What is Editing?

There are several different types of editing:  For example I was the editor of the Women Writing the West catalog for three years. And basically what I did, was to organize all the information and prepare it for the designer and printer. I didn’t do much if any, changing of the copy that came in from the authors.

When working on someone’s manuscript, you have basically two types involved: line editing (copy editing) and conceptual (or substantive) editing.

Line editing: making changes on a sentence-to-sentence level. Taking a look at grammar, style, sentence structure, typos, punctuation. (I can hardly read a manuscript without marking commas)

Conceptual editing looks at the overall book to see what’s missing, what scenes can be intensified, and what sort of story-level changes could be made to strengthen a work.

Making a work better and stronger isn’t just about fixing the things that don’t work – it’s about strengthening the best parts as well. My job as editor is to think along with you, the writer, and help make your writing more effective.

A few things for writers to remember:

The better you are, the more criticism you’re likely to get. If your work sucks, it doesn’t take a lot of detail to tell you so. On the other hand, if you’re a terrific writer there may be lots of subtle improvements you’re capable of pulling off.

If lots of people don’t get what you’re doing, it’s you. If one person doesn’t understand what you’re trying to pull off, then maybe it’s that person, but if you get the same criticism repeatedly, then you’re not getting your point across. If you have to explain the joke before people get it, it’s not funny.

Don’t make corrections blindly. If you really feel that the editor doesn’t get what you’re trying to do, don’t jump in and make all the corrections anyway. Even when writer and editor are on the same page, you’ll probably only make about 50% of the editor’s suggestions. (Although you’ll address all of them, accomplishing some in different ways and deciding that others don’t actually help.)

Often the purpose of conceptual edits is to make you think about how a scene works and point out ways to make it stronger; it doesn’t mean you won’t find a better way to address those weaknesses than the ones I suggest. Just approach them with an open mind.

My favorite quote is from Ernest Hemingway: “There are no great writers, only great re-writers.”

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11 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I usually make most of the changes my critique partners suggest and almost every change my publisher’s editor requests. Is that wrong?

  2. No, Alex, it’s not wrong. That’s why we have groups and editors we’ve learned to trust. Only if you have something you feel very strongly about not changing, you can put forth your pitch. You may or may not “win the battle,” but possibly both sides will understand the issue better.
    Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Thank you for the informative article on editing, Heidi. I’d add one more thing: don’t take a correction personally. An editor is, after all, a reader, just the person you want to reach.

  4. You’re absolutely right, Mary. We writers have to develop a thicker skin than our creative personalities often allow us to have. But if we let criticism “get” to us, we are wasting our own energy and time, resulting in negativity.

  5. Hemingway was right on that account. Hey, I have an award for you over at my blog. Have a great weekend!

  6. Hello, Heidi,
    Very timely reminders of the editing processes as I start in on a friend’s manuscript. Having her raise the questions she has about the piece is very helpful when it comes to Conceptual Editing. Thanks!

  7. Agreed, I follow about 50% of editor’s suggestions! 😉

    • Only 50%?! 🙂

      Remember, you are the captain of your own ship, but when you ask an editor to work on your manuscript you are getting advice from a professional.

      • absolutely, Heidi, but she’s not in my head and especially the first time I work with someone, I need to stick with my voice and be consistent… or I would sound like the (new) editor instead of myself, know what I mean? 🙂 As soon as I find the perfect editor to work with (and I’m close), I’ll probably won’t need all that feedback, because I’d already know what she says on certain matters and if I do it, I’ll do it on purpose… so the percentage of following her might be higher, or her feedback might be less wordy! 😉

  8. […] What is Editing? (heidiwriter.wordpress.com) […]

  9. Great tips. I’ve done a lot of line editing and even notice missing commas and typos in published books I’ve read (yep, at least one in each book I’ve read recently!). I also edited a novel that took much longer than I expected because it required huge substantive edits, but the writer was very good to work with and tried hard to learn as much as he could.


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