Apologies for the abrupt and unexpected hiatus of the past couple weeks. Between illness and back-to-back deadlines, I sort of lost all concept of time for a bit there. But, as you can see, I’m back. Which means I also have new things to say. (Well, in theory, anyway.)
Coming off the heels of the guest post I wrote about the differences between editors, critique partners, and beta readers seems like the perfect time to pull this out of the archives, blow off the dust, give it a few tweaks, and expand on your vocabulary of book-doctor specialties. So, without further ado, I give you the encore presentation of . . .
The Difference Between Editing & Ghostwriting
by Kisa Whipkey
Originally Posted on 3/22/13
I’m sure the more astute of you already know that I moonlight as a freelance editor (there’s a handy little tab at the top of the page that will tell you all about it if you somehow managed to miss it), as well as working on the editorial staff at REUTS Publications. But I’ve also been known to work as a ghostwriter (very infrequently; it’s not really my cup of tea). This week had me doing both. And it got me thinking about the differences between the two; how they can often be confused by those outside the literary world. So, in the interest of clarity, I’m going to take a moment to break each of them down, starting with editing.
There are three types of editing a freelance editor (or an editorial staff) will perform:
- Developmental Editing: This deals with the underlying structure of a piece, focusing on things like flow, POV, character consistency, and plot. Sometimes called Substantive or Structural Editing, it’s usually the first part of the process, as there’s no point in fine-tuning a scene that will just get cut later on. Developmental Editors have a firm understanding of storytelling basics and can rearrange a work like pieces in a puzzle, requiring dramatic changes that will ultimately make the story stronger. It’s the part that most feels like honing a diamond from a rough piece of rock and is my favorite style of editing. (2015 addition: The key thing that makes this different from ghostwriting is that it requires at least a base of story to work with — a first draft, an outline, something the author has already put on the page.)
- Line Editing: The second stage of the process, line editing dissects individual sentences, working on tightening the prose and overall smoothing, as well as things like spelling and grammar. Similar to the layered approach of painting and sculpture, line editing builds on the foundation developmental editing provides, focusing on the details rather than the work at large. This can be extremely painful for people that dislike dealing with minutiae, but it’s an important step in creating the final outcome.
- Proofreading: Generally the last stage of the process, proofreading gives a manuscript a final pass, looking for any typos, misspelled words, or wonky punctuation that might have slipped through the cracks. There should be relatively few revisions made in this stage, and often, the proofreader will simply make the necessary changes without requiring the author to step in. Proofreaders are the last defense before a manuscript heads to the printer, so it’s a good idea to have them be a fresh set of eyes from the prior stages.
You’ll notice that none of those definitions included rewriting. That’s because it’s not the editor’s job to actually fix the problems. This is where the confusion kicks in. It’s a common misconception that editors help with the actual writing. But editing isn’t that kind of hands-on, instant fix. In fact, most editors won’t even look at a piece that hasn’t already been completed and polished to a high standard. (2015 addition: Except for developmental editors, that is, whose job is often comprised of brainstorming advice and other coaching.)
An editor is like a personal trainer for words. And just like a personal trainer can’t lose weight for their client, an editor can’t rewrite a manuscript for their author. The author does all the heavy-lifting in the relationship, working out the kinks and fixing the rough spots under the editor’s guidance and moral support (even though it can feel like the complete opposite when you get your manuscript back covered in red “delete” suggestions). When they do their job well, the end result is like the movie-star version of the original work, but it’s the author that actually gets it there.
So who, then, helps the people that can’t quite articulate their brilliant idea into words on a page?
Ghostwriting and editing are two completely different things. Editors are passive observers, guiding the author from the sidelines, while ghostwriters are active, aggressively transforming the author’s loose, un-articulated thoughts into a commercial literary product. Unlike editors, a ghostwriter’s job is to actually write the manuscript. To take the vision, voice, and generalized, messy thoughts of the author and actually write in their stead. In short, ghostwriting is hard. Which is why I only do it on very rare occasions, and why you won’t see it listed in the services I offer.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some small similarities between the two, though. For instance, both require the ability to see past a rough exterior to the heart of the story, to be able to understand the final vision for the piece and the best way to present that to the world. They both require a firm grasp of language and storytelling (although ghostwriting mostly happens in the non-fiction world), as well as a keen understanding of voice, so that the final product sounds like the original author, not the ghostwriter/editor.
They both have their place, but editing is more akin to reading with annotations, while ghostwriting involves the more rigorous creative process of actually putting words on paper, complete with stipulations and expectations attached. They both require someone well-versed in the craft of writing, but rarely will you find someone who likes to do both. Just like writers have preferences when it comes to style and genre, those on the book-doctoring side of the fence have preferences on the types of surgery they like to perform. So before you ask for help, make sure you’re asking the right person. If your manuscript is finished and you just need polishing, you’re looking for an editor. If you have a brilliant idea but something just isn’t quite clicking, you’re looking for an editor. But if you need help actually constructing your manuscript, as in literally writing the words, you might actually be better off looking for a ghostwriter to collaborate with. Knowing the difference will save you a lot of headaches.