s disrespectful. Without deadlines, nothing would ever be published.
I’m more than willing to overlook a few of these mistakes and be extra tolerant of new writers, but when these things occur too often, it’s often easier to just reject the submission.
I hope this helps.
Whew, I feel better having gotten editing pet peeves off my chest. Thanks for asking.
Writers claim to dramatically increase their writing speed by speaking instead of typing
In listening to podcasts and reading blogs, I’ve heard a lot about writers using dictation. This intrigued me. There are two reasons why I wanted to try dictation instead of typing when composing my first drafts.
Increased Speed: The most attractive reason for dictation comes from the promise of increased output. Some writers claim to hit speeds of up to 5,000 words per hour when using dictation. Though I have no expectations of hitting that number, the idea of creating content faster really intrigues me.
Protect Wrists: The other reason I’m curious about dictation is for an alternative to typing to reduce repetitive strain injury (RSI) or carpal tunnel syndrome. Indeed, there are times when after too many days of logging too many hours of typing that my wrists grow tender. When this comes it’s too late to do my wrist exercises to minimize the impacts of carpal tunnel syndrome.
Being able to speak my words instead of typing them provides an alternative data-entry method. And it’s always good to have a backup plan if for some reason I must ease up on my typing. In fact, concern over tender wrists is one reason why I take a break from writing on Saturdays. I want to give my wrists a rest from the daily strain of typing.
Why Not Dictation?
However, despite these two benefits to spur me forward, there have also been three reasons why I was reluctant.
Voice Strain: My first concern is voice strain. Perhaps because I don’t have a reason to talk much throughout my workday, I find that it’s very easy to strain my voice. Sometimes even giving a half-hour presentation will be enough to cause my voice to falter. An hour is about as much as I can speak without going hoarse. Perhaps with practice, I can extend this time, but I’m not sure.
Speaking Quality: My next concern is the quality of my speech. My diction is not great. I can pronounce the same word in different ways and pronounce different words the same. This presents a problem. However, my speaker-independent smartphone seldom misunderstands my verbal instructions, so I’m no longer as concerned. And with professional dictation software that I can train to learn my voice, I could minimize this potential problem even more.
Writing Style: The third reason I was hesitant to try dictation is that my speaking style is different than my writing style. I feared that I would spend too much time editing my dictated words that I would negate the time savings from using dictation.
Despite my apprehension, the allure of increasing my writing output and saving my wrists was enough to cause me to seriously consider dictation. But before I spent money on software and hardware I wanted to do some testing before making an investment.
Without spending a penny, I did just that. When accessing Google Docs through the Chrome browser there is a dictation feature (go to “tools” and select “voice typing”). For hardware, I used a standard headset I already had. Though this was not the ideal test, it would be enough to let me see if dictation held potential for me.
For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been writing all my blog posts and articles using dictation. Even though I’m new at it, I’ve already realized an increase in writing productivity. And as I get better, I expect an even greater boost in output.
Next week I’ll share more about my process, and how I’m moving forward with dictation. But for now, I wanted to share my initial thoughts so you could consider dictation.
Until then happy writing.
(By the way, the first draft of this 650-word post took me under ten minutes using dictation; typing would have been at least 45 minutes.)
Authors must be aware of words they overuse and that will irritate readers
Every writer has words they use a lot, too often in fact. They’re called go-to words. In my fiction writing, I use a smile, nod, and sigh a lot. Too much, way too much. But I never realized this until my editor pointed it out.
I also tend to have my characters grin, whisper, and wink. Plus, I enjoy it when they grasp, squeeze, and scrunch. Yep, these are my top nine go-to words. I have a list.
I also overuse just, only, and bit. And don’t get me started on adverbs, which harkens back to bad instruction from high school. (Though it might have been common practice back then.)
Your go-to words will likely differ from mine, but maybe my list will get you started on making your own.
Yes, you should make a list of your go-to words, as well as overused phrases and the common errors you make. One of my common errors is writing all of when I should be satisfied with all.
As I progress in writing a book, one of my editing phases is to work through my list of go-to words. One by one, I search for my overused words and fix them.
Sometimes characters have to smile, so I leave them smiling. But other times their smile does nothing to advance the story, so I wipe that smile off their face, that is, I delete the word from my writing. But I prefer to find creative ways to communicate my intent. Sometimes this task is easy, and other times it provides a challenge.
One final thought about scaling back on our go-to words is that we can inadvertently create new ones. For example, to scale back on the nod, I started having characters bob their heads, which is even more annoying. So in attempting to fix one problem, I caused another. Don’t do that.
This list of my go-to words only applies to my fiction writing. I need to make another list for my nonfiction work. A few that I’m aware of enough to avoid are corresponding, conversely, significant, and efficacy. But I’m sure there are more.
If you know your go-to words, great. If not, ask someone to read your work and tell you. Then find them and fix them.
Your writing will be stronger and you won’t weary your readers with repetition.
Writers serious about their craft should take concrete action to advance their career
In a recent interview, an author was asked, “What’s the best thing you’ve ever done to improve as a writer?” What a great question; I so appreciated the author’s answer. Yet my mind immediately considered how I would respond.
Within seconds I knew my answer. I smiled, thinking back to how that one decision changed me as a writer, propelling me forward.
Just as quickly another idea popped into my mind. It was a good answer, too. Which one was more important? I wasn’t sure. How could I pick just one?
But then a third significant thought surfaced, followed by a fourth, and then a fifth. They were all pivotal. Without any one of them, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Each was essential.
So I have not one answer to share, but five. My five tips to becoming a better writer are:
1) Call Yourself a Writer: It sounds corny, and it’s hard to do. But my first tip is to say, “I am a writer.” When I first did this, my lips moved, but no sound came out. After three tries my claim was just a whisper—and that was in private. It took a couple of years before I could comfortably tell someone, “I am a writer.”
I occasionally teach a “Get Started” workshop at a writer’s conference. I often have my class say this. Their first try is cautious, timid. But by their third attempt, they are confident and grinning. We need to call ourselves writers in order for us to believe it.
2) Commit to Writing: Once I called myself a writer I needed to commit to it. I had to set time aside to write, not just when I was motivated or had an idea, but even when I didn’t feel like it. Once a week on Saturdays, it became three times a week in the evenings, which moved to five times a week in the mornings. Now I block out significant time each day to write. It’s my schedule, like going to work—but in a way it is. Writing is my job.
3) Attend Events: Next is the need to connect with other writers. Join a writing or critique group. Attend conferences. Mentor someone else and seek a mentor. Maybe you need to mentor each other. At my first conference, I was the proverbial deer in the headlights. It was terrifying, and my naiveté cost me a bit of embarrassment, but the conference was so worth it. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.
4) Learn about Writing: With technology, we have many options to learn about writing: blogs, podcasts, and webinars are usually free. Books and magazines don’t cost too much. I’ve also taken some online classes—not university types, but practical, applicable writing instruction. I started with reading blogs and the rest of these followed.
5) Seek Help: As I began to make some money with my writing—which took years, by the way—I had funds to invest in my work. I began to hire experts to help improve. Aside from an editor, for my first effort, I paid a retired writing professor to help me improve my short story writing (as a prelude to novels). His input was invaluable. Since then I’ve hired developmental editors and a grammar guru. With them, I slash my learning curve and gain valuable information fast.
These are the five steps I took to become a better writer. I can’t say which one was more significant, but I will admit that without taking that first step, I would have never gotten to the next four.
Avoid using “it was,” “that was,” and “this was”—among other things
I hired a developmental editor to give me big-picture feedback on my novel. Though her comments overall encouraged me, I have several things to work on and fix.
One was that I used the innocuous phrase “it was” too often. How often? It popped up 126 times, which was an average of once for every 365 words. Interestingly I discovered I used it in spurts, with the phrase being absent in some chapters and plentiful in others.
As I set about to fix the problem, I realized I could simply replace “it was” with “that was” or “this was,” but doing so solved one problem by creating another. I would need to find and replace those phrases, too. While “that was” occurred only twenty-one times, “this was” showed up fifty-six times, for a total of 203 instances for all three.
The ideal correction involved replacing these trite phrases with a more powerful verb.
If that solution alluded me, a secondary option was replacing “it,” “that,” or this” with the noun they referenced or a suitable alternative.
A few times I couldn’t find replacement wording that would convey the same meaning without ballooning the sentence in size or structure, so I left it as is.
Last was dialogue. I reasoned I could often retain these phrases in speech because that’s how people usually talk. Even so, I did clean up some of the conversations in my story, too.
While I could have slavishly reworked every occurrence of these offending phrases, I felt inclined to leave some in to maintain the flow or clarity of the story.
In the end I left “it was” in twelve times; “that was,” three times; and “this was,” four times. This reduced my total number of offenses from 203 down to only nineteen, a 94 percent reduction.
Now my next task is to develop a habit were I don’t use “it was,” “that was,” or “this was” in the first place. While I long ago put my writing on a “low-that” diet, I suspect this new skill will take a bit longer to develop.
What writers can learn from the life and career of Carrie Fisher
On December 26, 2016, my wife and I went to see the movie Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The next morning I learned that Carrie Fisher had died. Like most people, I knew her for her iconic performance as Princess Leia in the Star Wars franchise. Her obituary revealed so much more:
Worked steadily as an actress from 1975 through to her death
Author of several semi-autobiographical novels, including Postcards from the Edge
Wrote the screenplay for the film of the book
Starred in an autobiographical one-woman play
Author of the non-fiction book, Wishful Drinking, based on her play
Spoke about her experiences with bipolar disorder and drug addiction
Mental health advocate
All these items are impressive, but the last one caught my attention: script doctor. As the title suggests, a script doctor is someone who comes in to fix the screenplays of other writers. In short, when a screenplay is good but not working as well as it should, a script doctor reworks it to make it shine.
Carrie Fisher’s Wikipedia page says she was “one of the top script doctors in Hollywood.” Who would have thought? According to her Wikipedia page and her IMDB bio, here are some of the movies she worked on as a script doctor:
Lethal Weapon 3
Last Action Hero
The River Wild
The Wedding Singer
My Girl 2
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones
Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith
Made in America
I’ve seen all but one of these flicks. In a lot of them she worked on dialogue or to develop a specific character. She worked as a script doctor for about fifteen years and said that at that time it was lucrative work (but apparently not so much anymore).
Carrie Fisher was known primarily as an actress, but she was also an author of books—both fiction and nonfiction—and screenplays, a script doctor, and an advocate. From her example, I have four takeaways for authors:
Diversify our income stream. (She earned money as an actress, author, and script doctor.)
Write in multiple genres. (She wrote fiction, nonfiction, and scripts.)
Capitalize on our strengths. (She had a knack for dialogue and character development.)
Use whatever platform we have to be a voice for what we’re passionate about. (She was able to use her popularity to talk about mental health issues and substance abuse.)
Thank you, Carrie Fisher. You entertained me and taught me about writing.
There are three types of book editing and you need a different editor for each type
Every book needs three basic types of editing, and each type of edit requires a different editor.
1) Development Edit: The developmental edit, sometimes called substantive or comprehensive edit, is the big picture stuff. Basically it asks the questions, does the book flow? Does it work? It addresses style, organization, and overall readability. For fiction this means the story arc and related elements; for nonfiction, it means the central theme and supporting materials. What’s getting in the way of this? Are there roadblocks or detours? Does the writing veer off course? What sections will confuse, bore, or frustrate readers? Until the developmental edit is complete—and the needed adjustments made—it’s a waste of time, money, and effort to move on to the next two types of edits. Always do a developmental edit first.
2) Copyedit: The copy edit, sometimes called a line edit, looks at paragraph structure, sentence construction, and word choice. Don’t do this until after the developmental edit and always before hiring a proofreader.
3) Proofreading: A proofreader looks at grammar, punctuation, and typos. A proofreader scrutinizes every word, the space between them, and how they’re connected.
Editors usually specialize in one area or another. Even if they do more than one type of editing, they can’t do all three types on the same pass. So if you find one editor who will do all three, it will still require three edits, not one.
Usually, you need to hire these people. If someone gives you free editing, you often get what you pay for. And finding an English major or someone who likes to read does not make for a good editor. Always find someone with editing experience. Though every editor has to at one time do his or her first edit, don’t let it be on your book.
When I read self-published books they too often fall short, and most all of the time it’s because of editing issues: no editing, poor editing, or inexperienced editing. Or they didn’t have all three types of editing. And sometimes traditionally published books suffer the same fate. Though they have been edited, it wasn’t good enough.
Don’t skimp on the editing. Your book will suffer if you do.