Copy editors and fiction editors

So there I was, wondering what to post here on the blog, and then fate stepped in and delivered unto me a wonderful little essay on the difference between copy editors and fiction editors, written by Torah Cottrill (who happens to be both a writer and an editor).

In my own professional work, I do both kinds of editing. Karen focuses mainly on copy editing. But plenty of people out there—including many self-publishing authors, unfortunately—don’t differentiate between types of editing. No matter what you’re writing, it’s important to know what kind of editorial services you want and/or need to make your stuff as appealing as possible to your audience.

And now, take it away, Torah!


A Few General Thoughts About Editors

It’s worth pointing out, for those not familiar with the distinction, that copy editors and fiction editors are two entirely separate things. (Although there are cases where the same person can do both, it’s actually pretty rare for one person to be good at both.)

Copy editors will make sure you don’t use “bare with me” or “should of” or “sneak peak” and that your typo “what is” instead of “what if” gets caught and corrected. Copy editors can catch continuity errors (for instance, that your character had a red shirt in the first chapter, but you described a blue shirt in chapter three), and can even offer advice about restructuring sections of text and about reworking clunky or confusing language.

Fiction editors look at the larger picture of your work, and can help you decide things like whether you need to add more POV characters, if the narrative structure is falling apart in chapter 5, whether your antagonist is believable, and all of the other story advice that writers dream of when they imagine “having an editor.”

Both types of editors are invaluable. What you should spend your money on depends on what you feel you need. Bottom line, everybody needs to have a copy editor (or a friend who’s good at those kinds of details) look at their work before it’s published, because basic errors of grammar and spelling are inexcusable in work you offer a reader.

As with any professional service, ask for references when looking for any type of editor. Ask what the editor offers, and how much he or she charges. Ask for a sample of his or her work. Discuss price and what you get for your investment. Maybe you’d benefit more from general advice on the structure of your novel, based on the first two chapters and a detailed outline, rather than from a full-blown edit of the whole work. Maybe you only want a final proofreading polish rather than a more intensive copy editing pass. Discuss what you want to achieve by working with the editor, and how the editor can help you accomplish that.

Remember, like any other professionals, editors have varying degrees of experience and expertise, and varying personalities. Spend the time to find someone who’s a good fit for you.

For examples of both kinds of editing, look at the Serious Pixie blog by Susan Morris and GRAMMARGEDDON! by Karen Conlin and Ray Vallese.


Very well said, Torah. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us—and for the shout-out to our blog. (I disabled the GRAMMARGEDDON! link you put in your essay so as not to create a self-referential loop that would destroy reality. That’s me, generous to a fault.)

7 thoughts on “Copy editors and fiction editors

  1. Very informative. I’ve done copy editing on several published small press books and found it a rewarding experience well suited to my personal skill set. That said, I’ve always done it “on the side” for cash or beer. I’m interested in getting into copy editing as a freelancer, but I have no idea how much I should charge, and whether it should be per page, per word or per hour. I would love it if someone could tell me what “industry standard” rates are.

    How much do experience and education play into it? I’ve copy edited a book of poetry, an anthology and a memoir, I have a BA in English and I’m halfway through a Master’s degree.



    1. Figuring out how much to ask for your services can be tricky. For a starting point, look at the rates suggested by the Editorial Freelancers Association for different kinds of jobs:

      However, I hesitate to call those rates an industry standard, because frankly they’re a little high. If you charge $30-40 per hour for basic copy editing, you might not get much work out of the gate. You’ll probably have to set your fees lower–without going so low that you look too cheap, which has its own bad connotation.

      If you Google “freelance editor,” you’ll find loads of websites of people offering their services at many different rates. Surveying the landscape is very helpful. You’ll also see that some people charge per word, some per page, some per hour, some per project, and some in various combinations. There’s no single right way to do it. Adopt a system that works for you.

      Personally, I think experience counts for more than education, especially if you can solicit testimonials from previous clients. But it sounds like you have both, so you should be in good shape to get started.

      (You know, I think I’ll write a longer blog post on some of these topics. Stay tuned. And thanks for bringing this up.)


  2. Very interesting! I’ve thought about the distinction as being proofing/copy editing (fixing errors), Heavy Copy Editing or Line Editing (improving content in place) and Substantive Editing (making larger changes that might rearrange, cut, add content). Those levels I would just apply to whatever I was working on and adjust the focus as appropriate: Substantive Editing for a How-To is going to be very different from Substantive Editing for a novel, the latter including the things you’ve mentioned above (plot, story, character depth, etc.) That view of things may have developed naturally as I’ve gone through my career as a creative in technical fields. Now that I’m a full-time editor (angelic choir sings) I’ll need to give some thought to how to describe what I do and exactly what services I am qualified to offer.

    On that note, I have to say this: editing is a real, distinct, and valuable skill. A good editor got that way because of temperament, intelligence, training, experience, and a lot of really hard work; when you hire an editor, that’s what you’re paying for. When we devalue our work by slashing fees, we contribute to the difficulty we all have at making a living. We also perpetuate our clients’ problem of assessing editorial skills: if an inexperienced editor charges $2.50/page for a heavy copy edit, and I feel that I have to set my fee that low to get any business, what is the difference between us, from the customer’s view? I’m not saying that you have to charge a lot to be good. I’m just saying that good freelance editors have every right to charge what they’re worth according to the Editorial Freelancers Association, and that doing so is in the best interest of the industry.


    1. All I can do in response is nod vehemently.

      And write a little. (So, yeah–I lied.) The project I just finished was, for the most part, medium copy editing. There was a little bit of substantive editing, because I realized that some of the essays worked better in a different order. By and large, however, it was copy editing and proofreading. Working on nonfiction (like this project) is different from working on fiction. I can tell when things seem out of place in nonfiction far more easily than I can see what’s wrong with a plot or a character’s development.

      It’s all shades of gray, really. And way more than fifty of ’em.


  3. I don’t mean to suggest that a skilled, established editor should set his or her fees very low. I guess I was thinking more about a new editor who’s trying to get a foot in the door. However, I’ve worked in the field for over 20 years, and most of my freelance jobs have been for less than the suggested EFA rates. Personally, I’d rather negotiate a price with a client that will land me the job, even if it’s a little less than I would prefer to be paid. Don’t get me wrong—I wouldn’t take on a job that paid too little. But one reality today is that many indie authors can’t afford high editing fees, and they *will* shop around to find someone cheaper.

    I could write more here, but I’ll hold back a bit and write a longer blog post on the topic of fees and services. (Expect that in the next day or two, hopefully.) I think it’s fascinating how freelancers across the web have such wildly different approaches.


  4. A potential client asked me what % I want of sales. He is pretty broke so is willing to forgo some of his royalties to hire me. I guess I’d be more like a partner now, like having shares.

    So what %?

    I was thinking 10%.

    Oh yes – he wants to go the self-publishing/ebook/POD route.

    Risky but I think I could make more money this way. Just got to figure out how I’m going to get money for gas/petrol.


  5. The risk there, of course, is that you’ll get nothing. If you can afford to work for free, then perhaps it’s worth the risk. Just my two cents, worth what you paid for it.


Leave a Reply to Ray Vallese Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s