What is editing?
Editing is a general term that encompasses a number of different processes in the preparation of written material for publication (print or digital media):
- editing at story or content level (developmental editing; structural editing; manuscript assessment)
- editing at text level (line editing; copy-editing)
In practice, the boundaries between each editing stage can be quite fluid, and editors work in different ways. It’s therefore important that you establish with your chosen editor the scope of the work to be done on your text or manuscript.
Types of editing
Project management takes a finished manuscript through editing, design, typesetting, proofreading and indexing to the printing and publication process (or whatever the end goal is, e.g. a website or an exhibition display).
Developmental editing is a big-picture view of a book project. It looks at the initial idea or concept and helps the author to develop it into a completed draft manuscript.
Structural editing deals with the content, substance or structure of a manuscript and how the text is organised or structured.
Developmental editing and structural editing often overlap, as both deal with content and narrative elements. This is also the stage at which book coaches or writing mentors get involved.
Reader’s report is typically a brief document that gives a general overview of a manuscript, summarising the big-picture elements such as style, pacing, plot, characterisation, setting, dialogue, etc., without any detailed analysis or in-manuscript editing. It also often supplies an overview of the manuscript’s commercial potential.
Manuscript assessment is an in-depth document outlining, for the author, the strengths and weaknesses of a manuscript, often involving an element of developmental or structural editing suggestions. It can be combined with a developmental/structural edit of the manuscript itself.
Line editing (also called stylistic, heavy or substantive editing) starts to get into the detail of the text itself. It focuses on the flow, coherence and content of the text to ensure its language and style are appropriate for the audience and genre.
Copy-editing deals with the mechanics of the text and applies an appropriate set of rules (and/or a publisher’s house style) for spelling, grammar and punctuation. Copy-editors ensure, for example, that text is clear and concise and appropriate for the target readership, that spellings of unusual names are consistent, that the author doesn’t promise five examples and give only four, that figures in a table add up correctly, that the hierarchy of headings and sub-headings is correct, that inconsistencies are queried with the author or publisher, and that illustrations or images are clearly labelled.
Proofreading is the final stage of text preparation before publication. Traditionally, the proofreader reads page proofs after they come back from the typesetter or designer, but nowadays the term is often used to mean the final polish of the text. The proofreader’s main job is to fix incontestable errors of spelling, punctuation and grammar that may have slipped through the net during copy-editing, but their duties also include making sure that text, illustrations, captions, headings, running heads, etc., are complete, ensuring that page numbers match the Table of Contents; proofreading preliminary pages (copyright page, etc.) and end matter (e.g. a bibliography or index, if there is one).
What type of editing do I need?
Every text or manuscript is unique and will have its own editing requirements. No one size fits all. Our members have expertise across a range of editing processes and will be happy to discuss your publishing goals and recommend the appropriate level(s) of editing for your manuscript.
Indexes are usually only compiled for non-fiction books and done towards the end of the publication process, once the page numbers in the text are stable. Properly compiled, a back-of-the-book index allows users to find information on a particular topic, get an overview of what the book is about, and see how particular themes or ideas are developed.
An indexer analyses the text of a document to compile an alphabetically arranged list of the most significant terms, words and concepts in a book. They then have to consider the terms the reader is most likely to look up and relate them to the language used by the author.
Aside from editing, proofreading and indexing, many of our members have experience and expertise in other related skills, such as publishing advice and consultancy services, design, ebook formatting, project management, translation, training, typesetting and writing. They also cover a diverse range of specialisms and subject knowledge, and work on different kinds of text: for example, academic, autobiography and memoir, business, young adult and children’s, educational, ESL, fiction, Irish language, law, public administration, sciences and STEM, training manuals and websites.
To find an editor, proofreader or indexer to suit your needs, have a look in our Directory. Instructions on how to conduct an advanced search for specific skills or specialisms are at the top of the page, or you can use our word cloud (also on the Home page).
Where can I get training as an editor, proofreader or indexer?
See our Resources page.
How do I know if this kind of work would suit me?
Do you have a good standard of English (grammar, spelling, punctuation)? Could you prevent yourself altering a text just because you did not like it, or thought it was ungrammatical? The author’s style is important as well. Are you normally alert to spelling errors? You will need a dictionary, of course, but it helps to have a sense of when a word looks wrong.
A freelance worker must pay attention to meeting deadlines and managing budgets. You will be working on your own, and there will be no one to push you. Have you adequate space and peace in which to work? An hour here or there, or frequent interruptions, will not help you to meet a publisher’s deadline.
Another aspect of lone working is that clients will generally not give you feedback on a poor job; they just won’t give you work again.
Is there much freelance work available?
Someone who trains only as a proofreader may find it hard to get work at first, especially from publishers, who tend to stick with the people they know. It is possible to pick up experience from other sources – anyone who prints anything needs a proofreader, whether they think they do or not.
It is worth trying graphic design agencies, advertising agencies, auctioneers, anyone who produces printed material. A qualification in copy-editing will be more useful to a publisher, but you need to train as a proofreader first.
To get and continue to get work needs great determination and an ability to sell yourself, and it may take up to two years to earn a reasonable living.
Where else might I seek career advice?
See our Resources page.