When it comes to writing, editing can be almost as important as the actual pen-to-paper (or pixel-to-screen) process. A good editor can turn even an incoherent jumble of words into credible, comprehensible prose. What kind of editor you need depends on a variety of factors. But rest assured, if your project has words in it, you need an editor.
The first factor to consider is the type of project, which could be anything from your own book to marketing materials to a website. In any of these situations, a freelance editor can significantly improve the final product. That’s because the first rule of editorial is “Two sets of eyes on everything,” which means that even the most seasoned writer needs an editor. (As evidenced by the blistering critiques many readers gave ‘Blood Canticle’ by Anne Rice, who is notorious for refusing editorial assistance ever since her Vampire Chronicles series launched her into the celebrity stratosphere.)
When looking to hire an editor, you next have to ask yourself where you are in the writing process.
- Do you have a completed manuscript, or just an idea that you’d like to flesh out?
- Is this your first time writing this kind of project?
- Is your project a rough draft?
- Will you need ongoing editorial support, or is this a project with a finite timeline?
Think about the status of your project as you review these different types of editorial services. Of course, whether you need someone with online experience also needs to be considered.
Types of editing
1. Developmental editing
For ideas that are still in the rough stages, a developmental editor can help bring structure and organization to the project, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. Perhaps your company is looking to update its website or begin a blog — a developmental editor can help decide on the site hierarchy, blog categories and the overall voice and tone. (For online projects, look for an editor who also has at least some knowledge of SEO and/or UI, user interface design.)
If your CEO has an idea for a groundbreaking business book but doesn’t know where to begin, a developmental editor can help break down the topic into more easily digestible chunks that can be easier to tackle than a full-on tome. When it comes to books, the developmental editor is often part of the project from conception to conclusion.
2. Manuscript evaluation
This service is exactly what it sounds like: A seasoned editor provides feedback on your work. For those with a completed project, a manuscript evaluation can — and should — give you a better idea of your next steps. If the overall critique is glowing, you may only need a proofreader to review your work before it’s published, whether that be online or in print. But if your project needs more work than that, the evaluation should tell you what steps you should take to get it to a publishable state, such as going back to square one and having a developmental editor work it over, or hiring a line editor to help with voice and tone.
3. Line editing
Think of line editing as a line-by-line review, as opposed to the grand overview of the manuscript critique. During the line editing process, the editor looks for flow, tone and clarity, and will point out problems such as run-on sentences, clichés and pacing. Although punctuation and grammar are not the focus of a line edit, many editors can’t help themselves and so will do both at the same time. (That’s just how our OCD minds work.) Just keep in mind that you’ll still likely need a copyeditor after a line edit.
Even within the editing world, there’s some disagreement as to how copyediting differs from proofreading, so be sure to clarify how an editor defines a service before you begin working together. At magazines and many websites, a copyeditor reviews content for punctuation, grammar, spelling and the project’s unique “style,” or rules specific to that project/publication. The two most commonly used styles in media are Chicago Manual and AP (Associated Press), although there are others specific to individual industries (e.g., many medical journals follow American Psychological Association, or APA, style).
Style guides are the reason you see such revered institutions as the New York Times and The New Yorker spelling it “cooperate” and “coöperate” — each has its own unique style guide, created and added to over the years. Your copyeditor needs to be familiar with your project’s style, or at least be given a document outlining your brand’s peculiarities and preferences.
Some would argue this is the same as copyediting — and in some ways it is. The term refers to the hard-copy process where a “proof” — a test print of a book, newspaper or other print publication that has been laid out, graphics and all — is given a final review before the project goes to print. So in a sense, the proofreading stage is your last chance to catch all those misplaced apostrophes, typos and missing serial commas before the project is put to paper and is, thus, unchangeable. In addition to copyediting skills, a good proofreader also has an eye for layout issues, such as unintentional extra spaces, missing bylines or misnumbered pages.
The proofreading process is not, however, the time for character revisions, plot changes, or anything larger than correcting an actual physical error. Because of the print-focused nature of proofreading, few online publications have bona fide proofreaders; the editorial process is considered complete once the content has been copyedited and is live on the site. But you’ll still hear web editors asking for copy to be “proofread,” which in that context is pretty much the same as copyedited.
6. Book shepherding
Although this isn’t an official term, this role has become more popular in recent years. With self-publishing enjoying increasing popularity — and with costs now so low you might be surprised how cheap it is to print a quality copy of that high school novel you’ve had stuffed away in a drawer — book shepherds have taken on the role of guiding newbies through the publication process. Although a book shepherd may not be an editor in the traditional sense of the word, many long-time editors have since taken on this role, in addition to the copyediting, line editing and/or developmental editing they started out doing. Since a book shepherd is also likely to fill one of these roles, if you’re publishing a book, you may as well try to find someone who can do both. You just need to know to ask.
Book shepherds can be just as important as editors when it comes to self-publishing, helping you with everything from getting an ISBN (or even explaining what that is) to helping with interior layout, front matter and all the other things you didn’t know you needed to make your book shine. Plus, they help ensure that your finished hard copy is as professional-looking as possible, with the right cover, binding, and quality paper for what your budget can afford. Even if your line editor polished your prose to Pulitzer-worthy standards, your work might not get read if it looks like a college thesis printed at Kinko’s circa 1995. Your book shepherd will do her darnedest to help you avoid that.
What type of editor does your company need?
Now that you understand the different types of editing, you should have a better idea of what sort of editorial services you or your company needs. With the rise of content marketing, brands have had an increasing need for editors and writers. Depending on the amount and type of content your company is creating, you may need one or more editors, whether they are full-time staff or outside contractors.
Few companies will require an editorial staff that rivals that of a traditional magazine, but there are several well-known brands that are making that strategy work for them. REI’s blog produces outdoor travel content to rival some of the top magazines in the biz. Boutique chain Hotel Indigo, a division of the mammoth IHG Hotels, provides inspirational content around its franchise destinations. Fitness club Equinox launched Furthermore, an online magazine that promotes lifestyle content ranging from workouts to recipes, which has attracted more than a million monthly users, a large portion of who are Equinox members.
In all the above cases, content marketing serves to cement the brand’s messaging, as well as attract new customers. But creating that amount of content requires a sizable staff, one dedicated to editorial creation. While these examples are of large businesses, small- and medium-sized companies can follow their lead, albeit on a smaller scale, with part-time or freelance staff.
Plan your editorial needs for the long term.
If your company is looking for long-term content creation, you’ll want to start by hiring an editor who can oversee the entire process. Companies creating a limited amount of content — say, two to three articles per week — might be able to get by with a mid-level editor, who can both write and edit content, as well as assign the occasional piece and possibly manage some social media interaction.
For more robust content flow, you’ll want to find a managing editor, who will oversee the content strategy and ensure that overall quality is maintained. The ME also directly manages any lower-level staff, such as copyeditors and, if you have enough content to warrant them, section editors. At a magazine, for example, the ME controls the style guide and editorial calendar (what content will be published when), which in turn determines what each section editor will publish. So if November is the big travel issue, the food section editor might publish content about the best hotel restaurants or the best foodie cities.
The ME rarely gets down and dirty with copyediting or interacting with new freelancers, although she might interact with some of the publication’s more seasoned writers. With an ME on board, the content flow can work similarly to that of a traditional publication, with content coming either from outside the company, such as through freelance writers, or from within, such as from junior-level editorial staff.
At a non-media company, the ME will also interact with other departments, such as the sales team, to determine content needs. You might, for example, develop a content strategy that highlights a different client or partner each month, which could help the sales team to land new accounts. Equinox recently did something similar with its Elements of Extraordinary campaign, in partnership with Cole Haan, which spotlighted both brands’ messaging in topics such as fitness, nutrition, and mindfulness.
Other editorial services
I’ve found that few companies realize just how much they need editorial guidance until they have it — and then they wonder how they ever lived without it. So consider other ways your editorial staff can help with related tasks outside of their department, such as copyediting one-sheets for sales or proofreading ads for the design team. Such pitching-in could help prevent embarrassing blunders, such as a travel agency unwittingly attracting a new clientele with an ad for “erotic” — rather than “exotic” — travel destinations.
Another editorial service that’s all the rage is assisting businesses and busy execs with writing books to help boost their profiles or brand messaging. (Think Dale Carnegie’s seminal ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People‘ or, more recently, anything by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.) Depending on how much you’re able to write yourself, you may only need line editing, copyediting, or one of the other editing services mentioned above. But if you need more help than that, consider a ghostwriter, who can take the bulk of the work off your plate.