Working with a Professional Editor

Many authors realize that they could probably benefit from the help of an editor but don’t know how to find a good one. The whole process seems a bit daunting. What can an editor do for them? Who does what and when? When is the time to contact an editor? Is it even okay to work with an editor before you submit for publication? Does anyone do that?

All of these are excellent questions. This essay will give you information and context about whether you should work with an editor before submitting, when to contact an editor, and who does what and when during the editing process.

Should I Work with an Editor Before Publication?

Several authors I’ve worked with have said that the idea of working with an editor was new to them. They didn’t realize that an editor was a resource they could turn to while they were still writing.

The truth is that an editor can be tremendously helpful at all stages of the writing process. Writing involves multiple skills that few authors have been lucky enough to have formal training in. Some authors have trouble connecting their ideas with the ideas in their sources. Some have difficulty articulating their analysis in written form. Some have difficulty seeing how best to organize all the knowledge they have. Many authors just haven’t had that much practice writing sentences using a variety of styles and a rich vocabulary. An editor can model these skills for you and provide a bridge while you’re acquiring them. Editors can also see the big picture while you’re still overwhelmed with a thousand points of data and help you find clarity about how to whip that data into shape.

Levels of Editing

There’s a lot of conflicting information out there on the Internet about levels of editing. I’ve generated this list based on my experience as an editor. I find that manuscripts fall into three broad categories.

Line editing is the level of editing your press or journal will offer. (Although some journals don’t offer this service anymore.) This level of editing pays attention to grammar, spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. It’s a light edit that focuses mainly on technical issues. A line editor sometimes writes queries about something you’ve said, but the queries will mostly be about facts, not substance. Presses expect a line editor to compare a bibliography or reference list with the sources that are cited, so you’ll see queries about missing citations in the text or reference list entries that you didn’t cite. Line editors also make sure that your sources are cited in the style the press prefers. This is sometimes called a light edit. Only about 5 percent of the manuscripts I see are ready for a line edit.

A mid-level edit encompasses all the things a line editor does, but an editor working at this level also attends to word order, watches for apparent contradictions, looks for statements that require documentation in an endnote or footnote, changes passive voice to active voice, looks for places where changing the order of sentences in a paragraph will improve the flow of your argument, and looks for claims that are made at the top of a chapter or article but aren’t supported in the text. An editor doing a mid-level edit will be paying attention to the style of what you say and how well your sentences and paragraphs flow together. She or he will also do the comparison between sources cited and sources on the reference list or bibliography and will edit citations for the style the press prefers. The vast majority of manuscripts I get from university presses require mid-level edits.

A developmental edit typically happens at an earlier stage of the writing process before an author submits to a press or journal. This is the kind of edit where you’re working together with the editor to determine how best to organize and present your ideas. A skilled developmental editor will take you through a process that helps you see your ideas more clearly. She or he will say things like “you said too much about this point but this other point needs some more development.” Developmental editors often make cuts and move text to improve the flow of your writing. Authors who seek developmental editing are often scrambling to acquire multiple writing skills at the same time and frequently feel overwhelmed. A developmental editor can sort out the various skills into discrete areas of work and do some of the heavy lifting on the more technical skills while you focus on content and analysis. Developmental editors ask lots of questions that push you to think more deeply about certain points or help you see connections among the ideas you’re working with. Almost all of the clients I work with before publication seek developmental editing.

The Editing Process

All editing involves at least one exchange of files with the author. Even with the lightest level of editing, there are always some queries for the author to answer. Typically there’s only one exchange of files for a light or mid-level edit, although even in those cases there are sometimes a few follow-up queries after an exchange.

Developmental editing involves multiple exchanges of files. When an author is acquiring several writing skills simultaneously, files can be exchanged many times. Developmental editing isn’t a situation where you send your files to the editor and he or she “fixes” them for you. It’s a process that will ask for a lot of participation from you. So when you hire a developmental editor, you need to have time in your schedule for the thinking and writing work you’ll be doing.

Your editor will probably edit your file using Word’s Track Changes feature. The file that comes back to you will have some words crossed out and other words added. Probably he or she will use boldface and different colored fonts to make these changes highly visible. These font features are done within Track Changes–the editor didn’t highlight text, then choose boldface or a particular color. Track Changes assigned those features to the text.

The file may be partially locked using Word’s Protect Document feature. You’ll be able to add text or mark text for deletion–you’ll be able to make any changes you’d like. The only thing you won’t be able to do is remove the tracked changes to make a clean copy. Editors use Protect Document so they can clearly see who did what in a file. Many authors aren’t familiar with Track Changes or Protect Document, so I send detailed instructions about how to work with these features during a manuscript review.

Think twice before you mark an editor’s changes for deletion. There was a thought process behind those changes and possibly even some research. Much better to ask a question first. That may open a conversation that leads to a significant improvement in your text. Saying “No! I want it like it was” forecloses that possibility.

As you exchange files with your editor multiple times, the number of tracked changes and queries will gradually decrease. It’s not possible to predict how many exchanges you’ll need during a developmental edit. Sometimes it’s only three. One time the number approached the double digits–but the author won a national award for the book. Trust that your editor is taking you through a process that will bring the level of writing and analysis in your file to the level publishers look for. Think of your developmental editor as a person who provides a bridge to particular writing skills that you’re still developing.

Skype Conversations during Developmental Editing

When I do developmental editing with clients, I often suggest that we do part of our work via Skype. Face-to-face conversations can sometimes save a lot of time and clarify how to move forward. As I listen to clients speak about their ideas, I often understand much more clearly what they’re trying to do and can then help them use written language to close the gap between a very high level of thinking and writing skills that an author is still developing. Spoken conversation often also helps the client see more clearly what they want to say. I follow up each Skype session with a written report that helps the client remember the ideas they spoke about and lays out the next steps for both the author and me.

Version Control during the Editing Process

Once you send your files to an editor, they are completely out of your workshop. Don’t do any more work on those particular files until you get them back from the editor. Also, don’t send chunks of text or corrected versions of chunks of text with the request that the editor add them to the file. You can do this when you get the files back. You’re off the clock once the files leave your shop. While the editor has the files, those files are the working files. Each time you get the files back, the editor will ask you to rename them in a particular way so both of you can keep track of which file is the working file.

You and Your Editor

Your editor isn’t a critic. She or he is the person who gets down in the trenches with you and helps you figure out how to win. Your editor is your temporary best friend–a person who believes in your work and sees potential that maybe you haven’t seen yet.

You may feel discouraged the first time you get a file back from an editor and see many changes and queries. Instead of seeing all those changes as comments on you as a writer, think of them as little notes from a person who sees the path forward and knows how to get you to your goal.

And always remember two things. First, most writers these days haven’t received formal training in grammar and writing skills, yet they’re expected to perform at a very high level. As an academic writer, you’re expected to perform at the level of expertise of an Olympic gymnast but without years of training and guidance from experts. When you hire an editor, you’re hiring someone with the expertise you need and have a right to. The quality of your writing will determine the shape of your career and it makes sense to devote some focused attention to developing greater writing expertise.

The second thing to remember is that writing expertise takes years to develop. The estimate I see most often is 10 years from the time you graduate from college. So while you’re developing your expertise, it makes sense to consult with a professional who can point you in the right direction.

If you’re interested in editing work with me, contact me at