by Claudia Gere

Why Risk Hiring the Wrong Nonfiction Book Editor?

Why bother hiring an editor at all for your book, especially if you consider yourself a professional (or good) writer? You know how they say a lawyer who defends himself has a fool for a client? Well, I think the rule is similar for writers. No matter how well we write, the human mind works against us. The brain will see what it wants to see, not what is actually there on the printed page. The scientific name for this condition is scotoma, which is defined as a mental blind spot. Read this sentence:

The Chrysler Building is taller then the Empire State Building.

Most people will read the Chrysler Building is taller than the Empire State Building. We see the word “than” even though it’s spelled “then” in the original sentence. In the larger book framework, the writer as content expert can often make mental leaps where a first-time reader is unable to fill in the information gaps and gets confused. In the end, the reader will, in all likelihood, get the gist of what the writer is saying. The reader will see “than” instead of “then.” People usually figure out what you’re saying or trying to get across, but why make it more difficult than it has to be for the reader? That’s just one reason we need editors. The other reason is credibility. The same way you don’t go for a job interview in pajamas, you want your book to be dressed appropriately so it will be taken seriously. Writing can always be improved. On the other hand, it is rare for an entire book to come off of the press first time without a single typo.

How much editing do you need? It depends…yes, the cop-out response. The right question to ask is what kind of editor do you need for each stage of your book writing project? The best way to avoid misunderstanding what you want done is to state it up front.

What Level of Editing Fits Your Needs?

The best approach is to hire the right editor for your needs. There are a lot of different names for the different kinds of editing, by the way, so ask for a checklist or description from the editor if you don’t understand what is being suggested. Here is how I describe the various levels of editing.

Developmental editing—looks at the overall book, the purpose, audience, length, completeness and redundancy of content. Developmental editing is very helpful especially if you are a first-time author and unsure about your book. It’s most helpful particularly at the early stages of writing. Once the book is done, it can be expensive to rethink the organization and approach that the book takes. Are there chapters that should be divided or combined, is information presented logically, is there content missing, are parts of the book missing? Editing is not ghostwriting or rewriting. A good developmental editor knows how to instruct a writer to improve areas that need rewriting.

Sometimes a book isn’t ready for editing and you need an editor that can not only tell you that but also help you understand why and offer prescriptive advice to help. This is where developmental editing can be most helpful. There are some editors who are wanna-be writers and get carried away. Watch out for editors who aspire to do too much, they can unintentionally replace the author’s original voice with theirs.

Substantive edit—thorough edit that looks at the content and construction of the writing. Substantive editing is done by someone who really understands how writing communicates and through subtle changes can improve the clarity of writing, take out wordiness, make sure you’re using active voice for a more compelling delivery, use verbs that describe more accurately what you’re saying, simplify the wording, reorganize information within a chapter for greater impact or memorability, even at the paragraph level, making sure construction is solid. A good substantive editor makes a book easier to read yet keeps the author’s voice and never changes the intended meaning. It’s someone who also knows all of the rules of grammar, spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and stylistic conventions that will give your writing more credibility.

Copy editing—checks the essentials at the very least. A copy editor will ensure that grammar, spelling, capitalization, punctuation are used correctly and consistently. Copyediting eliminates typos. Good copy editors have a preferred style manual to consult or the ability to use any of the most popular ones. They understand the many stylistic conventions, for example, why is it that we capitalize the U in Universities when we write the Universities of Michigan and Wisconsin, but R in rivers is lowercase when we refer to the Monangahela and Ohio rivers.

Production edit— can be combined with the copy edit. Production editing occurs before the formatted typset manuscript is sent to the printer. A production edit makes sure that page numbering is correct (odd number pages always on the right-hand side of the book) and that no parts of the book are missing. TOC page numbering matches the text (Index as well if there is one). The correct indentations, heading levels, font, and font sizes are used consistently throughout.

Proofreading—often a misused term. Really it is for checking to make sure changes have been implemented correctly. That one copy is identical to the other—no judgments are made. The term was first used when comparing a manuscript to the typeset book because the text was completely re-entered with errors often introduced. Now days, you can also expect a proofreader to catch typos, spelling, and punctuation errors that weren’t caught by the copy editor. It is important that a proofreader is not making substantive changes that introduce new errors. A good proofreader might see you have western allies in lowercase in one part of the book but capitalized Western Allies every other place and will query whether you want it capitalized in that instance as well.

When Do You Know You’ve Hired the Wrong Editor”

Regardless of what kind of editor you hire, one attribute the author must have is the ability to accept criticism openly. You don’t have to take all of an editor’s suggestions or corrections, but you must listen and reflect openly about what you hear. Otherwise, you risk having your editor, avoiding controversy and correcting only the most egregious errors rather than improving the overall quality of the book. If you find you’re not accepting the changes your editor is offering, you either have the wrong editor, or you are not open to changes that will improve your book.

When I train editors, I tell them they need a reason for every change they suggest to the author. The one reason for an edit that I won’t accept is, “I changed it because it sounds better.” One editor I worked with changed every instance of “anybody” to “anyone.” Those are synonyms, and the author’s preference is anybody. There is no reason for the change. Justifying a change must be based on rules of style, rules of grammar, or why it is better stylistically.

The most flattering comment a writer can pay me is, “It reads as though you haven’t changed anything at all. (Even though we both know that there were many changes on each page.) That tells me I’ve successfully edited in a way that doesn’t change the author’s intent or authentic voice.

Telling Editor Interview Questions

So how do you know you’re using a qualified editor? Reputation is one way. But here are here are some questions you can ask a candidate.

  • What style manuals are you familiar with and which do you prefer to base your edits on? What dictionary?
  • Do you prefer a closed or open style of punctuation? (Closed uses lots of commas. At the beginning of the school year, we recommend students stock up on school supplies, and, if needed, we suggest a first-aid kit.)
  • What are some of the most common errors you find in the work you edit? (Responses can include use of passive voice, run-on sentences, inconsistent use of tense, grammatical errors, spelling errors, inconsistent hyphenation or capitalization.)
  • Can you explain to me the difference between using “that” and “which?” (Answer: which is restrictive and takes a comma—a parenthetical statement that is not essential to the meaning of the sentence. That introduces a clause that is essential to the meaning of the sentence. We went to the store, which is on the other side of town. We went to the store that sells milk.)
  • Can you use comprise in a sentence for me. (Answer: the whole comprises the parts. The book comprises 12 chapters. NOT the book is comprised of 12 chapters.)
  • If you’re selected as my top candidate would you be willing  to discuss the level of editing you feel my manuscript requires at this stage? Will you provide me with a page or two that shows what kind of editing I can expect?
  • Add other standard interview questions.

Once you have identified your top candidate as an editor, ask for a few sample pages, ask for a description of the kind of editing needed, and an estimate of how long and how much it will cost. It’s also important to check in at the early stages of editing to make sure what the editor is finding and correcting is consistent with what you expect. Always ask to check references and ask the references how the completed task compared to their expectations up front in terms of what they expected and what happened.

When You Can’t Afford an Editor

If you truly cannot afford an editor, put together a review team of your peers. Ask them to be first readers. Often friends and family are flattered to be included in your inner circle.  Send out chapters to friends and colleagues as you write them. Don’t be in a hurry to publish your book once your manuscript is done. The best opportunity you have for free advice is during the unproofed galley stage. Peer review—send it out to as many people as you can, even strangers. Make it as easy as possible for people to give you feedback. You don’t have to take it, but do evaluate it, and above all be thankful and appreciative.

If you need editing help, then call (413•259•1741 Eastern time) or email me ( to set up time for your free 15-minute consultation. Or sign up for my next BE AN AUTHOR webinar (Be an Author Webinar), which will give you the steps and tools you need to fulfill your writing and publishing goals. Share this post with my permission but please attribute to: Claudia Gere, Author Consultant

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