I get a lot of emails about editing. There are a few common misconceptions I frequently see which is making me think it might be worthwhile to write a small series of blog posts about this process of publication. Maybe someone will see this and it will help them.
There is a lot of (good and bad) advice out there. It can be really, really hard for authors to sift through it all and find the good kernels of information. I’ve personally come across quite a few people who were taken advantage of by an “informed” person who gave them terrible advice. It always breaks my heart.
Each editor operates a bit differently, and everyone is going to have their own preferences. I can only speak for myself, but I think this information will likely be similar enough to act as a good foundation going forward. For example, don’t hire a copy editor before you’ve had a developmental edit. Don’t hire a proofread before you’ve finished your line edits. I think these are bits of advice editors will likely agree on across the board.
The internet is a big place and I see a lot of very excited authors with their first books going into this complex world of editing completely confused and I get it. I really, really get it. It’s overwhelming and there’s just so much information out there, it’s hard to know where to start.
Hopefully, I can help. So, in this post, I will describe the different kinds of editing and where they typically fit in the editing process. Again, I’m not going to say this is true for everyone in every situation. There are always outliers and other ways to do things, but this seems to be a good baseline for editing. Hopefully, this post will give you some foundational information that can help you going forward.
Ready? Let’s go.
This typically comes first. There are a few reasons for this. First, developmental editing addresses some core aspects of your book. This is the stage where you’ll get substantial changes. Here, you’ll be asked to cut chapters, change scenes, or alter (insert plot point here). This is the phase when your editor will be looking at the substance of your book more than anything else, and so you’ll have substantial changes.
One reason why this needs to come first is because those substantial changes will likely require some substantial rewriting. Copy editing something (looking at grammar and etc.) isn’t worthwhile when there are going to be unforeseen rewrites (which require new grammar).
A few things developmental edits cover:
Plot: The sequence of events that take the reader from point A to point Z. Does it make sense? Is it a strong plot? Does it need to be changed, altered, strengthened, etc.?
Structure: This focuses on how events in the book are organized. If there needs to be a big revelation halfway through the book, but something happens that gives it all up in the first twenty pages, then that would fall here. If event B happens before event A but it really needs to happen after event A, that’s something the editor needs to pick up on and help the author iron out.
Characterization: How the characters are portrayed, whether their personal journeys make sense, have logical motivations, and how all of that is portrayed to the reader.
Pace: The speed the story unfolds. A well-paced story will feel neither too fast nor too slow. An editor will look for places where the pacing might need to slow down a bit, where it might lag, and how to improve both of those to strike the right balance for readers.
Viewpoint: Readers need to know who is telling the story, so the viewpoint needs to be clear. Head-hopping, for example, really pulls readers out of a story and tends to confuse more than illuminate. Readers need to know whose emotions and eyes they have access to.
Narrative style: First, second, or third person? Whichever choice the author makes impacts the narrative style. Each has its benefits and limitations. There have been instances where I’ve suggested taking a first-person perspective and moving it into third, for reasons. Sometimes a story’s strength can be better accessed in another way, but part of the editor’s job is to pick up on that and talk to the author about it.
Tense: Past or present? This is a choice the author makes, and each has its benefits and limitations. Each can work well for your story, but part of what the editor looks for is consistency and making sure the tense you use is the most effective for the story you are telling.
Things to know:
- There are a few different types of developmental editing. There’s the full developmental edit (which is what I usually do) wherein the editor will read through the manuscript, and leaves in-line suggestions about things that might improve the story, keeping the aforementioned list in mind. Then, there are critiques, which I also do. They are less intensive. Usually, when an author asks me for a critique, they don’t want the full developmental edit. They more want me to read through their manuscript and detail to them in an editorial letter, conversation, meeting, etc. about the strengths and weaknesses of the manuscript. Then, there is sensitivity reading, which I think falls under this umbrella. Sensitivity readers are people who have lived experiences with certain, often marginalized populations present in the book (I sensitivity read for disabilities and chronic pain all the time, for example.). The author pays sensitivity readers to read through their manuscript and look for potential issues with representation and gives them insights about how to fix them.
- Each editor will approach developmental editing differently. This is a bear of an edit, and we all tend to walk up this mountain our own ways. Some editors will leave in-line comments, some won’t. Some will give editor’s letters, some won’t. Ask for a sample edit so you can see how each editor handles their developmental edits, and then decide which editorial style best suits you. Not every editor is right for every author or even every project. It’s completely fine to ask for a sample. In fact, for my own books, I’d refuse to go with any editor who wouldn’t give me a sample edit, and I similarly require a sample edit for all potential new authors I edit for.
- Developmental edits do not focus on grammar. As I mentioned above, there’s very little point to include grammar edits in a developmental edit. Grammar needs to come after substantial changes have been made, not before.
Line editing is my true love. When I get a good line edit job, I’m the happiest person in the world. This makes my heart beat. I also tend to think line editing can get done while doing other forms of editing as well. I very rarely get hired just to do a line edit. I usually get hired to edit, and the line edit is just part of it.
Sentences are what make up a book, and a poorly-crafted sentence sticks out (and not the way you want it to), whereas a really strong sentence can elevate the story as a whole. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to stop editing just to appreciate how an author uses words.
This particular phase of editing is more stylistic. I’ll focus on your style, the flow, the words used, and the like. This isn’t a developmental edit, but rather something that usually comes after.
You’ve crafted your vase. You’ve smoothed out its chinks and flaws, and now it’s fully formed. Line editing is where you start to polish it. This is more stylistic or substantive (and some editors will call it “stylistic editing” or “substantive editing” to reflect that though I think “line editing” is more commonly used these days.).
Line editing looks at:
Authenticity: This focuses on character voice and perspective. Is what the character says consistent with how you’ve developed them? Are they using words that feels true to this character? Are they expressing themselves realistically?
Unveiling: Is your character showing the author the traits that matter to the story? Are their motivations clear? Are you, the author, unveiling your character’s traits consistently and believably? Are you writing in such a way that this is clear?
Narrative style: Narrative style was a point with developmental editing too, but this one looks at it a bit differently. In line editing, I’m less concerned about the substance of your narrative style, but more concerned with the consistency of your narrative style. If you slip out of it, that’s something I pick up on here and nudge you back to where you need to be. A lot of the narrative style focused on in line editing is for consistency. Are you, the author, consistent with your style and your voice? If not, that’s something good line editors will pick up on and help you correct.
Metaphors: Do they work? Are they cliché? This is where you’ll see comments like, “‘Pushing the envelope’ is fine, but I think using a phrase that is more unique to you and your world would be more effective. Is there another way to say this?”
Dialogue: This includes focusing on dialogue for voice, mood, and intention but it’s also focusing on things like overuse/underuse/effective use of dialogue tags and the like.
Pace and flow: In regards to sentences, a line editor will make sure each sentence is elevated to its maximum potential. How does the sentence flow? How does it impact the pace? Is there an overuse of words? Is repetition an issue?
Tenses: Are they consistent? Used correctly? Effective?
Telling & showing: I’m one of those editors who think there is both a time to show and a time to tell, and when I line edit, I make sure the author is using each to its maximum potential.
Things to know:
- Like developmental editing, there are different kinds of line editing. There is a full edit (usually what I do), where the editor will leave comments throughout the book with suggested changes. There are also line critiques, which report on the strengths and weaknesses of the lines throughout the whole book, and mini line edits, where an editor will agree to only edit a certain agreed-upon portion of the body of work, “I really just need these 100 pages looked at, can you do that?”
- Each editor treats line edits differently. When I work with indie authors, I tend to smash as much line editing into whatever phase of editing I’m working on as I possibly can. Reason being, most indie authors don’t have the money to pay for eighteen different rounds of editing, so they need to make the most of their money spent. Some editors like to do each phase independently of the other phases. Some editors smash line editing in with copy editing. There are some, like me, who think, “This is my one shot to get everything done that I can, so I’m going to Do The Thing.” Ask for a sample edit. See how your potential editor works, and see if that’s what you need/are looking for.
- Line editing can be substantial, but it requires the editor to look at the book differently than they would during a developmental edit. While I typically don’t ever turn off my line editing, it’s something I do a lot less of when I’m in a developmental edit, because line edits at that point can be extremely invasive and until the rewrites are done. I will always make line suggestions, no matter what I’ve been hired to do (because that’s how I roll) but I think line edits are more effective after developmental has been done.
Copy editing is a much more technical kind of editing. Here is where you’ll argue over commas and capitalization.
Copy editing is hugely important, but I will say (and please don’t throw things at me) if you’re strapped for cash/time and you can’t do all this editing for reasons, then you could probably skip this part and be… okay. A lot of readers will be forgiving if a comma is in a weird place, but they will not forgive glaring plot holes, poorly-constructed sentences, and characters that lack depth.
Don’t get me wrong, copy editing is hugely important and I do advise every book gets a glance at by someone who understands grammar and this phase of editing in general, but if you can’t do that for whatever reason then there are ways around it. Yes, I have seen books get crap reviews for poor grammar, but it’s a lot less common than seeing a book get a crap review because there was a glaring plot hole, and John’s motivation was never clear.
That being said, if you can afford copy editing, I think both you and your book will be extremely glad you did it.
So, what is copy editing?
Punctuation: dialogue tags, proper nouns, spelling, quotations, etc. If it’s a punctuation mark, your copy editor will make sure it’s the right one.
Consistency: This is something I deal with a lot with speculative fiction because so much of it is made up. Part of the copy editor’s job will be making sure all your proper nouns, punctuation, etc. are dealt with similarly. (For example, Do you capitalize “High King” throughout? Your copy editor will make sure you actually are.)
Logic: Copy editors will also focus on things like the logic of the timeline. Do the events transpire within a timeframe that makes sense? Paths of motion is another one that I think fits here. Your copy editor will usually look at how your characters move in a scene, and make sure your readers can follow that motion. These aren’t substantial, deeper changes, but more making sure that if you said Joe is getting home three days before the asteroid hits, it stays “three days prior to…” in that entire scene. Or, if your character moves from one place to another, it’s shown in a way readers can follow and doesn’t come across as teleportation or something.
Logic, part 2: This also covers character traits and environment. If your character has blue eyes at the start of the book and then suddenly they are orange, your copy editor will flag that. If something changes in the environment and it’s not explained or it seems out of place or something, your copy editor will flag that too. Basically, a copy editor’s backbone is consistency in all things, and that’s how they’ll read your book. Does it make sense? Is it consistent? Are you treating all your proper nouns the same way?
Grammar: It’s been said, but they’ll look at grammar, punctuation, syntax, capitalization, hyphenation, document formatting, and all the rest.
Things to know:
- Some editors combine line editing with copyediting. You’ll want to check and see how yours operates. Again, I’m one of those editors who knows money is tight and I try to smash as much line editing into whatever work I’m doing on each manuscript, but some editors don’t do that. Check with your editor, get a sample, and see if your prospective editor is offering what you need.
- Copy editing is usually best done in a single pass. This type of editing requires extreme attention to detail, and when books are done in chunks, inconsistencies tend to slip in.
- Line/sentence editing is not the same as copy editing. You’re looking at the book in two dramatically different ways. Line is more stylistic, and copy is more technical.
This type of editing is the last thing that happens to any book, and I think it’s the underrated, unacknowledged editing stepsister. It’s so important, and requires so much attention to detail, that I think it often requires more effort than the other kinds of editing but rarely gets any credit. A good proofreader isn’t just hunting for typos, they are getting the book ready for publication. By the time the proofreader is done, the document needs to be publication-ready. There’s a lot that goes into that, and it’s not nearly as simple as just reading a book.
This is a final quality control check. Typos and errors will slip through in editing and revisions. It’s human nature, and it happens. A proofreader’s job will be to go into the document and look for things like consistency of spelling, punctuation, grammar, layout problems, indentation, line spacing, font and heading styles, chapter headers, etc. A good proofreader will know when to leave parts of the book alone, and when not to.
Things to know:
- A good proofread is never enough, no matter how good of a writer you are. At a minimum, I think each book needs a developmental edit.
- Make sure you talk to your proofreader and see how they operate. Some will only work on word documents. Some will only work with PDFs, or on hard copy. You need to see how your proofreader operates and whether that fits what you’re looking for. Proofreading a manuscript for an audiobook is different than proofreading a manuscript that’s going directly to paperback.
- Proofreading is about quality control. Your proofreader’s job is not to edit, plug plot holes, or correct your verb conjugation. Proofreading is your last line of defense, not your only line of defense.
Style Sheet/Story Bible
I always get really excited when an author sends me a style sheet. Every time I mention it, I get a whole bunch of people who ask what a style sheet is, so let me tell you.
It’s better to think of your style sheet as your “Story Bible.” I think that conveys what it is a bit better. It’s so helpful, especially with speculative fiction where so many unique words creep into things.
Basically, your story bible/style sheet is a list of stuff you want your editor to know or default to as they edit. So, for example, if you want me to default to Oxford comma, Chicago Manual of Style rules, and always capitalize the words High King and Green throughout the entire book, you tell me that in your story bible. That gives me, the editor, a place to look when I hit a spot in your manuscript where I might need guidance. I can just flip to your story bible and see, “Ah, he hates the Oxford comma so I won’t add it here”.
Similarly, the story bible often has a list of characters/peoples/things you think the editor should know. I’ve had story bibles sent to me with character descriptions and pictures in them, and story bibles sent to me that just say, “Flubergrubbers live on rafts in the South Sea. They are orange with purple spots and they say things like NORF a lot.” (<– Can we all just admire my example here? It’s a thing to behold.) Then, every time I come across a flubergrubber, I’ll be able to look in your story bible and make sure all descriptions of them are similar and consistent.
Your story bible is the facts you want me to know. It’s the things you want me to pay attention to, and the details you need me to ensure remain consistent. Having you send me a story bible makes the editing process a lot easier and more consistent for all parties.
If you really, really want to rev my engine, you’ll send a story bible along with world-specific words and what they mean.
They can be as fancy or as simple as you want. I’ve had people send me a paragraph of text before. On the other hand, I had Ben Galley send me the most detailed style sheet I’ve ever seen in my life. In fact, I was so unbelievably impressed with his style sheet, he made a free template you can download here.
How do I know if my book is ready for editing?
I get asked this all the time. The short answer is: You’ll never feel like your book is ready for editing. Every author I have ever worked with has hit a point where they know it’s time to move along to editing, but they also know their book isn’t “good enough” yet.
So, how do you know when it’s time to move on, or if your book needs more work?
I teach classes on this all the time, and the best way I’ve found to describe it is as follows:
Think of your book as a vase. When you’re writing it, you’re essentially crafting your vase. You’ve got a shape and design in your mind, and you’re working to get it where you want it to be. Drafting your book is like shaping your vase’s clay.
When your vase is done (think, first draft of your book), you’ll fiddle with it a bit. You’ll revise. Smooth out a curve here, add a swirl there. You might change entire chapters, gut a point of view, rewrite the whole thing. Whatever. The first draft is done. Your vase has been made. Now you’re changing it so it looks the way you want it to look. The curves are right, the mouth opens just the way you want it to, the embellishments are where you need them to be.
When you’re satisfied, you put your clay in the kiln and let it do its thing. Walk away while it bakes. I think distance is hugely important with every book. It’ll help you see it with fresh eyes, and it’ll allow you some emotional distance that will be hugely beneficial when it comes to editing.
Now, I typically tell people when they stop substantially changing their vase and start polishing it more than anything else, the book is ready for another set of eyes. What I mean by this is, when you stop making dramatic, sweeping alterations to your manuscript and start focusing more on things like, “Should I use ‘which’ or ‘that’ in this sentence?”, it’s usually time for someone else to take a look.
Let me hit this a little harder: When you stop changing your vase/book and start polishing it, consider having someone give it a read.
This does not mean you are ready for editing. This means you need someone else to look at it. Usually, at this point, I suggest people hit a beta reader and/or critique group before they hit an editor. Everyone works differently and some people don’t do that, but most authors, I think, benefit from a good beta read before an edit. However, you could also contact an editor and see if you can get a sample. A good editor will recognize when a book is/isn’t ready and they will tell you.
The fact is, neither an editor nor an author will benefit from a book that isn’t ready.
- Please, for the love of all that is holy, ask for a sample edit from your prospective editor before you sign on with them. Each editor works differently, and you need to make sure the editor you choose is the right one for you and your book. It is not rude to ask for a sample edit. Editing is a huge investment, and you have every right to make sure you are spending your money effectively.
- Editing is a hard, vulnerable phase of the publishing process, and a good editor will understand that and try to make the best edits they can while respecting you and your book. Please know, a good editor will take you through this process while understanding the emotions involved. They will leave the author feeling empowered despite the work required, rather than hopeless, depressed, or “Why do I even bother?”. What I’m saying is, no editor should ever talk down to any author. There are ways to give constructive criticism without breaking an author’s soul. Ask around, get insights and recommendations for good editors from other authors you trust. Editing is never easy, and it’s never painless, but it doesn’t need to crush your soul, nor should it.
- Please know, every editor works a bit differently, so it’s important to…