Editing: The Three Levels Of Hell

(Note: This post will be a little harried, so forgive me if it’s badly edited. I lost a crown Sunday night and my dentist was good enough to get me in Monday morning. Be good to your teeth or they’ll turn on you…)

By PJ Parrish

I like to think I’m a pretty decent writer. But man, I am a lousy editor. And this from a person who spent a good portion of her journalism career working a copy desk.

Try as I might, I am just not very good at ferreting out typos, keeping names of characters straight, and understanding all the variations of lie and lay. This was not a huge problem when my books were published by reputable houses with great line editors and wonderful in-house copy editors. But with the contraction in the industry over the past two decades, most publishers began to farm out editing duties to free-lancers. Not to bash them — many were refugees from staff cuts — but the father workers wander from the main source, the harder it to keep things from going awry. This is partly why print newspapers now have so many errors and typos in them; local copy desks are a thing of the past and stories are edited not in the towns where they are produced but in centralized mother-ship offices. This is why, when I was working in Fort Lauderdale, an editor in our Chicago office changed the color of key lime pie in my story from yellow to green. In all fairness, maybe she didn’t get out much.

But I digress. This week, I am trying to edit one of my old books, Thicker Than Water, as we ready to self-pub it on Amazon. We have done this to most of our backlist titles as we get the rights back to them.

Now here’s the thing: This book, like all the others, went through the rigorous thresher of our previous publishers — first Kensington, then Fawcett, Simon & Schuster, Thomas & Mercer, and some excellent foreign houses. Boy, I had some great editors along the line, including my very first, John Scoglamiglio, who is now editor in chief at Kensington Books.

Still, I am aghast at the errors, typos and flab I am finding. My blood runs cold at this because I know that while readers can be understanding about such things, their trust only can stretch so far.

My point (yes, I have one!) is that whether you hope to be traditionally published or go it on your own, you must do whatever you can do get good editing. How? Well, that’s the problem, right? How to find a good editor is a blog for another day. The good ones don’t come cheap. But I gotta say this: Only a fool thinks they can edit their own book. If you disagree, go read Terry’s January 8 post here on how she tackles editing.

So let me try to set the table by reviewing the three different types of editing you will need and maybe have to fork over good money to pay for. Basically, there are three levels to editing — LINE EDITING, COPY EDITING AND PROOF-READING.

One of the best explanations of the differences I’ve run across comes from publishing expert and teacher Jane Friedman. (Her blog is a must-read for any writer at any level.)

If you’re thinking of hiring an editor, you have to be clear on exactly what the editor will do. I recommend you read Jane’s entire blog on the subject. Click HERE. It is a guest post from Sandra Wendel, book doctor, editor, and author of the book, Cover To Cover: What First-Time Authors Need to Know about Editing. Here are some highlights:

LINE EDIT: an editor examines every word and every sentence and every paragraph and every section and every chapter and the entirety of your written manuscript. Typos, wrong words, misspellings, double words, punctuation, run-on sentences, long paragraphs, subheadings, chapter titles, table of contents, author bios—everything is scrutinized, corrected, tracked, and commented on. Facts are checked, name spellings of people and places are confirmed.

Me here: This is the heavy-lifting of editing. My professional editors would send me lengthy letters that made me want to cry. But the editors were doing their jobs — suggesting plot changes, character enhancements, digressions to fix, time-time errors to correct, places where the pace flagged. If you ever had a good line editor, you know they can make or break a book. Back to Sandra (with bold face from me!)

COPY EDIT:  There is confusion about what a copy edit includes. Most of the time, authors want that thorough line edit. If a manuscript is so clean, so squeaky clean, so perfectly written with lovely paragraphing and fine-tuned punctuation, then maybe the manuscript just needs a copy edit. Like never. I can’t even recall a manuscript that has come to me this clean that it would need just one pass for a polish for mechanical issues. Never. Not even books written by professional writers. And not even my own book. I hired out my line editing, and it’s a humbling process. So let’s just agree that when someone says copy edit, they really mean a much deeper and more thorough edit than putting commas in the right place. A copy edit is the lowest level of edit. Rarely does a manuscript need “just” a copy edit. Sometimes a copy edit is a final step performed separately by your editor or someone else with fresh eyes. Some editors (like me) do copy editing all along looking for these types of errors, and a copy edit is part of the line edit.

Here is a checklist of what Sandra says goes into a copy edit:

  • Correct any typos, which would include misspelled words.
  • Fill in missing words.
  • Format the manuscript before production, and that includes just one space between sentences (I don’t care what you learned in typing class in high school, the double space messes up the document when it is converted into real book pages).
  • Streamline punctuation and properly use commas, periods, and em dashes—like this.
  • Avoid overuse of ellipses to denote a break in thought … when they are really used to show missing text. And those exclamation marks! I allow authors about five in each manuscript. Overuse them, and they lose their punch.
  • Make sure the names of characters and places are spelled consistently throughout (Peterson in chapter 1 may or may not be the same Petersen in chapter 6).
  • Find and replace similarly sounding words that have different meanings (for example, effect and affect).
  • Conduct a modest fact check (perform a Google search to find the exact spelling of Katharine Hepburn or the capital of Mongolia). This isn’t Jeopardy!, so you do get to consult resources. I keep a window open to Google just for such searches.
  • Make new paragraphs to break up long passages.
  • Question the use of song lyrics and remind the author to get written permission.
  • Point out, in academic work, that footnote 6 does not have a reference source in the citations.
  • Remove overuse of quotation marks. For emphasis, use italics, but sparingly. Books generally do not use boldface.
  • Impose a consistent style for the text (this means using a style guide for capitalization and hyphenation, treatment of numbers, heading levels). The Chicago Manual of Style is preferred unless the work needs to conform to an academic convention such as APA, AMA, or MLA.

Me again. Whew. See the difference? A good copy edit is vital to any book. But don’t confuse it with a line edit. A line edit is a deep tissue massage, and sometimes surgery. A copy edit is a mani-pedi. Which leaves us with the last editing step. From Sandra again, talking about proof-reading, a k a getting your galleys:

PROOF-READ: Let’s say your manuscript is fully edited (no matter which level you chose, sometimes even a developmental followed by a line edit with the same or different editors). Your work will need a proofread either in manuscript format or after it is designed in pages as PDFs. Should you proofread your own work? The short answer is later, if you’re in writing mode. The shorter answer is never. Why? Because it’s your work. And your brain plays funny tricks on you. It will fill in your words, and you’ll be completely shocked when a professional editor returns your edited manuscript. What? How could I miss that?

Me here. (Back from the dentist with a temp crown and a jaw full of novocaine) Okay, that’s the breakdown of what to expect from editing, in a nutshell. Again, I urge you to go read the entire blog. It’s filled with good advice. Hope I’ve left you something good to chew on.



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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

37 thoughts on “Editing: The Three Levels Of Hell

  1. Thanks for the shout-out, Kris. Your post hits at the right time. My editor sent me a note last night. She’s read the first 17 chapters and said I need to amp up the tension. I warned her when I sent the manuscript that the outside world events have made it very hard to throw ‘bad stuff’ at my characters lately, and even knowing this was a problem, I still had trouble doing it. I kept resolving things too quickly. And I’ll throw the blame at outside influences for misspelling my protagonist’s name, for changing a Tacoma to a Tundra, and who knows what else in the rest of the book.
    I know what I’ll be doing this week.
    As for the proofreading, having the computer read the manuscript to you will help catch a lot of bloopers your own eyes will miss. I posted these suggestions last April. https://killzoneblog.com/2020/04/ears-have-it.html

    • That an interesting insight — that the reality of our events might have a conscious or unconscious effect on us as novelists. Do we now crave an even greater need for justice and resolution?

      • This is a good point. After last year, and the first few days of this year, all I want is a sip of good wine and world peace. Alas, I can’t let my characters settle into that for long.

  2. I hate tpyos.

    Seriously, they show up even years later. One misplaced letter in one small word in the middle of a paragraph. A kind reader sends an email, “I hope you won’t be offended when I tell you…” Not offended, grateful. And thankfully it takes just 7.5 minutes to fix and upload the new text.

    Good breakdown of the edits, Kris.

    • One of my novels had a hard publishing history, them not me. It went through three publishers and considerably more editors before it arrived at my final publisher. The editor was a retired English high school teacher, a professionally-trained editor, and a well-known author. Between us, we had over sixty years of teaching experience, hundreds of hours working with others’ editing, and a dozen published books. A few years after it was published this time, I opened up the book looking for a particular quote, and spelling errors jumped out at me despite all those well-trained eyes. Errors are pernicious.

    • I, too, like the letters that point out errors and typos. Oddly, the readers are almost apologetic about it. 🙂

  3. Yes! The main thing missing is the “Dev” (developmental) or Content/Substantive edit stage, which precedes all this. And which is the most important for me. (The OP does mention this with a link to another post about it)

    • I have been fortunate enough to be asked by a few authors about particular sections and if they make sense or how does this happen in the real world.

      In one book series the protagonist has an 8th grade daughter. The original “middle school consultant” aged faster than her fictional counterpart. In the later books of the series the fictional middle schooler has my daughters’ music and clothing tastes.

    • Good point, Harald. If you’re lucky enough to have a good editor, you will get this extra input. I remember one of my editors went over my concept to suggest plot points etc before I had barely written a word.

  4. Kris, hope your mouth feels better. I always tell the dentist I don’t want to outlive my teeth.

    Excellent breakdown of editing types. When writers complain how much editing costs, they don’t appreciate the many hours and intense concentration it requires. When I edit other writers’ stories, I can only work for 1-2 hours before needing a loooong break.

    • Yes, Debbie!

      I experienced editing another author’s work for the first time last year. I now have a new appreciation for my awesome editor, Dori Harrell.

      • Exactly. Doing critiques and being in a good critique group gave me a better appreciation for editors.

  5. No one tells you that your teeth will start breaking apart as you get older, no matter what you do for them. Sad, but true. I hope the procedure went well with no surprises. My last crown repair turned into a tooth extraction, two new crowns, and a bridge. Joyous day. I’m currently healing from a below crown cavity and gum repair that required lazer surgery removal of gum. Not fun.

    For those who haven’t reached a certain level of craft and are self-pubing, I’d split the line edit into two edits with perhaps two editors, considering their strengths. The first would be an overall look at the work itself. That would include the big picture things like plot, characters, facts, etc. It’s a waste of time and money to have a close edit of spelling and grammar when you need to do a bunch of rewriting. And, frankly, it’s a rare hired line editor who knows spit little about big picture problems. Friends have asked me to look at books where their line editor was giving suggestions that they were uncertain about or didn’t understand, and some of these “editors,” including the NY traditional ones, may know a comma splice or a their/there error but haven’t a clue about big picture problems.

    And, for those who don’t know me, I spent over forty years as a fiction writing teacher, a writer, and a freelance big-picture book doctor. Retired from all of them.

    • Great idea, about splitting the first edit between two pairs of editor-eyes if you can manage that. I had that luxury at Thomas & Mercer. The first editor was an ex-dancer who really combed thru my ballet references. My second editor had grown up in San Francisco so caught a few errors in my location. So grateful.

  6. Hi Kris,

    I can relate to the crown issue. I’m having a gum graft shortly on an implant before getting it crowned, and now I need a crown on a molar on the opposite side of my lower jaw. It never rains but it pours. More fun than I bargained for, getting to juggle two procedures at close to the same time.

    Very helpful rundown of the different layers of editing. It’s easy as an indie author to think you can skimp on editing, and always a mistake if you do. I worked with a developmental editor on my first two urban fantasy novels, and am considering doing so with my first cozy mystery. Then there’s line editing, copy editing, and proofing. We all need each of those. Today’s post is a great reminder of that.

    Here’s to fewer tooth problems for all of us going forward 🙂

    • Despite having bad dental hygiene as a kid, I’m lucky to have good teeth. 🙂 Have a cleaning tomorrow…hate it but have come to appreciate how necessary it is.

  7. Hope you are feeling better now, Kris. Editing is a horror show, and you’ve reduced these circles of hell to their proper levels. No matter how careful the editing, typos slip by, and they bug the heck out of me, in my work and other writers’, too.

  8. Sorry to hear about your dental works, Kris. It’s hard to concentrate or feel upbeat when your mouth hurts. And thanks for sharing your editing thoughts along with the recent piece from Jane Friedman and Sandra Wendel.

    I think editing your own work is like defending yourself in court – you have a fool for a lawyer. There’s no replacing an experienced and detached human eye on your work, but I wonder what you and other Kill Zoners think of using “editing” apps before shipping to a live editor. Outside of Word’s spell check, I run my stuff through Grammarly Premium and it does catch a few things. I’ve also tried Autocrit which I found was pretty limited. Any feedback on AI editing from anyone?

  9. Great post, Kris. And Garry, “I think editing your own work is like defending yourself in court – you have a fool for a lawyer.” Yeah, truth!

    I’m so grateful that early on with my first release, some smart person told me to hire a professional editor. I thought I was good at English language construction…until I received my MS back the first time. Revelation time!

    I’m now working with (in a small way) and trying to encourage a young lady who wants to write her memoir. The first thing I always tell aspiring authors is to hire a professional editor…money well-spent.

  10. Good morning, Kris. Hope you’re feeling better. What a way to start the week in a new year. Hope the rest of your year is dentally healthy.

    I had read the post on Jane Friedman’s blog about editors. It’s a great description, but I still get confused between line editing and copy editing. I guess it’s because there is an overlap between the two.

    For my last book, I had a developmental editor who did a lot of line editing as well. But her main job was to help me construct the story in a way that readers would find compelling. (That took a long time.) Then I hired a separate editor to do what I thought was going to be proofreading, but turned out to be line/copy editing plus proofreading. The benefit of a fresh set of eyes became apparent because the new editor didn’t have the history of the story evolution so she came at it like a reader would. I was surprised at how many valid suggestions for changes she made.

    Btw, I agree that finding a good editor is crucial to success. When I was looking for freelance editors, I found a resource that listed a bunch of them. When I visited some of their websites, I was shocked to see numerous typos and grammatical errors . At least it helped me narrow the search.

    Feel better and cheers!

    • I once hired an ex English teacher to do the final proof reading for me because I seem to be blind to typos. Best couple hundred bucks I ever spent. She was ruthless.

  11. Good post! Spell-checker can be a pane (pain). OBTW, your line 14 has “father”-not “farther.” Always have to look up the correct term. Is it “further” or “farther?”
    Sorry to read about your lost crown, a real bummer. I happy to report that I have knot (not) had a that problem.
    Homonyms seem to defeat computers. I think that is a very good thing, Keeps humans employed, as righters.

    • Ha! Further vs farther. I still have my old AP Style Book from my newspaper days. I shall go consult because I sure as heck don’t remember.

  12. A postscript. Late yesterday I got a call from our health dept and this morning I got my first dose of the Moderna vaccine. Although the drive-thru line was long, the process was efficient and easy, thanks to cops, national guard, health dept staff and of course nurses. My arm is a little sore but I am so grateful, in these sad times, for science. Am hopeful for a return to normal for all of us this year. Stay safe, friends.

  13. Thoughtful piece on editing. Could you please tell me about t”he father workers wander”? Or was that a test? 😉

    • It was a test (not) and two of you caught me. It is a good example of why you should never try to edit your own stuff.

  14. Re proof-reading: When publishing from a word processor MS, it’s important to proof-read both. I’m reading an ebook now and all the “smart quote” apostrophes at the beginning of words are backwards. Word processors do a nice job with smart quotes/apostrophes except when they’re used at the beginning of words. It’s driving me crazy and distracting me from the story every time–and a main character is Irish and loves her “’is.” (We’ll see if the html code got that opening apostrophe corectly.)

    • Yup. I haven’t yet figured out an easy way to do this when entering text. Maybe just devise a keyboard shortcut: single quote [gives left single smart quote]-single quote [second one give the right single smart quote/apostrophe]-back space-delete [removing the left single smart quote].

      Or maybe just a search-and-replace. But you’d need to look at each case to decide if the change is necessary there.

        • Yup. Pure typographical stuff like you cite and things like em dashes and getting quote marks right drive me nuts when we publish our own books. These days you have to be your own editor AND your own type setter.

  15. Pingback: About This Writing Stuff… | Phil Giunta – Space Cadet in the Middle of Eternity

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