I used to think of editing as something like expanded proof-reading, matter of making sure the text follows certain rules of objective correctness, like spelling and sentence structure. It followed then, that editors differed only in one dimension, better and worse, and that one editor was as good as another of equivalent skill for any given job.
It’s not true, of course.
“Editing” is actually an entire family of tasks united only by the fact that all of them involve altering existing text–and by the fact that they’re difficult or impossible to do for your own work. While some or all of these tasks can be done by the same person, I’ve found I get better results if I at least think about them as distinct. For one thing, a good proof-reader is not always a good creative editor and vice-versa. My understanding of these things evolves with each major project, but at this time I think of a book-length project needing four distinct types of editor: creative or collaborative editing, beta reading, proof reading, and pre-publication editing.
The collaborative editor helps craft the structure, flow, even voice of the work–this is the person who can trigger major rewrites, or even the abandonment of one project in favor of another. This is very delicate work, because it involves precisely those judgment calls for which there are no objective standards. No phase of editing, except perhaps pre-publication, has as much influence on the final state of the book as this one.
The choice of collaborative editor is critical, and not just because his or her vision for the book could become almost co-dominant with yours. The issue is that this editor’s job is precisely to tell you what you don’t want to hear–you have to trust this person very deeply or you’re not going to be able to bring an open mind to the process and you won’t grow as a writer.
Sometimes the editor at your publisher becomes your collaborative editor, but until and unless that happens you’ll need to hire someone else. Yes, hire. As in hand over money. If you’re short on cash, you may be able to find someone who will work for what you can offer or who will accept some kind of trade in lieu of money. Even if your editor is your mother, do not ask her to work for free. My current collaborative editor is a friend, but I don’t think that’s necessary. You could approach a fellow writer whose work you admire, a former writing teacher you had some creative chemistry with, or you could try a stranger based on a recommendation–the key is that you can trust the person and that you share compatible visions for the book.
Beta readers are not themselves editors. They are test-readers, and you edit your book (or not) based on their feedback. Beta readers need not be writers, nor do they have to be experts in your book’s topic unless you are writing for experts only. Look for people who fall within the profile of your expected readership, whatever it is, and who are good enough friends to do you a favor (and also not steal your ideas). You don’t have to pay them–in fact, you’re letting them read your book for free. You may need to explain what beta-reading is and whether you want any specific feedback or just want to know if they liked it and why.
Do ask multiple people to read the same draft, as opinions vary. If one person hates your main character but the other three love her, that’s important to know. And do ask more people to beta-read than you need, because some of them will probably say yes and then flake out. Do set a deadline; waiting for months on a beta-reader who may or may not get back to you is no fun.
Proof-reading means looking through the document for technical problems, like typos or punctuation errors. This kind of editing isn’t personal or creative, but not everyone can do it well. I’ve had people proof-read for free. I’m not sure I’ll do it again. Your collaborative editor might be able to do it–especially if your typos have been irritating him or her for months–or you might work out a reciprocal deal with a fellow writer. I’ll proof your book if you proof mine. Your publisher will have it proof-read also, but may require you to have it done first on your own dime, before you submit your file.
Your publisher may well want to re-edit your book. You can decide to what extent you’re going to go along with this–I’m not saying your publisher is wrong, the story may badly need reworking. You may discover your next collaborative editor this way. Even if the creative editing process does not rise to true collaboration–if the magic doesn’t happen–you could get some interesting suggestions.
While pre-publication editing could include both creative editing and proof-reading all over again, the difference is that you’re no longer entirely in charge. This is the editor who can threaten to abandon your work if you disobey, and while I doubt any publisher would actually issue that threat lightly (mine never did at all), the possibility of it will color your work together. Also, this is the editor who legitimately has an agenda other than supporting your vision for the book. To be clear, he or she should also be interested in your vision, but the publisher’s name is going to be on the book, too, so it has to represent the publisher’s vision for how a book should be, not just yours. No good editor will be heavy-handed about this, but it’s worth knowing you’re dealing with the needs of an additional brand identity now.
First Things First, Second Things Second
These terms are not standardized, and some of them are my own. You may find yourself working with someone who conceptualizes editing differently. For example, I worked with one editor who would not and could not treat proof-reading and creative editing as separate stages. In the end, we did it her way. So you could have a different set of ideas, and whatever your ideas are, your colleagues may have a different set again. I offer this structure only as a theoretical framework–practice, as usual, will be messier.
Theory is useful for planning, though, and within this particular framework, the order of steps matters. It doesn’t make sense to proof-read until after creative or collaborative editing is done–creative editing requires a lot of re-writing, and the new material will have to be proof-read, too. So holding off on proof-reading until all major changes are done is more efficient. For the same reason, beta-reading should go before proof-reading–but after creative editing. You want the beta readers to be able to give you feedback on the version of the book that you and your collaborative editor made.
That being said, on the book I’m working on now, I asked for beta reading first, and that’s how I chose my collaborative editor–she was a beta-reader, and we clicked while discussing her feedback. So you never know.