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A few months ago, I posted an article about avoiding clichés here on The Write Practice. The (bland) title I proposed was “How to Avoid Clichés.” The published title read: “How to Avoid Clichés (Like the Plague).” I grinned when I read it and said another thank you to a quiet hero of the publishing world: our editor.

The Editor: The Invisible Hero You Need in the Publishing World

She amped up the title with a clever twist that sounded just like me with my penchant for parentheses. Editors are invisible heroes in the publishing world, and knowing what they do can help you through every stage of your journey.

What the Best Editors Do

Renowned editor Robert Gottlieb (who edited for an astonishing list of clients, including everyone from Toni Morrison to Joseph Heller) once derided what he called the “glorification” of editors, stating, “The editor’s relationship to a book should be an invisible one.” (Paris Review, Issue 132, Fall 1994)

He believed the reader experience didn’t need to be interrupted by knowing the specifics about what an editor had suggested in any given work.

Gottlieb defines the role of an editor as a quiet ally of the author and ultimately of story itself. Editors are typically exceptional readers, and their vast experience can help you view your writing through a much broader lens.

Editors aren’t out to tell you if something is good. Instead, they work from questions like, “Is this clear? Does it reflect the author’s intention, voice, and genre?”

In short, an editor is an early, invested reader who wants the story to work and satisfy the audience.

3 Types of Editing (Or, What Does an Editor Actually Do?)

You might be surprised to learn all the different types of editing that are available, and services can vary by the form and audience. For fiction, you’ll likely see services offered on at least three levels.

The descriptions below are general guidelines. Make sure you check specifically with any editor you hire for their breakdown of what is included with each edit.

1. The Developmental Editor

Developmental editors will help you refine your story. They excel at seeing large, big picture story structure issues. They will help you examine the story arcs, plot points, characterization, and scene level problems. When I had a developmental edit done on a book a couple years ago, the editor helped me identify and fix plot holes, weak scenes, and unconvincing character motivation.

The first time you have a developmental edit done, it can be a little overwhelming. So many notes!

If you find yourself in despair, remember that a developmental edit is a learning process. Read the notes. See the perspective the editor is offering. Address one issue at a time and repeat until you have the clearest, strongest draft you can produce.

2. The Copy Editor

Copy editors will help you refine your language, both grammar and mechanics. They make your sentences clear and your paragraphs shine.

Copy editors want to make your voice as consistent as possible in every line of the manuscript. Some edits will be quick grammar fixes, while others might require some choices about the voice and style you are presenting.

3. The Proofreader

Proofreaders will help you polish that final draft and free it of any pesky typos. This is the very last step of editing, and you can’t do it alone.

The good news is that typos are quick to fix once you find them. If you can find them. (How do they always manage sneak past my beady English teacher eyes?)

Is Editing Expensive?

With editing, like most things in life, you get what you pay for. The best editors are well-trained, well-read, and well-reputed.

Thoroughly vet any editor before you hire them. Ask to see references or samples. Many will do a short sample reading to see if they are a good fit for you and your work.

If you plan to indie publish, be professional and hire a good editor to make your work the best it can be. If you plan to query agents to go the traditional route, an editor can help you keep your manuscript out of the slush pile when you submit.

A word of warning: Don’t ask editors to work for free. (Did you ask your dentist to do your dental work for free? No, you didn’t. Or if you did, I hope he answered no.)

If you cannot afford an editor, join a critique group and be a great writing group member. I’ve heard of writers who barter their professional experience with web or graphic design for editing. Find a way to scrimp, save, read, practice, and swap to get the editing you need.

But What if I’m Not Ready for an Editor Yet?

So many writers agonize over every word in their early drafts. Of course you want to make it the best you can, but no one, even someone with years in the business, writes a publishable first draft.

If you are in the drafting stage, take comfort in knowing you can revise once you have a draft down. You will have numerous opportunities to revise and edit, and your process will hopefully include editors who will make your voice shine.

When you think you are just about ready to send it to an editor, make sure you check out Pamela Hodges’s great step-by-step self-editing checklist here.

Editing is an essential part of every writer’s process, and it’s freeing to know you don’t have to go it alone. Here’s to all the invisible editing heroes who’ve helped bring all our favorite books to life!

Have you ever worked with an editor? What was that experience like? Let us know in the comments.


Today, let’s practice being editors ourselves. Find a piece of writing you’ve already written: maybe an excerpt from your work in progress, or a practice you’ve shared on another article on The Write Practice.

Take fifteen minutes to read and edit your piece. First, think like a developmental editor and ask yourself whether the story makes sense. Next, think like a copy editor and look for ways to strengthen each sentence. Finally, put on your proofreading hat and look for any typos.

Once you’ve edited your piece, share it in the comments below. You’re not done yet! Read at least three other writers’ stories. What editorial suggestions do you have for them?

Sue Weems
Sue Weems
Sue Weems is a writer, teacher, and traveller with an advanced degree in (mostly fictional) revenge. When she’s not rationalizing her love for parentheses (and dramatic asides), she follows a sailor around the globe with their four children, two dogs, and an impossibly tall stack of books to read. You can read more of her writing tips on her website.
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