These days, it seems everyone wants to self-publish a book. And that is both a tremendous freedom afforded to all who have the desire, and a scary proposition for a market now flooded with books and no process for quality control. This means a lot of people are publishing books who don’t necessarily know what part editors play in the process of developing a manuscript into a book fit for publication. So it’s beneficial for all self-published authors to ask, “what’s going to help my book stand out in this market?”

Serious writers should consider the value of editing and all the steps the editorial process entails. These writers care about producing something of high quality in keeping with the standards of the golden era of traditional publishing: that bygone age when publishers invested time and money (often paying advances directly to authors) to help writers develop and polish their work prior to publication.

There’s more to editing than meets the eye, and a full understanding of what’s available to a self-published author can only help. Engaging an editor on this level may cost more on the front end, but it also ensures better odds of sales success and critical reception. And it’s a worthwhile investment for these reasons alone.

So let’s very quickly identify the four steps in the editorial process and what editors have to offer:

#1 Editors identify what works, what doesn’t, and evaluate a manuscript’s potential.

#2 Editors help the author make the manuscript better through revision guidance.

#3 Editors polish the writing and make it read as well as possible.

#4 And finally, editors make sure the copy is correct and ready for publication.

For many editors, the greatest joy that can be had from our work takes place during the creative stage of editing known as “manuscript development” (steps 1-3 above) and there are many services editors might offer that fall under this rubric. Developmental editing concerns itself with every aspect of the writing craft. In fiction, it addresses things like the effectiveness of the introduction, whether the story meets the expectations of a given genre, plot, pacing, point of view, characterization, dialogue, exposition, proportion, story arc, and whether the ending provides a satisfying conclusion.

In nonfiction, developmental editing concerns itself with structure, organization, clarity, effectiveness–all the aspects of writing craft that might pertain to the presentation of the subject. Thus, a memoir about being Bob Dylan’s drummer during the early 1990’s will have different needs than a book about historical ranches perched along the U.S./Mexico border.

In practice and effect, book editors help authors make books better. We are avid and voracious readers, and we are often writers too. We are the second, third, or fourth set of eyes that is better than any friend or neighbor’s because our eyes are impartial, because we’ve invested a great deal of time and effort in learning about the writing craft, and because we’ve honed our editing skills through painstaking practice. We also know that writing and editing are different things entirely. We take pride in the craft of editing as much as any writer takes pride in the craft of writing.

And so during the stage of manuscript development a writer can count on a good editor to help find problem areas in any given work. A writer can place a manuscript in a good editor’s hands confident that the work will be treated with honesty, respect, and a mutual concern for improving on what is already there. Manuscript development can vary greatly in terms of time taken to get from concept to a completed final draft. Some authors work on developing a manuscript over the course of years, and then there are those who put out books more often, who work more quickly. In either case, there are likely several rounds of developmental editing that any given manuscript might go through before the author arrives at a final draft.

Line editing is the last stage of manuscript development, intended to polish the writing so an author’s voice truly stands out. A manuscript should not find its way into line editing or the final stages after that unless it really is a “final draft,” where all issues relating to story structure and content have been addressed. A good line editor is skilled at understanding what makes a particular author unique. Line editors make suggestions about a final draft that subtly massage the language of the manuscript so that it reads as well as it possibly can, while retaining the full flavor of the author’s original voice.

The final two stages of editorial services in the production of a book aim to polish a manuscript as near to perfection as possible, and both of these concern correction. Copy editing is done on manuscripts that are final, that will no longer be rewritten or changed by the author. It’s meant to correct syntax, grammar, spelling, and punctuation, as well as maintain internal consistency of style and mechanics and point out any remaining perceived flaws that could undermine a manuscript’s success.

After copy edits are made, reviewed, and approved/rejected by the author, the final editing step prior to publication is proofreading. In terms of today’s electronic process, that usually means it’s done after a .pdf has been made of the manuscript (manuscripts being submitted to agents or publishers may not require proofreading), and the proofreader marks the needed changes by notation. The marked copy then goes to the author for final revision and any last-minute changes, which are then given to the interior designer to make to the final document in layout.

The purpose of proofreading is simply to catch any errors that were missed on previous passes and eliminate any new ones that may have been introduced between line editing and layout. It’s intended to provide copy that is as correct and clean as possible in terms of spelling, punctuation, grammar, and other mechanics, and that’s all. Proofreading doesn’t address usage, style, fact-checking, or content, and should not be viewed as a substitute for copy or line editing.

Why so many levels of editing near the end of the process? First and foremost because that’s what quality control in book production is all about. No single person is capable of catching all the errors in a given manuscript. Therefore, the more skilled sets of eyes that see a given piece, the fewer the number of errors in the end product.

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Editorial Department