It is important to understand the process of a book under the umbrella called “The Edit.” I meet many first-timers who think it is only a one-time pass over their words, and that is all that will ever happen. And many who self-publish, thinking that hiring a high school English teacher to check for grammar is enough of an edit.
There are four major stages to the editorial process. Unfortunately, they are called by various names, depending on which publisher you are working with, which can create confusion. I will try to list the various terms but keep them under the four categories.
These steps can happen multiple times. You could get input from your agent or an editor who suggests you rewrite or revise sample chapters of the full manuscript. Last year I suggested that one of my nonfiction clients cut the book in half and change its focus. We sold this first-time author. But the writer had to do a lot of work to get it ready for the proposal stage.
Some editors will do this stage after a book has already been contracted because they saw the potential in the proposal. And note that this stage isn’t always necessary. It all depends on the quality of that final draft you turned in to your editor. Few get it perfect the first time.
Line Edit/Substantive Edit/Content Edit
Already you can see a descriptive term repeated. This stage is where the editor, usually a senior editor or an editor hired by the publisher looks at the book closely. This stage can morph into a rewrite (see above) if there are substantive changes. In some ways it is like a mechanic pulling apart an engine and inspecting the parts, then putting it all back together again.
Sometimes this stage is very light; sometimes it can feel heavy-handed. Neither is wrong. Trust the editor to have the desire to make your book better.
Remember that this stage can be a form of negotiation. Ultimately, it is your name on the finished book. An editor should not dictate but should facilitate. It is ultimately a partnership. And if you find that perfect partner, do what you can to work with them over and over. But also do not blind yourself into thinking that you are always right.
This step can be done in-house or with a freelancer. One friend of mine calls this stage “The Grammar Police.” The copy editor’s job is to check grammar, punctuation, spelling, and consistency. If your book has words or characters with unique spellings (for example, Slavic language names like Kazimierz Wachowicz), consider creating a separate document called a style sheet to submit with your manuscript, so the copy editor will know you meant to spell a word that way. Consistency is the key.
This edit takes a special skill. The editor is technically not reading for content. They are looking at each word for accuracy in communication.
It can be a stage fraught with humor. Like the time a copy editor changed the phrase “woulda, coulda, shoulda” to “would have, could have, should have” because the first was grammatically incorrect. Yikes! The author, a humor writer, was appalled at the incorrect correction.
Unfortunately, this stage can also be fraught with danger if the copy editor suddenly takes the role of substantive editor after that stage has already passed. I’ve heard stories of character names being changed, entire scenes rewritten, etc. If you have trouble at this stage, appeal to your senior (or acquisitions) editor and see if the changes had been approved before being sent to you.
Again, remember that this can be a place for negotiation. But if you are breaking the rules of grammar or spelling, be prepared to defend yourself. But please, “Never Burn a Bridge.”
If the line editor is looking at the paragraph for content, and the copy editor is looking at every word for accuracy, the proofreader is looking at every letter and punctuation mark for perfection.
Again, this takes a special skill. I once sat on a plane next to an amazing freelance proofreader. I proudly showed her an article I was writing. She found ten mistakes per page. Every one of them was my fault for being sloppy. I ate humble pie with my bag of peanuts.
Recently, I received an email complaining about typos in one of our client’s published books. They had found a dozen egregious errors. After investigating, we discovered the publisher had hired a new proofreader, who wasn’t at the top of the game. The editor had found a number of mistakes but missed a bunch too. That editor is no longer working for that publisher.
This proofreader is the last protection you have before the book is tossed into the market.
If you can see a copy of your manuscript before it gets published, do so. You then become the absolute last line of defense. One trick is to then read the book out loud or have someone read it out loud to you. Homophones can be found that way. These are words that are spelled correctly, sound the same, but are the wrong word. Like heroine and heroin. If your novel has Heroin as the main character, it might not be what you intended!
I am a terrible proofreader. Thus I’ve had to hire a really good one to proof this blog each week, so I can stop embarrassing myself.
With all these eyes on your book, you are guaranteed to have a product with no typos or errors of any kind. Ooops, that isn’t true.
Despite every effort and a lot of smart people working on your book, an error is bound to slip through. I remember one book where we had the author, three of his students, myself, a copy editor, and two proofreaders go through a book. Eight people. The book was published, and the author’s critics found a dozen errors within the first week. Sigh.
Do your publishers a favor. If you find an error, make a note of it (page number, line number, and error) and write a quick note to the editorial department of that publisher, respectfully pointing it out. A file is usually kept of every book; and when it is time to reprint the book, they can correct the error. And in the ebook world, the digital file can be corrected fairly easy.
Does this explanation match your experience with a traditional publisher?
Does your editor use track changes on screen or a red pen on hard copy (like shown in today’s picture above)?
[An earlier version of this post ran in February 2012.]
That’s an interesting question. When we look at the definitions, revise refers to looking over something again, in order to improve it. To edit is to prepare for publication or to cause it to conform to a standard. I would think that an author can do either or both. The argument could be made that an editor cannot revise because they didn’t originate the work. But most certainly, an author can make corrections for publication or to conform to a standard.
Janet Ann Collins
You said ‘last year I suggest’ instead of ‘suggested’ and ‘there’s bound to be an error slip through’ instead of ‘slipping through.’ Perhaps ‘an error is bound to slip through’ would be a better way to say it.
Thank you. Errors corrected.
I am now up to seven corrections on the original post. I found one. Readers found six more.
Someday I will be inerrant.
Janet Ann Collins
Now, don’t let this go to your head. Only God is inerrant. 😉
“Sometimes this stage is very light sometimes it can feel heavy handed.”
Impromptu grammar and punctuation testing! It’s not a flaw, it’s a feature.
Someone else just wrote me and gave me a list of the errors in the post.
I just LOVE eating humble pie.
Fortunately I’ve never claimed to be a great writer or proofreader. And I continually prove that fact in a public blog.
Janet Ann Collins
You practice what you preach.
Never expect a reply. Merely volunteer your editorial eye and hope it gets to the right place. The publisher has enough to do without having to respond to everyone who sends in a note. They aren’t being rude. Just efficient.
i need to be a writer in chemistry science or life science but i have not done book editing yet , too
I found your blog very helpful in clarifying the different processes a book goes through from initial draft to printed volume.
Great article. The editorial process can be confusing for a newbie. My first editorial experience with a terrific traditional publisher was eye opening. My editor was a freelancer and initially all seemed well. I write Christian Living / marriage and family books. She let me know she, too, was a published author who aspired to write more books. Unfortunately, what she genuinely desired was to rewrite mine. She changed the meaning, intent, and focus of huge portions of the work. When I took exception and would not accept the changes, she informed me she did so because she disagreed with the results of my research and foundational premise for the book! Fortunately, the acquisition editor was horrified and made her vanish – after acknowledging they’d had similar issues with her before. Tough way to begin my publishing experience, but it taught me to speak up.
This was very helpful. I recently hired a second editor to do what I guess you would call proof reading based on the article. This editor wants me to rearrange the plot sequence. The first editor liked the story as it is written. I am struggling with how to proceed. How do we know who to listen to?
Wow! I knew there were a lot of edits before a book was published, but it was interesting to see them all listed out and what each stage entailed.
When I said, “Ha, ha, I’m finished!
My book is hereby DONE!”
my agent kind of grimaced,
and said, “You’ve just begun.
Before your eyes get all bright,
fixed upon the brass-ring prize,
you’ve got a lot of rewrite,
and then you may revise.
And then will come the edits
that seem to be hell’s own intent
but give Old Nick some credit
for line and substance and content.
Then there’s copy edit to employ,
and at the last, proofreading’s joy!”
This post was a blessing. The editor of my self-published book told me that her and husband have someone else edit their books. She said even though she has a degree in English and that’s her business, it’s always good to get a different set of eyes on your project. She didn’t tell me how many edits you go through with a traditional publisher. Now I’ll be prepared when I get one.
By the way, in your paragraph on proofreading, it may be proper English, but the expression is not “on top or the game.” It’s “on top of THEIR game.” Just thought you’d like to know.
Sharon K Connell
Very good and helpful article, Steve. A good editor is worth their weight in gold. And still mistakes get through, as you said. We are not perfect. Not even editors.
You did forget one very important step in editing. The “Self-edit.” I do that before my story ever goes to my editor. What my eyes don’t catch during the final read-through, my editing program will usually catch. It covers a lot of things.
Then, the story goes to my editor who does use tracking. Depending on how many things are caught, changed, or debated upon, it goes back and forth until we are both satisfied.
My first books were a mess. Hence the rewrites (2nd editions) of them. The first “professional” editor I had let a lot slip through. But now I think I’ve found an editor who does a fine job for me. She loves my stories and wants them to be the best they can be.
Brennan S. McPherson
This is a great overview. And yeah, pretty much every editor I’ve ever worked with uses track changes. I think every new author needs a substantive edit. I don’t really want to be publishing without a sub edit these days, and I’ve written 4 full-length novels and three screenplays for hire.
As an indy author, I pay roughly $2,000 in editing fees on every book I publish. Traditional publishers tend to pay for even more. I do a substantive edit and a copy-edit. Then I do additional proofreading, and continue polishing until I finish the audiobook. I did this process with my last release, BABEL, and a reader marked 6 typos in the e-book. Luckily, Kindle Direct Publishing made me aware of these, and I fixed them and uploaded new files within 24 hours. Audiobooks, however, are more difficult to fix.
I found a good editor, and she’s basically always right when she points out that something is wrong in my work. I don’t always fix it the exact way she suggests, but I try to address every issue she raises. Also, she’s a strong copy-editor, and I nearly always approve every change she makes. However, you still have to go through each change manually to avoid mistakes creeping in during the editing process. Good editing is critical to both the reading experience, and to your success as an author.
Thank you for this information. I have a manuscript with an editor. 🙂
I was too chicken to hire an editor, worried that they would chop out huge swathes of my book where I was intentionally being conversational in tone. I have excellent spelling and punctuation skills, and pretty good grammar skills, but I checked a few tricky constructions with an editor friend. I know in my head that an editor helps make the writing tighter. I was just afraid of losing my voice. Your advice – to remember that an editor is on my side and won’t steer my “car” into a ditch – is reassuring.
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D
Thanks for all of the information, Steve. When I wrote my 400-page dissertation, I hired the $2 per page proofreader that was on the list of recommended folks my school gave me. After publication, I noticed 12 errors….she had “fixed” my work and now it was wrong. (Yes, she did find some boo-boos that I made, as well.) Even professionals can mess up and I should have taken the time to re-read my manuscript but, at that point in time, all I wanted to do was graduate!
Ann L Coker
I’ve considered myself a good proofreader, yet the number one rule I follow is not to depend solely on myself to proof my own work. The writer sees what she wants or knows should be there.
Steve, in your good article, the words I appreciate are negotiation, facilitate, consistency, accuracy, appeal, and protection. I agree that the author should be the last line of defense.
Loved the detailed explanation of the process!