Editing in layers

Editors work as teams, and they edit in layers, moving from big picture to small details.

First the substantive editor (sometimes called a developmental editor) works with the author to shape the big idea. They help the author identify the audience, the narrative arc, and the author’s intention in writing the book. They often coach the author through revisions, and they usually offer line editing (fine tuning at the sentence level) as part of their work.

Then the manuscript moves through copyediting, to ensure consistency of grammar, spelling, punctuation, and other style issues. The copy editor is distinct from the substantive editor.

Once the manuscript is laid out in design (we call this typesetting) another editor, the proofreader, reviews the proofs for typos.

Editors usually learn by first proofreading and copyediting, before moving to substantive editing. That’s how I learned, and I even won an award for my copyediting. But I don’t copyedit much these days.

I much prefer the early stages of a manuscript, when we’re working out the shape of the book and its components. How many chapters will it have? Will there be graphics? What’s the tone of the prose?

I like thinking through the puzzle of a big idea, and holding the concept in my head for weeks or even months while the author and I shape the pathways through it.

Writing and revising can be a vulnerable time for the author. As a longtime editor and a first-time writer, I’ve learned how to hold space for the creative process.

Plus, as an editor with extensive marketing experience, I know how to position a book in the market, and what elements we can add that will set it apart from similar books.

Substantive editing is co-creation at its finest.

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