What to Expect from a Nonfiction Editor: A Guide to the Editing World

Many writers think editors correct spelling and grammar. The fact is: we do a lot more.

In this blog post, I’ll break down the main flavors of editing and where they belong in your publishing process.

Who Needs an Editor?

Every writer needs an editor. And every writing project can benefit from editing. But if you’re on a tight budget—like me—you’ll have to decide which of your projects warrant a monetary investment. To me, social media posts are lower on the priority list than blog posts, blog posts lower than e-books, and so on.

Whether documents require an editor depends on what’s at stake. If your business hinges on your credibility and writing isn’t your forte, consider hiring an editor for all your publications. But if you write well and your audience is forgiving, you can save professional editing for the more substantial publishing tasks.

I would, however, never publish a book without editing or proofreading. Embarrassing mistakes—from logical fallacies to laugh-inducing anacolutha—might haunt you for the remainder of your writing career.

Where to Find a Nonfiction Editor?

There are many freelance editors on LinkedIn or Facebook. Some of them are great; some are terrible.

Freelance websites like Upwork, Fiverr, and Reedsy offer an exploding number of editors begging for your business. Reedsy is the most reliable of the three, as editors must prove their skills to join. Editor’s associations are also good places to look.

If you google for editing services, you’ll find many large editing companies. It is yours to decide what you feel more comfortable with: a solopreneur or a team of editors. Larger companies are sometimes cheaper, but often less personally involved in your product.

Finding a good editor who fits your project is a challenge. See my “5 Myths about Editors” on how to find a good one (Text Blog | Audio Blog).

Let’s look at a few kinds of editing and when you need them. This list is not exhaustive, and style manuals often use different names to describe these services.

Developmental Editing: Looking at the Big Picture

Your book can have issues at the sentence, section, or even book level. In the latter case, you’ll need a developmental editor.

Developmental editors check your entire manuscript for

  • Focus. Is there a clear thesis that holds the narrative together? Are the subtheses supporting the central thesis, and are they in proportion? Is there information that doesn’t belong in the idea track? (Listen to the audio blog on idea tracks.)
  • Audience. Does the content match the audience the writer is targeting?
  • Tone. Is the tone appropriate for the target audience and the book’s purpose?
  • Structure. Is the paragraph and chapter structure logical? Could your book be reorganized for more impact?

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Substantive Editing: Helping with the Content

When there’s a lot to improve on the content itself—not so much the format, style, or structure—you need help from a substantive editor. Sometimes, developmental editors do this, depending on their experience with the subject matter.

Substantive editors help you fill holes in your argumentation, find missing information, and fix other content-related issues.

Structural Editing: Reorganizing Your Material

When only reorganization of your material is required, we can speak of structural editing. The editor helps you restructure your book for better logic or more impact.

See also my blog on architectural suspense in nonfiction (Text Blog | Audio Blog).

Line Editing: Prettifying Your Prose

When your content is OK, it is time to examine the language. Some authors are word magicians; others battle their way out of clunky mazes, often losing a limb or two.

Line editors help you fix

  • Redundancies. Removing every word, phrase, or sentence whose meanings are already implied by other words, phrases, or sentences.
  • Rhythm. Reading the paragraphs aloud to listen for repeating patterns and making sure sentences are varied and its sounds form a pleasing meter.
  • Faulty logic. Revising sentences to reflect the author’s meaning. It’s surprising how often authors say the opposite of what they mean (for example: “I could care less!”).
  • Grammar. Solving dangling modifiers and other such atrocities.

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Manuscript Editing or Copyediting: Getting into the Details

Next on the hitlist are those grammar, spelling, and formatting issues that—however puny—can destroy the reader’s experience. The sniper at this stage is the copyeditor (or manuscript editor).

For many projects, copyediting is the most important station in the publishing journey. This is especially true if the writer has done a great job organizing and wording her thoughts and the prose requires only polishing.

Copyediting is usually divided into three levels: light, medium, and heavy. The light version ignores everything except the most egregious errors, whereas the heavy version adds line editing and sometimes fact checking to the mix.

Regardless of the level, copyediting usually goes in several passes:

  • first pass: the editor works through the document slowly to fix as many errors as possible
  • second pass: the editor reads through the edited document to check the revisions
  • cleanup pass: after the writer has reviewed and revised the edited manuscript, the editor checks the author’s corrections

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For self-publishing authors, I often combine editing stages to make editing more affordable. For example, I add developmental editing tasks to the first copyediting pass. This usually results in a more elaborate (and expensive) cleanup pass, but the result is better than copyediting alone.

After copyediting, the document is ready for typesetting (turning the manuscript into a print-ready file—for example, a PDF).

Proofreading: What Editors Don’t Do

If your document needs only a spelling and grammar tune-up, you don’t need an editor—you need a proofreader.

A proofreader is last in line to check your document for errors others missed, usually performed on a PDF or otherwise finalized document. Proofreaders will not make substantial changes to your prose because, at this point, revisions are expensive.

Before deciding that proofreading is all you need, ask a professional to gauge the state of your manuscript. Writers tend to overestimate the quality of their work, and friends and family are often too uncritical (though they are, of course, invaluable supporters).

How to Know What Kind of Editing You Need

Diagnosing your manuscript’s editorial needs is hard. Here are a few indicators:

  • Responses from friends and family. Do they understand your narrative? Issues with comprehension can indicate the need for developmental editing. Are they saying your prose is hard to read? You’ll probably need to look for a line editor. Do they notice inconsistencies and grammar issues? Talk to a copyeditor.
  • Surveys for early readers. You could consider creating a survey for your first readers, asking them questions about readability, clarity, understandability, engagement, impact, and the ability to keep the reader’s attention. If many have issues with the same things, you might want to call a nonfiction editor.
  • Checklists. A checklist is like a stethoscope for your manuscript. You might notice a bunch of hidden arrhythmias in your prose. I’m working on an e-book called Doctoring Your Book for Impact. It will walk you through every necessary check to create a healthy and strong manuscript. You can click on each potential issue to learn how to improve it. I aim to publish the book by the beginning of 2025.
  • Alpha and beta readers. These are people trained to assess the quality of your manuscript. A professional will spot holes in your narrative or logic and give honest feedback on style, structure, grammar, and a host of other things. Just be sure to find one who knows the job.
  • Sample Edits. Most editors offer sample edits to analyze your manuscript. This is usually inexpensive but has limitations: the editor cannot read the entire document, meaning problems might go unnoticed. However, for feedback on things like style, tone, and grammar, this is a great option.

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A Nonfiction Editor Can Help You Navigate the Editing World

Would you like me to edit or assess your manuscript? Book a free discovery call below, and we’ll look at your project together.

Enjoyed this blog?

Have a look at my other posts. And if you need help finishing your story, let’s chat.

What to Expect from a Nonfiction Editor: A Guide to the Editing World

Niels Kwakernaak

Nonfiction Editor

Thanks for your interest in my experience and ideas. I write these blogs to help you overcome the hurdles of being a writer.

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