Demystifying Editing and Proofreading

Many times, whilst I am reading a book for review, I find the pace varies, the plot stalls, there’s a lack of consistency in the narrative or it is full of little errors and I am left thinking that the book could have been much better if it had been proofread or edited.

However, editing for me is a subject I know little about so I was delighted when freelance writer, editor and proofreader Jonathan at The ‘Lancer generously offered to guest post and explain to me and my readers the technicalities of editing and proofreading in a clear concise and easily understandable manor.

I am honoured and delighted to learn from an experienced and candid literary professional and I hope you will find his thoughts informative too.

An Editor’s Thoughts on Hiring an Editor, by J.K. Kelley

Ajoobacats was so kind as to invite my thoughts on the value of editing and proofreading, and how they change a book. I’m one of those people who can get a little skeptical of motives. If I were my reader, I’d be asking: “Come on. In what universe is an editor going to advise anyone not to hire an editor?  I’ve never read anything by a home inspector suggesting that home buyers might not need a home inspection or a car salesman recommending that people avoid buying new vehicles.”

Very well.  Should every independent author engage an editor?

No. Many should, but not all.

When I refer to an editor, I refer to someone who makes a career in that field based upon significant relevant education or experience. In most cases, that rules out the author’s amateur-but-keen spouse, and desperate English majors trying to pay private school megaloans. In the first case, the spouse often doesn’t know what s/he is doing. In the second, there is a financial motive for telling authors what they want to hear. Good editors will tell writers what they need to hear.

It is easier to say who should not hire an editor:

The author of a vanity book should not, unless s/he doesn’t mind losing more money for quality’s sake. A vanity book is any self-published work that doesn’t have a marketing plan beyond “hope my brilliance gets discovered.” Commercial books are marketed. Vanity books need not be. There’s nothing wrong with publishing a vanity book, as long as the author remains honest about the motive for publishing. While most editors are willing to work on vanity books, and do not judge them negatively, most people who spend money on editing seek to recoup the investment through increased sales. If that is unlikely to happen, it is ethical for the editor to tell the client so.

The very egotistical, fragile, or temperamental author should not. I have had authors accept all my edits simply because they were too frightened by all the “red ink” (tracked changes in Word, half of which were loose spaces tidied up with a global search and replace). I have met many who mistook their writing groups’ and fangirls’ gushing for critical acclaim. When they didn’t get more of it from me, they went elsewhere–and that’s fine. Any editor who offers unalloyed praise for money is not worth paying.

So I would put it this way: the author who seeks to make money, and who wants the cold truth, should engage a professional editor. For everyone else, there are reasons to consider not doing so.

Proofreading is different. Everyone needs a proofreader. If an author publishes a vanity book,  s/he should have the vanity to desire a product free of common mistakes. A headcase doesn’t want to give reviewers reasons to jeer. If a published book is full of errors, either someone screwed up in the publication process or the author did not take time to assure quality.

Where is the boundary between editing and proofreading? There is a nomenclature problem. For purposes of this post, I am going to draw the line in an unconventional way. Line editing and copy editing are certainly forms of editing, yet neither one questions the content as deeply as developmental or substantive editing. When I speak here of proofreading, I broaden the category to include line editing (which focuses on assuring a consistent tone and style), copy editing (which might be described as proofreading with the additional duty of formatting), and any other activity focused mainly on correcting errors. It is an obligatory step in quality work, but when an author engages an editor, it is important that they reach agreement on the type of editing/proofreading to be done. Nearly all authors would benefit from line editing as a form of error reduction and style smoothing, but my mind groups it in the proofreading category.

Editing that questions and alters the basic content belongs in a different category. If that editing occurs as the project takes shape, it is developmental editing. If editing begins when the project is finished, but no aspect of the manuscript is outside its scope, it is substantive editing. Developmental and substantive editing can fix plot holes, alter or amplify characters, notice orphaned references, question the physics of action as presented, comment on audience impact, change names, and so on. Has the author placed a handy tree in a location where none are known to grow? Substantive editing may question that. Do the author’s male characters all have the same stereotypical personality? Something to mention. Proofreading will assure a good-looking, error-free book, but it cannot improve a fundamentally mediocre book. Editing often can.

The deeper the form of editing, the more it addresses storytelling as well as writing. That matters, because storytelling and writing are separate arts/skills/talents. I know marvelous yet semiliterate storytellers. I know of capable writers whose stories always disappoint. Even in non-fiction, we find storytelling.  The rules are just different because you can’t invent actions in non-fiction. In self-help or how-to manuscripts, of course, there is not much storytelling, but there is definitely an engagement style, narrative voice–whatever you call it. Perhaps that voice works well. Perhaps it has a blind spot. Perhaps the amateur readers of the manuscript have been unable to diagnose the blind spot. A substantive or developmental editor has that duty.

As I’ve been writing, a sartorial analogy has brewed up in my mind. Imagine you are getting dressed up for an important public occasion, for which your visual presentation is all-important. Candid, zoom-lens photos of you will appear in magazines. Perhaps hundreds of thousands of people will scrutinize every pixel of every image for any reason to scoff at you. If they scoff and you respond in any way, it will only magnify the ridicule by a factor of ten because now the world finds your touchiness even more fascinating than the large pimple the media zoomed in on. Now that the trolls of the world know you are fun to mess with, they’ll look even harder for reasons to jab you. It’s not second grade; it’s public life.

Now let’s suppose you had someone who would tell you, flat out, if an outfit made you look fat. Someone who could fix your hair, sculpt your makeup, reject a given blouse, tie a perfect double Windsor knot, judge your choice of fragrances, make flaws invisible, and spot anything about your appearance that would embarrass you (booger, camel toe, spot missed while shaving, chive in teeth, etc.). Someone sworn to tell no one about the pee pads, and who truly will not. Someone whose job it was to take all the necessary actions to make you look your best, with compassion where possible, but with honesty above all else. No flaw can be fixed unless admitted.

That’s someone that at times you might want to smack. Someone who would not only perform an intervention on your overuse of adverbs and passive voice but also would frisk you to confiscate the ones you’ve stashed away. Same for your Faulknerian darlings, even those you concealed in body cavities. Your transparent analogies. Your clanking metaphors. Your confusion of “principal” with “principle.” Your mindless use of The Comma Formerly Known As Oxford, even when the situation calls for linkage between the final two items in a list. Your lack of knowing the rules well enough to break them. That’s your developmental or substantive editor. Because s/he worries about all those things, you are free to create.

I have a very successful client whom I may never break of his worst habits, and that’s fine. He is a capable writer and a brilliant storyteller, and he needs to create. He hires an editor so that he can create without hindrance. Sure, he could focus on curing his bad habits, but he’s the artist in the partnership. At least once per project, he apologizes for some habitual error. I tell him cheerfully, “That’s why you have me. Your hardworking and dedicated editor will conform your action scene to the laws of physical science. Just create. If you persist in your bad habits, you will leave me no alternative but to persist in repairing them.”

Editor/author relations are always better with a little banter.



  1. This is a great guest article. J.K. illuminated the differences between editors, and given some very good reason for people not to hire editors – and the consequences. I love it! Thanks for sharing it.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I am too. I have had an editor that I enjoyed using. What I realized after getting into the editing process that I really needed to do major rewriting, and that stopped my editing process. I was writing copy for the first time and having her review it, and you know how bad first writes are. I’m not sure how to get around that. I’m sure my writing gets a little better each time, but there are so many major flaws. It’s like deep housecleaning. When you get into it, you find more things to do, and pretty soon you’re swamped. You either give up or do nothing else – almost! 🙂 Yet, something keeps me going on, and my house is not a disaster, but constantly in progress – never polished spotless.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I don’t think anything artistic should be strictly flawless but I think editors make it easier for readers to get to the crux of a book, but as long as it doesn’t take away your signature from your work and your heart and soul still remains appreciably in the resulting work.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Mine too, but I have finished a few nice things. Thirty years ago, when I first learned to knit, I made myself a sweater. When I wore it to work, about four of my friends wanted one just like it for Christmas. So I knit one. I wrapped one piece for each woman, and gave it to them for Christmas. My husband and I graduated in May of that year, and by the end of the year I had completed four identical sweaters – different colors. After we left, two more friends told me the sweaters that they wanted and I made those too. One of my professors brought me some beautiful wool from Australia to make myself a sweater, and I made that. My husband wanted an Irish knit sweater, and I got about 3/4 of it done, put the button holes in the wrong side, and quit. After that I stopped knitting until just a couple of years ago. Now I make simple things once in a great while. 🙂


    1. tchistorygal, I see what you mean about editing sending you back to the drawing board to a degree. I am not sure that it need be so. Over multiple projects, I believe an editor can teach the writer a lot simply by providing explanations as one fixes stuff. Between tracked changes and margin comments, it’s possible for an editor to provide a pretty good education. In the meantime, rather than having to go back and keep reworking the same piece, the author calls the edited version mostly good, then moves ahead to new projects, each of which benefits from the expertise developed prior. This is why I’m a big fan of the short story form: it’s selling, it’s not very expensive to have edited, and it gets over with and we’re on to what’s next. And with each iteration, I get to watch my client’s mastery improve, which is tremendously satisfying.


      1. That sounds good. I complicate things. Besides doing NaNoWriMo, I’m pledged to 50,000 words. Once I expend that energy, I feel obligated to continue. But I haven’t been able to pull either of mine together.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. 50k is a lot of energy invested. Easy to see why you’d want a return out of it. Have you determined what is missing from your mss, if you don’t mind my asking? Or, as often happens, is that the problem in a nutshell…something missing, can’t put your finger on it? That happened with the article we are commenting on, to me. I finally took it to a colleague, who edited me with a mighty editing. 🙂

        I have to say, I’ve never felt it for NNWM, though I guess it helps some people stay focused. Whether it’s Sauza Hornitos, a chilly room, Nordic metal music, or tacking an incriminating bank statement above one’s monitor, I’m for anything that helps people create.


  2. Excellent post, I loved the analogy (could do with someone like this whenever I leave the house.) A good editor is worth their weight in gold and I appreciated the explanation of the difference between developmental and substantive editing. Thanks for writing J.K. and posting Babus 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

      1. That was the most difficult part to write, drawing the boundary. I didn’t want to imply that a line editor was somehow not really a full editor, because the proofreading process I consider more obligatory than developmental or substantive editing. The question I ask myself as I read a new ms: what does this ms really need to make it better? And if the answer is that all it needs is a line edit, I’m happy to offer to do that.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I have been blessed with wonderful editors at Storehouse Press, and our proofreaders are the best in the business.
    Way back in the 1990s, my agent decided to retire. A major factor in his decision was, as he put it, that the editors at the big New York publishing houses were just no good anymore. The ones who cared about quality, who had experience and knowledge, had mostly retired or moved on, to be replaced by youngsters whose main qualification was a willingness to work cheap.
    My last published horror novel was edited by a moron with a hatchet.At one of the big publishing houses. I had a devil of a time restoring it to readability.
    This guy also had a bad name for losing manuscripts.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It can be an utter nightmare to have your work carved up by someone you don’t have a decent rapport with. However, finding good people who know what they’re doing with sufficient attention to detail can make all the difference it seems.


      1. Although I still get sent a lot of books that are neither proofread nor edited, go figure and its usually from authors who cannot take criticism. I’m just beginning to really get my head around the fact it takes a village to write a good book.


      2. My thought would be that if the carving-up is a massive surprise, then there was a communication breakdown; that’s something an editor should advise a client about, well in advance. While I have experienced authors who simply would not assimilate it when I told them that not a single sentence of their work was in suitable English, most seem to understand when told candidly what will happen. I try to avoid fixing really bad stuff, because I have found that those who write the worst are most resistant to growth. Here’s something that might seem to buck the trend: the best writers are my greatest challenge. Fixing the worst writing is not difficult, merely time-consuming and soul-wounding. When someone with real chops comes my way, and asks me to help him or her improve, I have to step up my game if I am to be relevant. It’s invigorating, and it’s how my own growth happens.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Reblogged this on SVM & TB Stories and commented:
    Thank you Ajoobacats! A huge, HUGE thank you with hugs and smooches on top!
    We’ve all read at least ONE of those books. You know the ones; plot holes you can drive a semi through, mixed verb tenses, important but forgotten character bits (turning into a lynx one time then a fox thereafter), comma woes and a plethora of other writing boo boos which are huge no-nos.
    Ajoobacats had a guest author give us a simple yet highly effective differentiation between editing and proofreading.
    Thank you, well done!

    Liked by 2 people

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