Who’s on first: Understanding who’s who in book editing

by Patricia J. Parsons

Writers write. Editors edit. It’s that simple. Right? Well, not really. Let’s take a trip through the writing-editing process from the beginning of an idea to when a book makes its way into a reader’s hands.

An idea forms in a writer’s head and that writer takes a unique, individualized approach to percolating the idea until it gets to a point of forming a story. Then the writer sits down in front of a computer (or less often, with a pen and paper) and begins to put words on the page. Those words accumulate through the writing process until, sometime down the line, a book is finished. Then what? The editing process begins, and it begins with the writer.

The first draft of anything is shit, or so said Ernest Hemingway. That means regardless of how experienced you are as a writer, you never publish a first draft. It’s highly likely that a first draft ought not to even be shown to anyone else. The first rewrite is really the first pass at editing and it’s the writer’s responsibility. Then what? Maybe another few rewrites as necessary then it’s on to the next steps.

There are two broad categories within the editing process.

  • Substantive editing
  • Copyediting

…and within each of these broad categories are levels of nuance and potentially several types of editors involved. Here are the most common types.

  • The developmental editor. This kind of professional editor does what publishers and writers refer to as substantive editing. Publishing expert Katherine Pickett says this about developmental editors: “Developmental editors are concerned with the structure and content of your book…” They find, among other things, “…problems of inconsistent tone or an unclear audience…”[1] This means that developmental editors do substantive editing. They are less concerned about your punctuation and grammar at this stage (although you can expect them to make edits as necessary) and are more concerned about the broad strokes of the story itself.
  • The copyeditor. A copyeditor enters the process after all of the story development issues have been resolved. This editor looks for errors, mistakes, inconsistencies. For example, if in Chapter 3 you indicate that a character has red hair, but somehow in Chapter 14 the character runs his finger through his raven hair, that’s an error that has to be corrected. Copyeditors do that. They also check for grammar, spelling, syntax, word usage problems – in general, they will correct your style. They also fact-check and check for legal liability issues.

When writers ask about editing, these are the kinds of editors that they are usually referring to. However, there are other players in the editing process.

  • The acquisitions editor. In a publishing house, whether it is a big one or a very small one, there are editors who are responsible for acquiring manuscripts for publication. This means that an acquisitions editor is not only part of the editorial staff but also a part of the business staff since publishing decisions have massive business implications. In small publishing houses, one person might be both an acquisitions editor and a developmental editor.
  • The proofreader. This is exactly what it seems to be. In the publishing process, after the proofs of the book are ready, a line-by-line edit by a proof-reader finds any final typos or errors that must be corrected before publication. This could be called a quality-control job.
  • The beta reader. This is a relatively new concept. Not exactly editing, it is part of the developmental process and it’s under the writer’s control. A beta reader is someone who represents the potential reader to whom the writer sends a book after the first few rewrites for developmental feedback. Writers select their own beta readers as they deem necessary. At this stage, the writer is looking for overall impressions and general feedback. These beta readers are not professional editors, rather they are people who are part of the target audience and are willing to be honest with the writer. It is their responsibility to look at a manuscript from a reader’s point of view. Friends and family have limited benefit at this stage. Not all writers use beta readers.

Writing and editing is an organic process. Writing-editing-rewriting is a cycle. All books, whether traditionally or self-published need to undergo an editing process. Remember, never publish a first draft (and never send one to an agent or publisher!).


[1] Katherine Pickett. What Is a Developmental Editor and What Can You Expect? Jane Friedman’s blog https://www.janefriedman.com/developmental-editor/