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The Stages of Editing

Updated: Jan 23

You’ve finally done it. Typed out those two little words that every writer knows are the greatest in the English language. ‘The End.’ Take a moment to savour the relief and accomplishment. It’s a huge achievement and you should be proud of it, but we’ve still got a long road ahead. Now it’s time to focus on my personal favourite part of creating a book, the editing stage. I have frequently said ‘writing is where the magic happens’ and I believe it, but a lot of authors find the editing process and confusing and daunting prospect. I’m going to tackle some of that confusion today by creating an editing timeline and breaking down what each of those edits actually is.

Personal Edits

This first one is relatively simple to understand. You finish your first draft, take a reasonable break to give yourself some space from the story and then you go in and make any changes you think are necessary. I’ve got a blog post on self-editing coming out on February 19th if you’re looking for more guidance on this stage.

Manuscript Critique

It’s time to share your manuscript with someone else. They will read it for themselves and provide you with feedback on the core elements of your story. That is plot, structure, characterisation, pacing, story, and world-building. There are two options for getting this feedback for your manuscript. The most obvious one is to pay someone to provide this service. There are advantages to paying, but I personally do not recommend paying for a manuscript critique. If you’re looking to save money on editing, do not pay for a manuscript critique. It is by far the easiest step to save money on. It doesn’t harm the quality of your book like other shortcuts you might see suggested, and it isn’t a cheap service. I’m saying this as someone who sells this service. There are still advantages, however. It will be done by a professional, as long as you do your homework when hiring someone. It will be done in a timely manner. The second option is to do a manuscript swap with another writer. This is the option I recommend to most people, but it does require you to commit time and energy into providing feedback to someone else’s manuscript. The decision largely boils down to whether you have more time or money, so decide based on your own circumstances. Assuming you are going with the second option, however, it is important to choose the right person to swap manuscripts with.

Your critique partner should be:

  • A writer themselves. Ideally someone at or above your level of skill and experience. You want someone who takes writing seriously, and it is better if they write original work. This is especially true if you write fantasy, sci-fi, or any genre that requires a lot of world-building.

  • Someone who reads a lot and within the same genre that you are writing. If they have no familiarity with your genre, they aren’t a great match. You can make up for them with beta readers later down the track, but it’s really best to find someone who at least reads a couple of books in your genre a year.

  • Not a member of your family, romantic partner, or ‘real life’ friend. They cannot be trusted to give you honest feedback. The best friends and family will try not to hurt your feelings. But they may also try to discourage you by falsely telling you that your writing is terrible. There are lots of reasons they may do this and some of them do stem from misguided love, but overall. Friends and family are not it. A writing friend, as in someone you connected with through the writing community, is the exception to this rule and, in fact, the IDEAL critique partner.

  • Not a person who suffers from people pleasing, a deep fear of hurting people’s feelings, or excessive niceness.

  • Not the kind of person who likes to start drama, get a rise out of people, says ‘I’m just being honest’ to excuse saying rude things to others, or is just a general asshole.

Once you’ve found a good critique partner, they’ve read your manuscript and provided notes, take your time to digest their feedback. Don’t just plain accept it and do exactly what they recommend. It’s YOUR book. Similarly, don’t just outright reject everything they have to say. You need to learn to take criticism and use it constructively. Denying its validity is not helpful, but neither is allowing your own opinions to be steamrolled by the feedback of others. Consider the merit of what they have to say and decide what feedback serves your story and what doesn’t. Make changes accordingly.

Developmental Edit

The developmental edit, sometimes known as the content or structural edit, is the deepest dive into your manuscript throughout the editing process. In this stage, the actual content of the story is deeply edited by a professional editor. Characterisation, pacing, story structure, world-building, genre elements, and plot will all be addressed. The editor does not make direct changes to your manuscript, but offers extremely detailed notes, including in-text commentary and what is essentially an essay about your manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses. You will usually have several conversations with them regarding their notes. It depends on each editor’s individual service. After this, you will do another edit based on their notes and your conversations.

I do not recommend skipping this edit. I know a lot of indie authors do choose to skip the developmental edit to save money, but I think it is one of the factors that contributes to reader belief that traditionally published books are better. The stories themselves have faced rigorous edits, not just the spelling and grammar.

When deciding who to engage as a developmental editor, there are a lot of factors to consider. Cost is obviously going to play a role. We’re not living in a fairytale land where we can all afford the best of everything and the most experienced, most popular editors are the most expensive. However, you don’t need the most experienced, most popular editor to receive a high quality developmental edit. When looking for developmental editors, my biggest piece of advice is to look for editors that actively enjoy reading the kind of book you’ve written. Experience in the genre is very important to the developmental edit so you want an editor that has not just edited your genre, but read widely.

When engaging a developmental editor looking for education, experience, and interest.

Beta reads

Beta readers are people who regularly read books in the same genre and age category as your manuscript, who read your book pre-publication and give their feedback. This is not professional feedback aimed at improving your book in a literary sense (though it often does help you in that way) but market feedback. If your target audience don’t like your book, or don’t feel it fits into the genre you’re planning to advertise it under, then that is a problem and beta readers are the best way to find that out ahead of time.

Professional beta readers exist and I do think they’re a great service, but you don’t want to exclusively use beta readers. You also need to look for different things in a beta reader than you would an editor. The most important thing is that the person providing your beta read is regularly reading books like yours. Many professional beta readers don’t list their taste, so you’ll want to make sure you find out what they’re a fan of before you engage their service. The main advantage of a paid beta reader is that you will receive the feedback in a timely manner and won’t be ghosted. This is a common problem with beta readers, as giving feedback on your manuscript is the first thing people drop when their lives get busy. Don’t be too disheartened by it, but do prepare for it by engaging more beta readers than you need. You want the feedback of 3-5 beta readers. I engage 6 beta readers for my manuscripts. 1 paid and 5 unpaid, with the expectation at least one of the unpaid readers will ghost, or not provide the service in a timely manner.

Line Edit

Of all the editing terms, the line edit is the most often confused. A line edit is not the same thing as a copy edit. Many people, even editors on occasion, will speak of the two as if they are the same. A line edit is a sentence level edit of the quality and flow of your prose. Most publishing houses no longer provide this edit to their signed authors, especially when it comes to genre fiction. For this reason, the fact it has minimal impact on the story itself, and it does not correct glaring errors that most readers will pick up on, this is an edit you can choose to skip.

If you have an abundance of money to spend on your writing, and particularly if you write literary fiction, this is a great edit to have done, but it is not necessary.

There is absolutely no point in having a line edit done if you are not engaging a professional to do it. I also wouldn’t recommend taking a risk on a new editor for this particular edit. I would personally only engage an editor who has testimonials that specifically praise their line editing capabilities.

Copy edit

The copy edit is primarily corrections of the spelling and grammar in your manuscript, but this edit also tracks consistency. For example, if a character’s eyes are blue in chapter one but they are later described as green, a copy editor will point this discrepancy out. A copy editor will also make commentary on prose, largely where it effects readability. Some copy editors will spend more time on the quality of the prose than others because, as I mentioned above, copy editing and line editing are often combined into the same service.

It’s very important to remember that your copy edit should only take place when you are completely finished making changes to your manuscript. If you make change after the copy edit, you may be adding in mistakes that the editor never saw.

This is another edit I really recommend seeking a professional for. Many people think they’re excellent at grammar, but there is a difference between someone who always uses the right their/there/they’re and someone that can spot a rogue comma in the middle of a spicy sex scene.

When hiring a copy editor, you have the advantage of being able to ask for test pages and see how well the editor performs. I suggest leaving mistakes that you know are there to see if they pick up on them. Do not hire the same editor to do both your developmental and copy edit. If they have already spent a lot of time with your manuscript, they will suffer from the same ‘manuscript blindness’ that prevents you from doing the copy edit yourself.

The other important thing to consider when choosing a copy editor is which English dialect you are writing in. American English and Australian English, for example, have different rules and follow different style guides. Ask your copy editor which style guides they are able to edit with. The standard style guide for American publishing is The Chicago Manual of Style. Most other predominantly English-speaking countries have a nationally standardised style guide. Australia has ‘Style Manual,’ the UK has ‘Style Guide’ and New Zealand has ‘Our Style Guide.’ If you are not a native English speaker and are unsure which dialect of English you speak, it is most likely you were taught British English (UK) or American English. For an easy test to figure out which one you write in, I’ve made a list below of words that are spelt differently in British and American English. If the words on the right look correct, then it’s American English. If the words on the left look correct, then it’s British English.

  • Realise vs realize

  • Grey vs gray

  • Flavour vs flavor

  • Offence vs offense

  • Catalogue vs catalog

If this list is completely confusing and you’re not sure, that’s okay! You can just pick whichever dialect you would prefer to publish in. I recommend considering which country is a bigger part of your target audience and using that as a guide. Don’t worry too much if you’re unsure which version of English you should use. Thanks to the internet most English speakers are used to seeing the alternate spellings on a regular basis.

Proof read

This one I imagine you didn’t need explained to you. It’s the final read through of your manuscript looking for errors. Spelling, grammar, and consistency. This is the very last step before publication and should come right after your copy edit.

Having a professional complete your proof read is the most ideal scenario, however, this edit is another place where there is an opportunity to save money. If there is someone in your life that has professional or educational experience that makes them very proficient with spelling and grammar, you can get them to do the proof read for you. I do not mean your friend who is a self-professed ‘grammar nazi,’ I mean a dad who is an English teacher. Many authors also do proof read swaps in order to save money on this step. Don’t use the same person who provided your manuscript critique or any of your edits. This is another instance where ‘manuscript blindness’ can cause problems. You want someone who has never read your manuscript before. You might also want to consider someone on fiverr, or a similar freelancing site who is not a professional editor but offers proof reading services. They will usually offer their services at a much cheaper rate than an editor but, especially if they are regularly taking on proof reading jobs, will do a better job than the average person.

If you have any other questions about the editing process, feel free to let me know! I’m the most responsive on Tumblr (with anon asks on if you don’t want everyone knowing you asked,) and Twitter.

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