The Editing Process

When you’re new to the publishing process, the various types of editing and proofreading and the timing of each can be overwhelming. In this blog, I’ll help clarify the process—what the types of editing involve and when you should do each.

Self-Edit the First Draft

You’ve just finished your first draft. Congratulations! That’s an amazing accomplishment. Celebrate your success and put your manuscript in the figurative drawer for several weeks now. Do something else for a while. Maybe exercise or get out and see the sun for a change. Then work on something else, something shorter, to let your creative juices start flowing again. Let your manuscript mellow for at least a month so you can get some distance from it. Maybe give it to your alpha reader and get some feedback when you’re ready for it. Then go back to the manuscript and read it.

Ideally enough time has passed that you recognize writing some of these words, but you don’t feel so close to them anymore that it will be overly painful when you realize you need to cut some words. Most authors flail a bit at the beginning, trying to figure out how to start the story. Most also put in too much back story that the reader doesn’t need. As you’re reading through, make notes to yourself about what you need to change in your second draft, but don’t make any changes yet; you may get further into the manuscript and realize you have a huge plot hole, which means you have to rewrite the entire first act. It would be frustrating to have already spent time revising the first act only to realize you have to change it again.

Look for things like pacing, character development, and plot holes but also smaller things like misspelled words and awkward sentences. Look for themes you have in your book and see if you can add little nuances to help bring it forward more.

You may be thinking, “Isn’t this what I would hire an editor for?” Yes and no. Editing your first draft yourself will help you make sure your vision for the book is on the page, which means your editor will have a better idea of your goals and purpose for the book rather than helping you to find those things. Also, the cleaner your manuscript is before you give it to an editor, the less it will cost. Finally, no editor is going to rewrite the book for you. That’s firmly in your job description as the author.

After you’ve finished reviewing the manuscript yourself, ask for input from your alpha reader and add more notes for where he or she thought things needed improvement or where things definitely shouldn’t change much. Your alpha reader should be someone from whom you will get the absolute truth. It may be painful to hear their feedback if it’s not as positive as you were hoping, but it will result in a better book in the end. And that’s what you want.

Now write the second draft, making the improvements you found the manuscript needed. Since authors tend to write too much in the first draft, aim for 10% fewer words in the second draft. If your manuscript was 100,000 words at the end of your first draft, it should be 90,000 words at the end of your second draft. It’s very rare that authors need to add more words to the second draft. This is not to say that you only take words away from the first draft. On the contrary, as I mentioned above, you may find places where you can add to the theme or add to character development; that just means you have even more that you can cut from other places to net the 10% difference.

Developmental Editing

Now is the time to send your manuscript to a developmental editor, sometimes called a substantive editor. If you are a well-seasoned author, you may not need a developmental editor. You may spot all of the problems and address them all in the second draft. Most authors are not so lucky. When you’re a new author, you simply don’t have the experience to spot all the problems. Additionally, it’s difficult to get distance from your own work sometimes.
A developmental editor will help you spot things that aren’t working in your manuscript. Usually, a developmental editor will read through your manuscript, maybe making notes about their initial reactions or asking questions to remind them to see if something paid off or was explained later. But, for the most part, he or she is reading the manuscript as a reader would. Then the real work begins. The editor determines the biggest three to five issues and decides how to address them.
Why three to five issues? Most authors will get overwhelmed if they need to deal with more than that at one time. To avoid the author getting frustrated and giving up on the whole endeavor, it’s best to focus on solving the problems that will have the most impact on creating a better manuscript. However, that also means that more than one round of developmental editing will be called for. Your editor should be able to tell you if they think you’ll need more than one round after their initial read-through.
The editor then goes back through the manuscript adding comments to help you see where you can implement his or her advice in a practical way. He or she will also generally suggest how to do this. Remember that you are the author though; the editor’s suggestions are meant to give you ideas or to help you see the problem. He or she will not be offended if you go your own way; that’s expected and encouraged.
Last, you’ll get a critique letter that gives you an overview of the three to five issues that the editor wants you to focus on improving. This is an introduction to the issues, but most of the practical advice on implementing it is in the manuscript comments. The letter will also give you advice on next steps and mention again whether it’s expected you will need another round(s) of developmental editing.
Read through the letter, then through the comments on the manuscript. It’s good to have that complete overview before you start a new draft. A good editor will mention early on if something is likely to change later: for example, a comment in Chapter 2 might say, “In Chapter 26, I recommend removing this character’s point of view, so you may want to add some more information here about blah-blah-blah.” The point of this is so that as you’re rewriting your draft, you’re aware of something that the editor recommended changing later and can account for it. Reading through all the comments before you start a new draft will also help you be aware of those things.
Now write your third draft. At this point, there are various paths you may take. If your developmental editor recommended another round of developmental editing, then send it back to them for the next round. If the developmental editor thought that the manuscript would be strong after one round, then you can either send it back to the developmental editor for a review or to beta readers you trust to give you honest, critical feedback. Make any additional changes.

Options Other than Developmental Editing

Developmental editing is expensive. It’s time-consuming and requires critical thinking. It’s worth it for the results you get, but sometimes that’s just not in the budget. Here are other things you may do instead.

Manuscript Critique

Many developmental editors offer a manuscript critique for a much-reduced price. Manuscript critiques involve the first read-through of the manuscript and identifying the three to five problems for you to address in your next draft. The letter will have some general guidance on how to implement the changes, but it will not have the specific practical advice comments on the manuscript. Since it takes a lot less time for the editor to do this level of work, it will be cheaper than a full developmental edit. You’ll still get the professional advice, but you will have to do some more work on your own to figure out how to best implement it.

Book Mapping

Book mapping is a process where the storyline, characters, themes, and other important aspects of the manuscript are laid out visually. This can help you identify where characters aren’t getting developed enough because it’s easier to see whether they’re the same person at the beginning of the book as they were at the end, for example. Or, there’s a gaping plot hole. Or one character was last in New York City but suddenly showed up in Berlin. This is a service offered by some editors and is something you may find valuable. It’s also a method you could try on your own to help you identify problems in your own manuscript.

Beta Readers

Find trusted friends who are avid readers to give you feedback. People who read a lot can help you identify when something doesn’t work in a manuscript, for example, if there’s a plot hole, or if they don’t understand why a particular character would behave a certain way. There are also paid beta readers available, which is a good idea since they’ll be less invested in avoiding hurting your feelings than your friends will be. The advice will likely be less concrete than you would get from a professional developmental editor, and you will still have to do the work to figure out how to implement the advice of your beta readers, but it is often cheap or free.

Self-Edit … Again

Worst-case scenario, read and study on your own so you become better at self-editing. Read books on how to self-edit. Read other books in your genre so that you’re aware of genre expectations. Comb through your draft again on your own, with your new knowledge, and make improvements. The downside to this method is that you’re not getting any advice apart from yourself, and you may be too close to the work to see it clearly from a reader’s perspective. But it will come out more polished on the other end. My previous blogs on advice on self-editing may be helpful for this process: Editing Advice, Pacing, and Writing Advice.

Copyediting or Line Editing

Line editing is the next step. This helps identify problems and change things at the sentence level rather than the big picture. However, line editing and copyediting are often combined. Copyediting is a last pass for accuracy of facts, grammar and punctuation, spelling, and sentence structure. It also helps identify pet phrases and words and suggest alternatives. It’s a last polish before publishing.

Line editors and copyeditors generally make concrete suggestions in the manuscript itself. If the editing occurs in software, such as Word or Google Docs, you can likely click a button to either accept or reject the suggested change.

If a lot of changes were needed—for example, if a lot of facts needed to be adjusted, there were some minor plot holes that needed to be filled, or you made significant changes at the sentence level—you may need a second round of copyediting to catch those last few errors.


After copyediting, the book is prepared for publishing. The layout is decided and graphics may be added. After the final, publishable product is finished, the book is sent to a proofreader. The proofreader will look for any last typos, grammar and punctuation errors, and inconsistent layout. It’s the last step and is a very detailed look at the final product before it’s published. It’ll help rid the book of any last remaining pesky errors that can be embarrassing.

The Editor

Editors generally provide the whole range of services, so a common question is whether you should use the same person for each phase of the process. Ultimately, it’s up to you.

The good thing about using the same person for each phase is that you don’t have to develop a new relationship and you already have someone familiar with your vision for the book. The down side is that the editor could suffer from being too close to the work to see the details that are on the page versus what was expected. If it’s been a long time since the editor saw your last draft, it’s probably safe to say he or she could look at it with fresh eyes. But if it’s only been a couple of weeks, it’s probably best to look elsewhere.

If you use a different person for each phase, you have the benefit of having a fresh set of eyes, which means you’re more likely to catch the errors. However, you must be careful to agree on the scope of the editing. If you’re in copyediting, make sure your copyeditor knows that you aren’t interested in addressing any more big changes (unless they’re just glaring and must be changed). That way, you avoid having to go back to the same phase repeatedly because no two editors will have the exact same advice. I wouldn’t say this is a huge risk (editors don’t want to do more work than you’re paying them for), but it is important to communicate to the editor what work you’ve already done and what your expectations are for this round of editing.

Recap of the Editing Process

Here’s a recap of the process for quick reference:

  1. Write first draft.
  2. Evaluate your first draft. Maybe share it with your alpha reader. Write second draft.
  3. Get a developmental edit, which focuses on the big picture.
  4. Get a line edit and/or copyedit, which focuses on polishing the manuscript at the sentence level.
  5. Prepare the book for publishing and get a proofread to find any lingering errors, some of which may have cropped up in preparing the book for publishing.


I hope this has been helpful. If you’re ready to enter a phase of editing or proofreading, contact me so we can get started!


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