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Should You and Your Editor Share the Same Genre World? (Maybe)

Last month, we talked about two aspects of editing. There was the article in the middle of the month asking about whether you want someone just like you doing your editing, and there was another at the end of the month talking about what kind of editor you need at any stage in the writing process.

This month, let’s look at how those two things collide when you’re writing in a specific genre.

I apologize, in advance, if it seems at times that I’m talking in circles when it comes to choosing your editor. But, believe me—as in any relationship you might aspire to having—the writer-editor relationship requires a good balance with well-defined parameters.

First, let’s revisit some of the terms we talked about earlier:

  • Beta reader: someone who goes over your manuscript when you’re at the “I think it’s ready, but I’m not really sure” stage

  • Developmental editor: someone who is going to get into the nitty-gritty of your manuscript and work with you to restructure, revamp, and/or rewrite the manuscript to bring out the best aspects and minimize the rest

  • Copyeditor: someone who is brought in at the end of the process, and will be strictly looking at the surface of the text to make sure all of your punctuation and spelling is correct

  • Proofreader: different from a copyeditor, this is someone who goes through the text AFTER it has been typeset (or formatted as an ebook), to verify that nothing went wonky during the layout process

You may note that I’m not listing “line editors” or “acquisitions editors” or “best friends who love the way you write” in here. Why not? Because, if you’re working on this process on your own, the first three are more likely to be found when you’re searching for them online. (Should we talk about where to find editors? Let me know what you think. You can use the comment box at the bottom of the page to do that.)

Before we go any further, I realize that there’s one huge elephant in the room that we need to discuss: Who is your book’s audience? And we will discuss that, I promise—next month.

For now, let’s talk editors and genres.

Primary Editorial Groups

In my opinion (which, let’s face it, is most of what you’re getting), here are how the primary three editorial groups should break out when it comes to finding someone who knows the topic you’re working on. (We’ll get more specific in just a moment.)

Beta Readers

Should understand the genre’s specific rules and parameters, with just enough knowledge (let’s say a knowledge level of 4-8 out of 10) to tell you whether you’ve missed the mark. They need to be able to tell you whether or not your manuscript is meeting the expectations you’ve set for it. BUT they should also have enough gaps in their knowledge that they ask good questions about things that they don’t understand. (Please note that a good editor should also be able to do this, by playing the role of the “unenlightened reader” and asking those questions.)

Developmental Editors

These folks need to be able to really get to the meat of what is going on. They’re the ones who need to be able to tear your work apart, and then work with you to put it back together. They need to ask questions, provide answers, and never let you off the hook. They have to know at least as much about your genre as you do. I would recommend that your developmental editor have a genre/topic-specific knowledge range of a 7-10 out of 10 but also be good at playing devil’s advocate.


The skills involved for this role are pretty intense. Copyeditors not only have to be able to find every missing period, but they also have to be able to spellcheck and verify details along the way. This person needs the least knowledge of your topic and genre, because knowing too much will stop him/her from paying attention to the things that may not make sense (so probably a 1-5 out of 10 on the genre knowledge scale).

**Please note that, in a perfect world, you’ll have the time and resources to work through multiple rounds with each of these people, preferably in rotation.

Primary Editorial Groups in Action

Could I be more vague? (Well, yes, actually, but that’s not the point.) I can also be more specific. Let’s look at the following passage, and see what editors would do with it depending on the genre:

If This Were a Young Adult Fantasy Novel, You Might Get the Following Responses:

Beta reader, who would expect the suspense and be interested in the flow of the story:

  • What color is the box?

  • Who would be entering the room?

  • What kind of structure is this in?

Developmental editor, who would be looking for anything not quite kosher in the text:

  • If this is written for an American audience (and with an American protagonist), why is the measurement in centimeters?

  • How does our narrator know all about the box? Does the protagonist also know?

  • Why is it “barely visible”? Is this because it is flush with the wall? Is it hidden behind a shelf?

Copyeditor, who wants to make sure the text is “clean”:

  • Is the use of spaced en-dashes in “why – or why not – it” intentional? (If not, they should be non-spaced em-dashes “why—or”)

  • Please note that a box cannot have only two dimensions – do you mean “a box measuring twelve centimeters on each side”?

If This Were a Manual for Use in a Scientific How-To Book:

Beta reader, who is trying to understand what to do while reading:

  • Could you be more specific about where I can find the box?

  • Where are the instructions kept?

  • Do I need to know why the box should not be opened?

Developmental editor, who is helping you with your instructional design:

  • The idea of the mystery is nice, but wouldn’t it be better to simply explain to the reader that the first aid kit is mounted in the wall, partially hidden by the bathroom mirror?

  • If the first aid kit was placed before the bathroom was completed, is it still functional? How often should the supplies be updated?

Copyeditor, who wants to make sure that the text is “clean”:

  • Is the use of spaced en-dashes in “why – or why not – it” intentional? (If not, they should be non-spaced em-dashes “why—or”)

  • Please note that a box cannot have only two dimensions – do you mean “a box measuring twelve centimeters on each side”?

Just as the book’s genre gives the passage context for readers, it should also give context to your process when hiring editors.

A Few More Editor Examples:

If you’re writing in a fantasy realm, and say that a unicorn flew off into the chartreuse sunset, a beta reader or developmental editor who doesn’t know the genre might let it slide—he/she might ask why the sunset was that shade of yellowy-green. On the other hand, someone who knows the genre would know that the average unicorn doesn’t have wings.

If you’re writing a family history, and you’ve got four relatives who all have the same name, having a reader or developmental editor who knows which one is which will probably be more helpful than someone who thinks they’re all the same person. Having a copyeditor who can track them all through the course of the manuscript and verify they’re all named correctly is even more helpful.

If you’re writing about economics, and your editor doesn’t know macroeconomics from macrobiotics, and thinks that microeconomics simply means that you have a very small household budget, you might be in trouble. (BUT—this might be a great person to have on hand as a beta reader, if your book is intended to reach readers with no economics background. Again, we’ll get into audience next month.)

What it really comes down to is finding the editor (or reader) who can give you the most help when you need it. And if you’re writing in a specific niche genre (vampire-werewolf romance, anyone? maybe a little regency-era steampunk? what about a nice piece on fracking in western Pennsylvania?), you’re definitely going to want a developmental editor who knows the territory, and a copyeditor who is willing to raise all sorts of questions to make sure that you’re saying what you mean to say.

That’s all clear, right? You’re good to go out and hire the right kind of editor for your job? Great!

If not, don’t worry—I’ll be back in a few weeks and we can talk more about this then, if you want.

(Remember—if you have questions for me, or comments, or suggestions for new columns let me know by using the box, below, and I’ll address them as we move forward.)


Originally posted on - 7/13/2016

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