Working With a Freelance Editor—Part 2, the Process

If you missed Part 1 last week, it is here

You’ve chosen an editor, agreed to the level of service, signed the contract, and paid a deposit…

…What happens next?

Your editor is ready to get to work!

What do I need to do?

You need to supply the manuscript plus any other material requested by the editor such as a query letter or synopsis. Most editors work electronically, so you will likely email your document as an attachment. 

Most editors use Microsoft Word. It has advanced editing features that allow us to markup or redline the manuscript, so you can see exactly what we have cut, moved, or tweaked. It also allows us to highlight text and insert comments. (In rare circumstances, I’ve also had to wield a red pen and some traditional editing marks on an actual hard copy of a manuscript. Word makes it so much easier for everyone.)

Once you have emailed your manuscript as a Word document (or compatible RTF), take a deep breath! Then sit back and pat yourself on the back for finishing this draft, for having the courage to put it into editor’s hands, and for being a writer!   

Do I need to be available?

Do check your email now and then in case the editor is trying to get in touch with you. Communication delays can cause a slow-down. But as I said in Part 1, your editor may need little contact with you as they are working.

I sometimes ask the client a question while I’m editing, but I usually don’t. I do update the client on my progress at some point during the project and give them a brief, general idea of what issues I’m finding, so they know what to expect when I return the completed project. The client is always able to contact me during the process, and I respond quickly.

How does the editing process work?

I can’t speak for other editors, but unless it’s a children’s picture book, I don’t read the entire manuscript before I start editing. I'm going to describe the developmental + copyediting  process (which I call "full editing")

First pass—the tracked copy:

The first thing I do is format the manuscript correctly for submission to traditional publishers or literary agents (unless the client specifies differently). As well as making the manuscript look professional, it provides me with something standard and easy to read. You can imagine that, when you read all day long to catch errors, things like double-spaced text make a big difference.

Then I start to read. When I reach an “issue” or something that makes me pause, I determine the problem and then deal with it. “Dealing with it” could be inserting a comma where it’s needed, or it could mean pointing out that we’re on page five but haven’t met the protagonist yet. It could be correcting their/there/they’re, or it could be pointing out where the narration has head-hopped into another character’s POV. You get the picture—there’s a wide spectrum of potential issues that editors providing both developmental editing and copyediting watch out for.

I do both the developmental editing and the copyediting at the same time. But my approach varies a little for each manuscript. Some writers are great storytellers, but their grammatical skills are not as strong. Some writers are great with language but have trouble with their storytelling. So I might necessarily put more focus on copyediting and language on the first pass, or I might focus more on narrative and character development. It depends where the manuscript’s initial strengths lie.

But on my first pass, I always aim to capture my initial impressions, as if I were a reader picking it up from the shelf, so my comments on the first pass are spontaneous first reactions. I try not to overthink it.

Developmental comments:

The comments I embed in a manuscript could be about any number of things:

  • to explain why I have edited something
  • to suggest better wording choices

  • to highlight a technical issue such as an awkward shift in POV

  • to discuss a big picture issue such as one pertaining to narrative arc

  • to explain grammar

  • to provide links to helpful blog posts and instructional material

  • to say “This is great!”

  • etc.

I always aim to teach the writer as they go and may include instructional comments where needed.

Sometimes, when something is an issue but I haven’t quite determined why, I’ll simply bold a section of text and come back to it again on my next pass. Sometimes I highlight pivotal moments in the narrative in order to easily find them later. These are markers for me, and I’m sure other editors have different styles, triggers, and tricks that help them do their jobs.

The tracked (marked up, red-line) copy of the manuscript can look like a mess and be difficult for someone unfamiliar with tracked changes to read, but it will give you a sense of what was done.

Here is a fictitious page showing the tracking (copyediting and developmental editing) with embedded developmental comments.

"Fermentation" time: Once I have finished my first pass, I like to let the story sit for a few days. It’s amazing how many narrative issue I’ve worked out while walking my dog or packing the dishwasher. No doubt the writers among you have found that letting your project sit for a little while allows you to come back and see it with a fresh eye and greater perspective. 

Second (and subsequent) pass(es)the clean copy: When fermentation is complete, I take the edited manuscript, accept all the changes (so there is no longer any tracking), and save it as a new document called the “clean” copy.

Then I start all over again. At this stage, I do further copyediting, proofreading, and adding of developmental comments (as many times as needed) until the manuscript is fully proofed and I’m completely happy with any comments I’ve made.

Some food for thought: Until an editor has reached the end of the story, she can’t properly edit its beginning. It’s one of several reasons a single pass is never enough.

Here is a clean copy. Comments or explanations about things I have taken care of have been removed, the copyediting changes have been accepted and further copyediting done. The text has been proofed, plus there are extra developmental comments.  

Critique, critique notes, and reports: Developmental editors often provide additional feedback in the form of a full critique/report or detailed critique notes. Mine also include writing instruction relevant to the client’s needs. If you contract for a critique or additional notes, clarify with your editor what you can expect to receive. At minimum, a critique will likely discuss the big picture and give you an overview of the main issues.

What will I receive?

Most editors who also provide copyediting will return two copies of your manuscript:

  • a tracked (marked up/redline) copy of your original manuscript
  • a clean, fully edited copy
  • plus a critique or critique notes, if you have contracted for them

If you have supplied other material for editing, such as a synopsis or query letter, then you should receive tacked and clean copies of those also.

Book Editing Associates clients also receive a feedback form, so they can provide direct feedback to the Network Coordinator.

Again, not all editors have an identical process, so make sure you know what to expect before you sign the contract.

Can I ask questions afterwards?

Yes, absolutely! An editor should be happy to provide answers to reasonable requests for clarification. However, don’t expect the editor to reread your revised manuscript; there should be a clause in the contract that says whether the contract includes any reading or editing of revisions.

Why can’t you do the copyediting and proofreading portion of the contract after I’ve revised?

I answer this question as someone who is both a developmental editor and a copyeditor. Be aware that some developmental editors do not provide copyediting, and if you work with one, consider hiring a separate copyeditor later in the process. 

For me, there is no clear line between some aspects of heavy copyediting and light developmental editing. It’s just easiest and best for my process to do both at once. This yields the strongest project for the client. In fact, when I quote for developmental editing and copyediting, I don’t charge extra for the copyediting and proofreading. It’s just part of my developmental editing process.

Also, there are no guarantees your book will be ready for final copyediting and proofing (that is, almost ready to publish) after one revision. And it’s not something an editor can know in advance.

When you're ready, we can always set up a new contract for these services.

Why can’t you quote for multiple rounds of editing in one contract?

Every writer is different. Every writer revises differently. It’s impossible for an editor to know how many rounds of editing you’ll need to achieve a submission-ready or publication-ready manuscript. We could quote you for four and find you only need two, or vice versa. 

After your revision, you may choose to contract with the editor again for another round of editing, which the vast majority of my clients do. Clients return for subsequent rounds of full editing (developmental editing + copyediting) then copyediting/proofing when the manuscript is nearing publication-readiness.

Will my book be ready-to-publish when I get it back?

It depends, and ultimately, you’re in charge of when you upload (if you’re self-publishing) or when you submit (if you’re seeking traditional publication). But one of the biggest mistakes writers—particularly newer writers—make is a lack of revision. Consider:

  • Are you a beginner writer, or is it early in your writing journey, and is this your first round of editing? Probably you’ll need to keep learning and revising before your book is ready for publication.
  • Have you been revising your book for some time, and is it at the final proofreading stage according to your editor? Then yes, your book is most likely publication- or submission-ready. If not, your editor should inform you and suggest your next steps.

I think I can safely speak for other dedicated developmental editors when I say we are absolutely on your side. We know you are giving us a piece of yourself that has filled you with the breath of inspiration, which you have fawned over, hated, then loved again, sacrificed for, and labored to give birth to. We get it. (Many of us are writers, too.) We love words. We love stories. We love books and art. And we are devoted to helping you bring your vision to be the best that it can possibly be. That’s just what we do.

Do you have any questions I haven’t answered? Please feel free to post them in the comments!