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.)

E-books that read YOU

Today I heard a great story on the NPR radio program On the Media. The host talked to Alexandra Alter, a reporter who wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal (which you can read here) about how the major e-book publishers are tracking your e-reading habits and using the data to shape future publications. As you read an e-book, your Kindle, Nook, or iPad is gathering data about where you start reading, where you stop, what sections you skip, what passages you underline, and so on, and transmitting that information back to the publisher. Here’s the opening paragraph from the Wall Street Journal article:

It takes the average reader just seven hours to read the final book in Suzanne Collins’s “Hunger Games” trilogy on the Kobo e-reader—about 57 pages an hour. Nearly 18,000 Kindle readers have highlighted the same line from the second book in the series: “Because sometimes things happen to people and they’re not equipped to deal with them.” And on Barnes & Noble’s Nook, the first thing that most readers do upon finishing the first “Hunger Games” book is to download the next one.

With the data they collect, the publishers determine (rightly or wrongly) what readers want to see and then try to deliver more of the same in subsequent releases. In other words, the publishers are putting their e-books through virtual focus groups.

And it gets better (or worse; your mileage may vary). In the radio interview, Alter added that some publishers have started releasing early digital editions of books, gathering data on how customers read those books on their devices, and then changing the eventual print editions to reflect that feedback. So if enough people quit reading the book before the end, the publishers are likely to punch things up so the hardcover has a better chance of keeping your eyeballs all the way through.

Set aside the privacy concerns for a moment (though I don’t want my Nook to narc me out to Barnes & Noble—do you?). Regardless of whether you think it’s a good thing or a bad thing that publishers are trying new ways to create books that will hold your attention, it’s not hard to see how this development might diminish the perceived role of editors. If an algorithm can decide that chapter 1 is boring and the book takes too long to read, but there’s a very popular passage in the middle of chapter 7, so let’s have more stuff like that, is there still room for humans in this process?

Sure, that question is a bit dramatic, because the answer is yes, at least for right now. But how can we stop publishers that are focused on the bottom line from giving too much weight to data about sales and reading habits?

Seal of A-proof-al

I just became aware* of an interesting post that went up a few months ago on The Digital Reader. It asks a very intriguing question: Should editors certify that an ebook has been edited?

I really like the idea of a shiny burst stamped onto the cover of each ebook, similar to the old classic Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval (still going strong!) or the mark of the Comics Code Authority (which has faded away in the last few years). But honestly, there are a million reasons why it wouldn’t work: lack of standardization among editors, absence of a certifying body, never knowing whether a seal was earned or rubber-stamped, the difficulty of assessing the value of line editing versus development work, and so on.

A “seal of good editing” would be more or less meaningless, and the reading public would recognize it as such before too long. The best way to make your book appeal to potential readers is to make it readable, which usually means hiring a good editor and listening to his or her suggestions.

But it’s still fun to imagine an editor, red pen in one holster and a branding iron in the other, riding from town to virtual town, cleaning up the lawless publishing frontier one bad sentence at a time, burning his or her seal into the trail of pages left behind.

* Thanks, Steven Schend!

The pastor is not the study (but he could be in it)

I didn’t expect to find GRAMMARGEDDON! fodder this early in my day, nor did I expect to find it in the blog of a typographer/book designer. But, then again, in my experience typographers aren’t editors, usually. So–on with the post.

Dangling modifiers are annoying creatures. They cause the astute reader to stop and ask questions about what’s being said, questions that wouldn’t occur to the reader if that modifier had been corrected by some method or other. Here’s the one that stopped me this morning:

“As a pastor, commercially available Bible studies were just as bad.”

Hm. The pastor is not a study. The pastor is the person who may well purchase books or studies. The sentence would have been better phrased thus: “As a pastor, I found the commercially available Bible studies were just as bad.” “As a pastor” then modifies–correctly–the subject of the sentence.

The blog entry is one I found very interesting, truth to tell. I’m going to bookmark it, so I can return later and read it thoroughly. You see, just because I find a grammatical error that should really have been caught (even by a piece of software, if not a real live person) does not mean I then invalidate the source entirely and proclaim it to be garbage.

Here’s the link, for anyone who wants to know more about “Writing in InDesign.”

Editing Advice for Indie Authors

It’s great that so many authors are bypassing traditional publishing and releasing their works directly, but we all know that some of those ebooks could stand to be a little more polished. Check out “Winning the Hearts and Minds of Your Readers Through Editing” for tips on when to seek an editor, how to handle criticism, and more.

(The article is a summary of tips discussed in an accompanying podcast, which I haven’t listened to yet.)

Thanks for our friend and fellow editor Steven Schend for the link.

Why authors need editors, not just checkers

This rant’s been yammering at me from my forebrain for a few days now, so I might as well get it overwith.

I’ve been reading quite a few ebooks from self-published authors of late, most of them gotten for nothing from Amazon. (Twitter has been very, very good to me.) Having paid nothing for them, I’m at least not ticked off at having spent the rent on ebooks; however, having paid nothing for them doesn’t equate to “expect poor editing.” I’ve been consistently annoyed, and sometimes even appalled, at the lack of what I would consider basic editorial attention displayed by the final products on my Kindle. I’m not even talking about formatting weirdness; that, I can overlook. Seriously. I’m not that annoyed by oddball kerning, or strange page breaks. I am annoyed by things like the following.

  1. Having your character speak a single word in a foreign language does not by any stretch of my imagination demonstrate to me that your character is fluent in that language. Not even a little bit. I can order from a menu in Spanish, but I can’t speak it. I know “tostada,” “torta,” “burrito,” “carnitas,” and “cerveza.” I’m not fluent in Spanish. I could probably fake my way through one in German (four years of it in high school means I can still sing “O Tannenbaum” and “Stille Nacht”), and perhaps even in French. I am not fluent in either one. So—if your character is fluent in a foreign language, I strongly suggest you show me by having him speak a full sentence or two, preferably with some vernacular forms thrown in, so it’s not right out of a phrase book I could check down at my local library or here on teh intarwebz. Just having him say “Yes” is insufficient for my needs.
  2. In the same vein, if your character has been living in such and such a foreign city for a decade or more, when you’re describing the contents of his market basket, I expect to see terms consistent with the language of the city—not those of another one in a different country, with a different language. A long, crusty loaf of bread is called a baguette in Paris, but not (as far as I’m aware, anyway) in Rome. Similarly, within the US I expect to see regional variations reflected in descriptions and dialog. A hoagie is a sub is a grinder (sorta, I know, I hear the screaming and wailing from here), but each of those terms has a “home territory.” And if you know what a gagger is, we should talk. I have a recipe you might want.
  3. Please, for the love of Robert Louis Stevenson (in this instance), get your literary references straight. (And if you the author can’t, make sure your editor—you DO have one, don’t you?—can.) Saying that such and such an occurrence “would bring out the Jekyll in anyone” does not mean what you think it means, I don’t think. At least, not if you want us to think that the worst side of a person will emerge if this thing happens. Jekyll was the good one.

These are not things your grammar checkers and spellcheckers will catch for you, folks. You need a real live editor-type to find these. (I wager you could find them yourselves, but I also know that once you’ve finished writing, the last thing you want to do is read the whole thing again.) I am not a developmental editor, despite what this rant might lead you to think. I’m a copy editor and a proofreader, and a damned good one, too. I do know what annoys me as a reader, and I do know what skills any decent editor should possess. The kinds of things I’ve enumerated above should never occur in the final product—not if the editor’s earned their keep.

(Watch this space for an entry about “they” and “you” and why folks who rant and rave about the former as a singular epicene pronoun often haven’t a clue that they should also be ranting about the latter—and why, if they only rant about the former, they’re right good hypocrites.)