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Ask the Editor Episode 1: What Kind of Editor Do I Need?

A New Feature

Welcome to the first episode of Ask the Editor, a feature where I—the editor, of course—answer your questions on writing, editing, and self-publishing. I’ll be doing this via YouTube but will be posting all of the videos here on the Wordy Speculations blog as well.

Our First Question: What Kind of Editor Do I Need?

Do you ever get confused about all of the different kinds of fiction editing that are available? Do you wonder where in your process you need each kind, if at all? I answer those questions and more in this episode. Enjoy!

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Episode Transcript [a.k.a. Not Grammatically Correct. I think I need a Speech Editor. ☺]

Hey, writers! My name is Janell, and welcome to Ask the Editor!

I am a fiction editor, and I am here to answer your questions about writing, editing and self-publishing.

Today, we’re going to start out with a very common question among writers and that is: What kind of editor do I need? Everybody tells me I have to get an editor, but what do they mean? I see a billion names out there for editors, so I don’t know where to start.

And did you know that edit is a very hard word to say? Especially editor and editing.

Anyway, let’s get to the point. There are three main types of fiction editor you’re going to be looking for.

The first one is a developmental or structural editor, and they all have a second name, so just forgive me. Sometimes a third name because one of the issues in editing is that a lot of times people can’t decide which name should be which.

So bear with me, and when you’re looking for an editor, always check their web page or even send them an email or a message through their Facebook page and say “What does your developmental editing include?” That way, you’re always clear, and you don’t get back something you didn’t expect.

So, we have developmental editing, we have line or copy editing, and we have proofreading, so let’s get into each one of those.

#1:  Developmental or structural editing. This is story editing. It’s big picture editing. It’s saying, does my story work, are my characters flat, is the ending believable or does it feel contrived? And what can I do about it? “My timing is all off.” “My readers hate my flashbacks.”

So those are the kind of questions that a developmental or structural editor will approach, and they will give you suggestions. They should give you resources. They cover pacing, chronology, characterization, plotting, all of those things, theme, if those are the problems in in your book or your short story. (Editors edit short stories too.) If those are your problems, then you need a developmental editor.

So the second kind of editor is what most people think of when they think of editing, and they think, “It’s the grammar police!” They’re talking about copy editing. Line editing is often wrapped in with copy editing, and it’s sort of a more deep sort of copy editing, but I’ll get into that.

So, copy editing is grammar, punctuation, style, things like that. A lot of people use the Chicago Manual of style as their guide because they give you answers to questions like “Should I capitalize captain here?” and they’ll say, yes, capitalize captain if it’s in front of a name like “Captain Murphy” but not when it’s all by itself. So that’s copy editing.

Now line editing is a little deeper because it includes fixing sentences, not because there’s something

technically wrong but because they sound better, so fixing flow. [Making sure that every] like maybe this sentence would go better at the top of this paragraph than in the middle.

So those are things that a line editor would cover.

And lot of editors, including myself, usually do them together because it just works, you know. But you should definitely ask your editor, so you know if you just want copy editing: you only want the very—you like your sentences just the way they are, that you don’t care what they think about your flow—and you just want to make sure that you don’t have typos or actual errors in there.

Okay, so not to get too deep into that, but the third kind of editing (3) is proofreading. Proofreading is probably the most misunderstood type of editing. This is a good way to remember: proofreading actually means reading the proof, and the proof is your formatted book. It is formatted for ebook, or it is formatted for print, and it is almost ready to go. You know, you have a cover ready and everything.

So proofreading is reading that proof to check for last-minute errors like, you know, maybe the copy editor missed something. It does happen.  Because your copy editor can make twenty thousand, a hundred thousand changes to your manuscript because we’re talking about commas and spaces and all kinds of things, but they might miss one, or maybe [errors were introduced] when you were putting corrections in from the editor because you should always have a choice whether you accept a change or not.

That’s why I always use track changes. So maybe you’re putting in those changes, and you make another mistake. It happens to the best of us, so proofreading catches those kind of things. They should be last-minute light edits.

So, if you ask somebody, if you finish your first draft, you haven’t done any revisions, you never sent it to a beta reader or anything, and then you send it to somebody, and say “I need a proofread.” And they’re thinking of what I was just talking about, but you’re thinking of actual copy editing or even story editing, then you’re probably gonna get it back with a note about “Excuse me, but you really need a copy editor, not a proofreader.” That’s what they mean. Yeah, it’ll catch little things like, you know, typos.

So, those are the three types of editing you’re most going to commonly see for fiction books or short stories and even memoirs. They pretty much cover creative nonfiction as well. So there’s developmental and structural editing, line or copy editing, and proofreading.

So, I hope that helps you to clarify what the stages are. Often, people will have all three; sometimes they’ll just have one. Sometimes, they feel like most of the edits were caught during copy editing. They can’t afford another stage, or you know. Sometimes people have all three. Some people just have one. It’s up to you, really, and where you want your story to go.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this video and to find out more about me please see the links in the description. And also you can find out more about my own book because you know, we all have one. We’re writers; that’s why we’re here, right?

But my nonfiction book is Saving Money on Editing & Choosing the Best Editor. It’s actually one of my nonfiction books, but the other one does not apply to writing, so this book will help you clean up your manuscript, just make it a better manuscript before you send it to the editor. Because we all want our books to be the best they can but also how to find an editor without getting scammed because, in the age of the internet, you know, [we’re] there’s a lot of people out there hanging up their shingle and saying “I’m an editor,” which means/translates into “I got an A in English,” which, you know, does not mean that they’ve been working for publishers and authors for 20 years or something like that. You really need to find out who your editor is, and this book is a great guide for that.

If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below or send me an email or hit my contact page or send me a question on Twitter or Facebook.  I will leave all those links below. Thanks for watching! Bye-bye.

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Past or Present? Using Tense Effectively in Fiction

For the main narrative voice of your story, you need to choose a verb tense. Once you do, consistency within the narrative is essential. I stopped reading one self-published book after less than a chapter because the author couldn’t make up her mind about verb tense. The constant switching between past and present was confusing and made it impossible for me to become engrossed in the story.

There are exceptions, such as dialogue and flashback, when you can switch tenses, but for the most part, you need to pick a tense and stick to it.

Which Tense Should You Use?

The most common tenses for narrating a story are past and present. Historically, the past tense seems to have the upper hand, but the use of the present tense has recently become more common, especially with the rise of young adult fiction.

The present tense lets an author tell the story as it is happening.

Jill stares down at the bed with its mussed sheets. The faint scent of perfume tickles her nose. It’s not her perfume. Her stomach twists into a tight knot.

The past tense tells a story as if in reflection. The narrator can be speaking of something that happened five minutes ago or five hundred years ago.

Jill stared down at the bed with its mussed sheets. The faint scent of perfume tickled her nose. It was not her perfume. Her stomach twisted into a tight knot.

tense, verb tense, fiction, writing fictionSome argue that present tense lends a sense of immediacy to the story and to the action. I’ve read too many novels, however, written in the past tense with plenty of action and immediacy to accept this argument at face value. Nonetheless, the present tense has its place, especially in modern literature, and I have no problem with it when it’s used well.

In the end, the choice is stylistic. Choose whichever tense feels best for you and your story. In any case, be deliberate in your choice, and consider your audience. Many readers have a preference for one over the other.

In a sense, your choice of tense is like your choice of point of view.

How do you want the story to feel? How close and intimate do you want it to be? Do you want your narrator to be immersed only in the immediacy of events, for which the present tense would work well, or do you want him to be able to reflect on the choices that he has made as the reader is learning about them (e.g., “That ended up being the worst mistake I’d made since I’d started working the case.”)?

You may choose the present because popular writers in your genre are writing in the present tense and you feel that is the tense that readers expect.

You may choose the past tense because it is the one that you are used to and the tense in which you are most comfortable writing.

If you’re unsure about which to use, try writing the same scene in each tense and comparing them in terms of both your comfort level and their overall readability. Maybe even have someone else read them as well. Which one prompts the emotional response from the reader that you are looking for?

When Is It Okay to Switch Tenses?

Whether you use past or present tense, there will be times when you can switch tenses. You shouldn’t change tense on a whim, but under specific circumstances, it is okay and even expected. Here are a few common examples.


Of course, characters may speak in whatever tense is appropriate.

“What is Jane doing?” (present)

“I was just trying to fix the faucet!” (past progressive)

“She told me about the murder.” (simple past)

“They will blow up the state capitol!” (simple future)


If your main narrative is in the present tense, flashbacks can be written in the simple past tense. For example, the previous story about Jill might continue like this, with the past tense making the flashback clear and the present tense bringing the reader back to the immediate situation:

Her stomach twists into a tight knot.

This morning, Jack kissed her in this very bed. He touched her skin with his gentle hands. He said she was the only woman for him.

Her rage boils up like fire in her belly. She is going to kill him.

tense, verb tense, flashback, fiction, writing fictionIf your main narrative is in the past tense, however, short flashbacks can be written in the past perfect tense:

Her stomach twisted into a tight knot.

That morning, Jack had kissed her in this very bed. He had touched her skin with his gentle hands. He had said she was the only woman for him.

Her rage boiled up like fire in her belly. She was going to kill him.

If your narrative flashback is longer, you can frame your flashback with several verbs in the past perfect tense before switching to simple past. Then, use at least one past perfect verb to signal the end of the flashback before coming back to the present. For example

Her stomach twisted into a tight knot.

That morning, Jack had kissed her in this very bed. He had touched her skin with his gentle hands. They laid in bed long past the alarm and talked about their wedding plans. She wanted a three-tiered vanilla cake with white icing, and he said that was perfect. Whatever made her happy. The only thing he cared about was that she would be the one walking down the aisle. He had said she was the only woman for him.

Her rage boiled up like fire in her belly. She was going to kill him.

Note how the paragraph breaks in these examples also serve to separate the flashbacks from the immediate story.

Adverbs and Tense

Some folks flag words such as such as now or phrases such as “This morning” as being in the present tense. However, these are not verbs and, therefore, don’t have a tense.

In fact, now has several meanings, all of which indicate the immediacy of the present moment but cover its use in both the past and present tenses. According to Merriam-Webster Online, now means both “at the present time or moment” and “at the time referred to.”

Phrases such as “last night” and “this morning” are relative terms and can be used in both past and present tense narrations:

Jill thought about last night. Where had Jack been until 11 p.m.?

Some writers prefer to use phrases such as “the previous night” to prevent confusion, but both are correct.

Which tense is your favorite, past or present? Why do you prefer it?


Garner’s Modern American Usage, Bryan A. Garner

“Present Tense Books,” Mignon Fogarty,

“The Pros and Cons of Writing a Novel in Present Tense,” David Jauss, Writers Digest, excerpted from On Writing Fiction

Writing: Past or Present Tense?,” Debbie Young, Self Publishing Advice Center

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The Process of Copyediting Fiction

I want to take you through the process of copyediting fiction. In the traditional life of a manuscript, this is one of the last types of editing that it will go through. The structure, plot, and characterization of the story at this point should have been finalized. This happens during writing and developmental editing. If there are few problems with overall consistency, your manuscript at this stage might go straight to copyediting instead of to substantive editing.

When I am copyediting fiction, my main goals are to ensure that all errors in grammar, punctuation, capitalization, word use, and style have been corrected. I also check for awkward phrasing and make or suggest edits to correct this. During this time, I also make sure that I don’t make changes that will alter your voice as the author. If I am in doubt, I will query you either directly in the manuscript file or in an email. During this stage, I will also do a little bit of basic formatting. How much depends on where the manuscript is going next. For example, if your agent or the publisher requires a certain format, I will help you ensure that the manuscript meets those requirements. Mostly, I want to make sure that your formatting (capitalization, boldface, etc.) is consistent.

When I begin to go over a manuscript for copyediting, I will look over the file that I receive from you to ensure that I have received everything in complete, working order. I will print a customized fiction copyediting checklist for your story that will help me to ensure that I have covered everything by the time I am done.

Copyediting Fiction; checklis

Once I have checked the files, I usually save the manuscript with a new name so that I always have a copy of the original at my disposal in case there are problems. Before I begin reading the manuscript, I use tools and run searches on certain items and terms. Some of these tools and searches include the following:

  • PerfectIt/Macros: PerfectIt is a Microsoft Word plugin that searches the manuscript file and help to ensure proper usage and consistency (for example, you capitalized Ice Cream Bar in three places and did not capitalize it in another; is this correct?). It does not make automatic changes but instead allows the editor to choose which changes are correct and which are not. I will also use Word macros that I have written myself to catch certain errors and inconsistencies.
  • Hyphenation: I will search for all hyphens throughout your manuscript. Here, I am looking for correct hyphenation (follow up vs. follow-up), consistency, and accuracy. Sometimes a hyphen needs to be deleted or replaced with a space. In other places, it might need to be replaced with an en dash (–) or em dash (—).
  • Spelling: At this point, I will run a spell check. I always check each word or phrase that is highlighted by the spell checker, never using the Replace All feature. I may use the Ignore or Ignore All feature for words (such as proper names or the names of fantastical creatures) that I can double-check as I read. However, the Replace All feature tends to cause problems instead of increasing quality.

Once I’ve gone through these time-saving methods, I will then read your manuscript, page by page, word by word. I will double-check the items above as I read. In addition, some of the things that I will check and correct during this read include the following:

  • Capitalization
  • Grammar
  • Spelling
  • Punctuation
  • Subject–Verb Agreement
  • Word Usage: For example, did you use affect when you should have used effect?
  • Clarity
  • Flow
  • Point of View (POV): Most of this will have been covered during developmental or substantive editing, but I will check here for jarring shifts in POV or instances of “head hopping,” where the POV switches often and in a confusing manner.

Once I have finished the full read-through and run one more spell check, I will send a copy of the manuscript back to you. The edits will be highlighted by Track Changes and will be easy for you to see. You can then accept the changes as you go through the manuscript and answer or deal with any queries that I have written. During this stage, you can also contact me if you have any questions or are confused about certain changes. Then, you send the manuscript file back to me for one last round of editing.

During this round, I will read the manuscript a final time to check for anything that was missed and for errors that might have been introduced. Yes, editors and authors are human, and this happens, so a second read-through is always a good idea.

Then, I will return the clean and finalized manuscript back to you, all polished up and ready to continue to the next stage on its journey, whether that be an agent, a publisher, or right into print or digital format.

Copyediting is highly detailed work, but the end results are extremely satisfying for both the editor and author. You will have a manuscript that reads well without distracting errors, and I will be happy knowing that I helped to get it to that point!


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