Development editing vs Copy Editing
Once a manuscript has been identified as one of interest, it has to go for copy and/or development editing. The exact structure of the process varies publisher to publisher: In some companies, junior editors handoff manuscripts they nominate as promising to more senior editors. In others, the same editor works to develop whatever manuscripts they have identified from the slushpile, social contacts at conventions, or soliciting manuscripts from authors (perhaps based on the author's work for smaller presses). In smaller presses, the acquisition, development, and copy editor are often all the same person, sometimes just the publisher him/herself. Whatever the particular structure, the process is always the same: a promising manuscript is identified; the editor identifies weaknesses, or areas that could be explored further, and asks for changes; and finally the manuscript is copy edited.
There is always some development editing. One may have polished a manuscript to flawless perfection, but that is largely irrelevant to the process, for two reasons:
First, the author's definition of perfection probably has something to do with the quality and integrity of the work; the editor's definition is as likely to be focused on marketability. Sure that allusion is brilliant, funny, and exactly what that character would say in that moment, but it's over the heads of the mass-market audience and therefore a threat to future sales. It is the editor's job to raise the possibility of making the work more accessible. Sure the hero needs to die tragically in the last scene -- but that decision precludes a sequel, and marketing costs could be better amortized over a trilogy -- or even better, a series -- than a stand-alone novel. And American audiences in particular, prefer happy endings.
Which is, I hasten to clarify, not to suggest that all editors are philistines -- quite the contrary in my experience. Just that their job is to help the author reach as large an audience as possible, and that minor adjustments can sometimes make a big difference in sales. There is probably no threat to the integrity of the work in changing "boot" to "trunk" and "torch" to "flashlight", to sell a British author to American audiences; but authors may justifiably balk at changing a gay character to straight, or a Black character to white to pander to the prejudices of the lowest common denominator of the American mass market.
Authors may have lots of horror stories of changes demanded by editors [my personal favorite is the Canadian screenwriter who was asked if he would mind adapting his biography of a serial killer into a musical]; but for every author story, I can cite ten even more ridiculous accounts of authors unwilling to change a single word or comma in their far-from-perfect manuscripts. Authors, by definition, are too close to their own work to be able to spot the flaws in their manuscript. Development editors approach the manuscript with fresh eyes, and easily spot the lapses in logic, the sudden slowdowns in pacing, the out-of-character actions, and so on, that an author cannot. In the vast majority of cases, the editor is correct when identifying problematic areas of the current draft, though there may well be alternatives to their suggested fixes. Every suggested change is likely negotiable, but the author has to be willing to change -- or to walk away from the deal.
It is true that not all editors are equally good, or equally appropriate for any given manuscript; finding the right editor to partner with is an important element in the successful development of any book. If one starts from the assumption, however, that the editor is the enemy and all their suggestions 'tampering', then the potential benefits of a successful working partnership are at risk, and the work likely impoverished thereby. Instead, start from the assumption that one's manuscript -- like all manuscripts -- could benefit from a second set of eyes, and that the editor appointed by the publisher is the most suitable for manuscripts of that sort. The careers of everyone involved is dependent on getting it right, so they really are trying to help; and not part of an international conspiracy to block or undermine new authors.
Second, editors are going to ask for changes because -- well, because they are editors. Playwrights understand that no matter how brilliant the words they put on paper, how detailed their stage directions, the play's director is going to have a major impact on the interpretation that audiences ultimately see. So it is with editors. This is not to suggest that editors will insist on making changes where none are needed, but simply that authors -- particularly beginning authors -- should start from the understanding that this is a partnership, and so allow some space for input from their (senior) partner.
Three important observations here: Just as it is to be expected that one's editor will suggest or demand certain changes, it is natural that one's first reaction to these revisions is to have a minor meltdown. I have yet to receive something back from an editor that I didn't (initially) regard as ridiculous suggestions that would undermine the entire point of the piece. I always begin by complaining to my wife and colleagues about the morons with whom I have to contend; if, that is, I can get a word in edgewise, as they complain about their editors and referees in turn. That's all just a normal part of the process. Because, let's face it, we are all of us really lazy and absolutely hate having to do revisions. Just once I would like an editor to tell me, "Hey, that was perfect! I can't think of a single thing to change!" but it is never going to happen.
Usually, about the fifth time I read the comments through I start to grudgingly confess that there is maybe the remote possibility that this or that suggestion might in fact have identified something that could be worked on a bit. As the deadline approaches, I roll up my sleeves and actually try to rewrite the offending passage, a struggle that requires me to throw out my previously written words: an act in my mind akin to abandoning a child. In the end, however, as I rewrite this bit or that from the new perspective of the 'mistaken reading' by editor or referees, I come to realize that the new version is actually quite an improvement. Indeed, having completed the new draft, I generally wince when I look back at the previous version, and shake my head to think I ever felt it ready to go out.
So the key here is: NEVER EVER respond to editorial suggestions the same day (probably not even the same week) as one receives them. One needs time to absorb what the editor is actually saying, to work through the emotionality of even this partial rejection, and to start seeing the possibilities arising out of the editor's feedback. That first day, one should simply acknowledge receipt of the comments and promise to attend to them in the immediate future. That's it. If some comments need to be resisted, resist them later when one is calmer; and one has already made the other x number of suggested changes -- which demonstrates that one is open to change, is reasonable, flexible, and merely raising the possibility that perhaps -- in this one instance -- there may be good reason to go another route than with the editor's recommendation. Such an approach is far more likely to be successful than the incoherent rant that is likely one's initial, instinctual response.
The second point here is that one needs to choose one's battles carefully. Sometimes one needs to say 'no' to development editors (or agents and publishers) if the changes they are insisting on are inappropriate -- the recent controversies over authors being asked to change characters from gay to straight or black to white come to mind. Most publishers would not hold these principled refusals against the author, though they may well chose (for purely commercial reasons) not to continue with publication of that particular manuscript. On the other hand, authors who endlessly debate every little change, who refuse to budge on any suggested revision, quickly acquire the reputation as "difficult to work with". And then one's career is over. With hundreds of equally competent manuscripts vying for the six or eight available slots in an imprint's monthly publishing schedule, there is no need for a publisher to invest time and effort in a difficult or unresponsive author. Eventually, even megastars like Charlie Sheen get fired if they are sufficiently. One may even win the battles over a particular manuscript, but then lose the war if the publisher decides not to bother accepting future submissions.
If one feels the need to retain complete and utter control over every aspect of one's writing, the only viable solution is to self-publish; with the obvious perils that without development editing, one's ego may quickly out distance one's competence.
Third, developmental editing is an iterative process. One submits the initial manuscript; the editor provides detailed feedback; one resubmits with the required revisions, and perhaps the occasional argument why this or that suggested change is better some other way; and the editor re-edits the revisions. My experience is that a polished first submission requires at least two, and usually three rounds of suggestions and rewrites. Other manuscripts have sometimes taken as many as six, though that does start to get tedious for both sides.
Again, it is important to view this as the editor working to make the manuscript as strong as it can be, rather than an obstruction. The goal here is to produce the best book possible, not just to get published. If getting published were the goal, one could self-publish and be done with it.
Note too, that it is important to make one's revisions on the same copy as the editor. These days, that usually means using "Track Changes" in Word, though some houses I'm told still prefer hard copy. The editor needs to see that the suggested comments have been addressed -- either that the change as been made, or the author has provided reasons why the change is being resisted. It is not uncommon (and often quite interesting) to get a dialog going over this or that revision as comments go back and forth over two or three iterations. Sending a 'clean' copy back with all your changes, on the other hand, will likely drive your editor crazy as s/he has to reread the entire manuscript again, with a copy of the original next to it to compare line by tedious line, just to ensure that all the suggested edits have been attended to, and whether the revisions were successful.
Once the final draft of the manuscript is approved, it goes for copy-editing. There would be little point copy-editing the initial draft, as whole sections are likely to disappear and entirely new sections appear during development, so no one is going to pay $60 an hour to keep re-copy editing the same manuscript. Copy editors catch typos, spelling and grammar errors, inconsistencies, and so on. It is a highly technical skill, takes a certain (admittedly anal) personality, and is often underrated. A typical example: I used 'global change' to change a character in one of my stories, but unknowingly had Word set to "changes from here down" rather than "all document" so that a minor character was one name in the first scene, and a different name four scenes later. Which, understandably, caused some confusion until caught by the copy editor.
The need for copy-editing is obvious; less obvious is that copyediting is not a substitute for development editing. Beginning authors who arrange to have their manuscripts 'edited' before submitting to a publisher, or self-publishing, need to be clear on whether they are hiring a copy editor or a development editor. Freelance development editors (often marketing themselves as "writing coaches") can often be very helpful in identifying problem areas; over-coming writer's block; pushing authors to go deeper, to up their game; and turning initial drafts into submission-ready drafts. Copy editors can help authors avoid embarrassing typos, but it is not their job to tamper with the manuscript's content. Knowing which service one is contracting for is therefore crucial.
Finally, there are a couple of trends in publishing that should be noted here. First, publishers at all levels are doing a lot less editing than they used to. Most of the major players let go between 30-40% of their remaining editorial staff during the recent recession, and there is no reason to expect any of them to rehire in the future. The heavy concentration of publishing into a very few houses has created a situation where there are so many authors submitting to the same six surviving SF imprints, for example, that the majors can simply take the top 1% that need almost no development, and reject the rest. Indeed, very few publishers these days have the patience to develop new talent, and simply do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. Instead, the slushpile has largely been outsourced to agents, who perforce have taken on the role of development editor. That even makes a kind of sense, given that most of the new agents on the market (and therefore the ones willing to accept new clients) are the very editors recently laid off from the major publishing houses. Same people doing the same job, the difference being that now their salaries are being paid by the writers, rather than by the publishers....
Second, copy-editing has been partially eliminated as a step by the change from hot lead typesetting to digital. Certainly, many small presses (and almost all self-publishers) simply take the author's digital submission and run it through a software package to turn it into the printed book. Given the expectation that authors will have already run spell and grammar checks on the document, the need to pay someone $60 a hour to go through checking for minor glitches is now sometimes seen as redundant. This is a wrong idea, of course, as is obvious whenever one runs across a book that hasn't benefitted from the attention of a good copy editor.