If you’re prepping to labor over a big writing project, you’ve likely got a lot to consider. Maybe you’re hammering out the logistics of collaboration. Maybe you’re plotting your strategy to avoid self-handicapping during the writing process.
And maybe you’re considering hiring a professional editor. For a high-stakes project, the cost–benefit analysis of working with a professional editor is a no-brainer. The right editor will efficiently and exponentially improve your final product. Full stop.
But, as with any specialized professional, the more you understand about what an editor can do for you, the more satisfied you’ll be. So, what will the process look like, and what should you expect in the end? That depends on a few things—first, on the type of edit you’re hiring someone to perform.

  1. Developmental edit: If you’re looking for feedback on a draft-in-progress, a developmental (or substantive) edit may be what you need. Developmental editors will identify areas for development and elaboration, suggest ways to streamline structure, and suss out other big-picture concerns. If you need support with the creation, development, and tailoring of your content, a mid-process developmental edit might be the way to go.
  2. Line edit: If you have (or plan to have) a pretty complete draft but you want someone to address the writing style, language, and clarity, a line edit is for you. Line editors will improve overall readability at the paragraph and sentence level. If you’re confident in your content but need help making the document more engaging and audience-friendly, a line edit is likely for you.
  3. Copy edit: If you’re confident in the strength of the writing in your document but you want to give it professional polish, a copy edit is an all-important step. Copy editors will correct grammar, syntax, spelling, and punctuation; collate usage for internal consistency; and ensure adherence to style rules. Even if you think your document is perfect, chances are it would still (and often greatly) benefit from a copy edit.

While there’s not always a hard-and-fast line between the different types of edits (a handsy copy editor might tend to veer into line edit territory, for instance—self-identifying here), make sure that you know what kind of edit you need, and that you and your editor are on the same page about those needs.
In a future post, we’ll talk about what to expect in terms of the process of working with an editor.

​“Well, if I work really hard and can’t get it done, at least I’ll know I just didn’t measure up.”

​ My client’s words about the project’s viability disturbed me. Not because I hadn’t heard them beforeI hear them all the time!but because they’re so misplaced.


Photo by Drew Coffman

​Her words confirm the pretty much universal truth of every social scroll: When it comes to self-knowledge, it’s always the wrong people who think they know too little (uh, or too much). And I’m only slightly tongue-in-cheek about “universal truth,” too. So much research tells us that we frequently (maybe even usually) overestimate our abilities in some areas (Dunning-Krueger), while radically underestimating our abilities in others (Imposter Syndrome).
Of course, my client may not be suffering from anything at all, but she was certainly deploying a related (anti-)strategy–self-handicapping
When a person self-handicaps, they put up obstacles to thwart their potential achievement. I might, for example, put off researching a project until it’s too late to do it at all. This (rather obliquely) lowers my own expectations and thus deactivates my potential anxiety—I didn’t give myself the time to do the necessary work, so it’s no big shocker when it doesn’t go well.
In the case of my client, the anxiety produced by embarking on a giant, life-changing project seemed to cause her to self-handicap—lowering her bar for achievement at the outset to just “getting it done.”
I completely understand the sentiment, and not just because I’ve heard it before. I’ve felt it myself (who hasn’t?). But self-handicapping, a cognitive response to the anxiety caused by the strength of our desire for achievement, keeps us from succeeding, even when (especially when) we really want to. It may not seem like it has the capacity to thwart ambition and derail projects, but it absolutely does. I mean, the aim to “get it done”—ever for a big project—isn’t much of an aim at all.
There’s a better way to tamp down this kind of anxiety, and that’s to articulate your goals. It sounds new-agey, or maybe Big Magic-ky (sorry), but it’s actually the opposite. Naming what you want your project to achieve forces you to figure out why (sometimes if) your project matters to you. This seems like it would ratchet up anxiety intolerably, but in fact it helpfully delimits both the project and your goals. More importantly, it helps displace anxiety away from the project, ensuring that it functions as a vehicle and not itself an end.
Ultimately, if you have something that you want to create—something big—don’t tell yourself if doesn’t matter, or that all that matters is that you get it done. Instead, buckle down and articulate (to yourself, to a colleague, to a professional) why it matters and what, exactly, you want to achieve with it. I helped my client do this before doing anything else, and I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to soon report back on her mileage.
​Sometimes (maybe often), a big or ambitious writing project can suffer esoteric emergencies.
A writer might experience a crisis of confidence (or might suddenly birth a punitive inner editor). A writer might experience a crisis of interest (an initial effluence dries up). A writer might experience a crisis of life’s mundane (or monumental) messiness.
Broken confidence, eclipsed interest, and interrupted work are annoyingly inevitable. Sometimes it’s pretty easy to ensure a project’s survival (if, by “pretty easy,” we agree to mean “biting a stick and bearing down through streams of sweat and tears”).
But sometimes these crises, when left untreated, threaten survival. For big, ambitious writing projects, there is no inoculation (for either project or writer), but a little preparation and a lot of triage can ameliorate some damage.
Preparation (if you’re like me) means: 1) reading the books on maximizing creative productivity, 2) prioritizing/scheduling your time, and 3) “mastering” the enigma of a balanced life. Also 4) making spreadsheets, to-do lists, and/or bullet journals (that will eventually/inevitably mock you as you miss deadline after [self-imposed] deadline).
Preparation is important, of course, but it’s probably best understood in the service of endurance (not success).
Triage is different, though. Triage helps you identify and treat your project’s emergent issues…and it’s actually more effective when it happens after you realize your project is gasping for life and in need of an SOS.
Triage often involves sending a particularly ill part of your project to a trusted friend—a good thinker with a respected readerly opinion (who will refrain from offering excessive and/or grad-school-style critique)—or to a smart, detached professional.
Who is this trusted confidante? Hard to tell! But merely sending a project out into the world forces it into a new environment where you can better diagnose and treat its problems. In some ways, it almost doesn’t matter if you reach the exactly right person.
Of course, in other ways, the exactly right person is much better than any old person, so take the opportunity to ask for a short evaluation. What works, what doesn’t, and what’s their best advice for treatment? Whether or not the you receive practical help,  you’ve at least narrowed down your second-opinion pool.

The bad news is that for most writers, there’s is no cure for a big, ambitious project. It’s more like pyrotherapy: The fever must run its course. Help it along by finding the most effective treatment to minimize your pain and maximize your project’s vitality.