Fiction Workbench

Blog of the Fiction Fix-It Shop

Types of Fiction Editing

Posted by Meredith  (February 3, 2010 at 8:49 pm)
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What’s the difference between substantive editing, line editing, and copy editing? How do I know which one I need?

Freelance editing can be a confusing world. The terms we use for types of editing aren’t standardized, so they can mean different things to different editors.

Here is what they mean to me:

Initial Critique (aka Sample Critique, First Chapter Critique):

Most freelance editors offer some sort of trial or sample edit. This is ours. It gives you a low-risk chance to try out your editor’s style, and it gives your editor an opportunity to see if this is a project that is right for us. It also helps us to evaluate if we think you are ready for a full edit or not. If you still need to master the basics of the craft of fiction, there are many cheaper ways to do that than paying a professional editor.

This is also a good option if you need to polish up sample chapters for a contest or a book proposal.

The critique will include comments made directly in the manuscript as well as a summary at the end of the manuscript. We focus on things like character development, pacing, character voice, dialogue, scene structure, point of view, showing/telling, dialogue tags and beats, narration, and writing style.

The type of comments we may make are things like “Putting a flashback here really slows down the forward momentum of the story” or “You may want to consider showing the emotions of the character here instead of telling us she felt angry. Show her anger with a physical beat or by the way she speaks.”

We will usually try to explain why we are making the suggestion, and sometimes we will also give an example of what we are suggesting. These examples will rarely be as good as what you can come up with on your own, but they are intended just to get you thinking of the possibilities.

At the end of the manuscript, we will summarize the main points we made during the critique, and we will address overall observations. If this is an initial critique for a possible full edit, we will let you know if I am interested in doing a full edit.

Because the initial critique covers only the first 3,000 words, it does not include feedback on the overall plot, character arcs, or basic premise of the book. It tends to be focused on line editing and not as much substantive editing.

Substantive Editing (aka Developmental Editing, Content Editing, Substantive Copy Editing):

Substantive Editing is the specialty of the Fiction Fix-It Shop. We firmly believe that it is the most important type of editing because it evaluates the whole scope of a story. Many writers who are hiring an editor for the first time feel that they just need a quick proofread or copy edit. However, often a manuscript has larger structural issues or problems with character development or plausibility issues that are hard for the writer to see because the writer is so familiar with the story. These larger issues are usually what keeps a manuscript from being published. An acquisitions editor or an agent will not turn down a story because the writer is weak on comma usage. They will, however, reject a novel whose climax is in the wrong place, or whose middle is sagging or meandering. This is why substantive editing is so important.

You may want a Substantive Edit for the following reasons:

1) Your manuscript has gotten good feedback from editors or agents but keeps getting rejected. You aren’t sure where to go next.
2) You are finally ready to approach an editor or agent and want to make sure that your manuscript is as rejection-proof as possible.
3) Your manuscript has been requested by a publisher or agent. You are scared to death and want to make the best impression possible.
4) Your manuscript is contracted by a royalty-paying publisher and you want a fresh perspective before sending it to your editor. You want to give them the strongest manuscript possible.
5) Published or not, you’ve received good feedback on your manuscript, but you feel dissatisfied with it and want to receive some tougher feedback that will help you grow. You want your manuscript to move from “good” to “outstanding.”
6) You are a published author and struggling with the balancing act of having to do rewrites on the book coming out while still moving forward with the new book you’re working on. You want to try getting the substantive edit on the manuscript before sending it to your editor, so that there will be less revision work to do while you are working on the new book.

We define a Substantive Edit as one that looks at the big picture of a story. When we do a substantive edit, we read the entire work through, and then we write several pages (often as many as 10 single-spaced) discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the plot and characters. With plot, we look at overall premise, the main conflict, the flow of one scene to the next, the final climax, the resolution, and places where the story meanders away from the main plot. We also discuss any sub-plots and whether or not they are well-integrated into the story and add or detract from the main story line. With characters, we provide a detailed analysis of the main characters’ Goals, Motivations, and Conflicts, and discuss how those could be strengthened or better-utilized in the story. We also discuss how those characters fit into and enhance the plot, and give you feedback about whether or not the plot is emerging from the characters.

Line Editing (aka sometimes “Copy Editing”):

Along with this discussion at the end of the manuscript, we include a lot of line editing with the substantive edit. The line editing is similar to what we described under the Initial Critique. You will have many comments made directly into the manuscript itself as well as the summary at the end of the manuscript.

What we don’t do in a Substantive or Line Edit is much copy editing (see definition below). We will usually skip over punctuation, capitalization, and spelling errors, depending on the editor. We usually also don’t do much with grammar errors or formatting mistakes. When we point out line editing issues, we will do so a few times at first, so that you understand the concept we’re going for. But then we expect that you can apply that to the rest of the manuscript and search for those issues on your own. This means that the line editing is heaviest during the first half of the manuscript, and tapers off during the second half.

A substantive/line edit doesn’t include brainstorming or rewriting. We don’t write, rewrite, or correct your manuscript for you. You are under no obligation to accept or agree with the changes we suggest, and you are free to revise your manuscript however you feel is best. Because of the very subjective nature of editing, our suggestions and feedback may contradict other feedback you’ve received. This is normal. We make comments based on our best understanding of the craft of fiction and of current trends in fiction and based on our own writing experiences. Our ideas are bound to be different than other, equally qualified sources. It’s up to you to pick and choose what you apply to your novel.

Copy Edit (occasionally aka “Proofreading”):

When writers first think about hiring a freelance editor, this is usually what they are thinking of. The problem is, this is probably the kind of editing that is least necessary for most writers to pay for.

Copy Editing involves making sure that the details of a manuscript are correct. In addition to grammar, punctuation, spelling, and capitalization, it also checks for errors in continuity (for example, if your heroine’s eye color changes from blue to green in chapter 10) and plausibility (did it really take only three years for the hero to get through medical school and become a neurosurgeon?). It looks for questionable research, possible trademark or copyright issues (like quotations or the use of brand names), and places in the manuscript that are just plain confusing. Sometimes, it can edge into line editing if there are sentences that are very awkward or unclear, or if there is a major error in writing technique (like the overuse of italics or a certain word pattern.)

The reason most writers don’t really need to pay for copy editing is because 1) most editors and agents will overlook a couple of these sort of errors if the story itself is strong, and 2) most critique groups or even a friend with strong English skills can provide this sort of service in a normal situation. A contracted book usually goes through copy edits as well as at least one round of proofreading before it is published. It’s not usually necessary for an author to pay for this kind of editing outside of what the publisher does.

You may want to consider paying for a copy edit if your story is strong but you are very weak in grammar and spelling skills and don’t have connections to anyone with the time or patience to help you with this area. You also may want to consider this service if you are a published author who has had poor in-house copy editing in the past and would like to make sure your story is not published with as many mistakes in it this time.

Please note: We do not offer any services for novels being self-published.

Got more questions? Want to find out what editing service is right for your manuscript? Contact our assistant, Nikki, about an initial critique!