A Guide to the Editing Process

So you just finished your manuscript. Maybe there are a few typos, but in your heart you know that the writing is perfect. You enlist your partner, your best friend, your mom, or your dad to “proofread” it—for free. And then it’s time to hit publish!

Publishing a piece of long form writing can be done this way, but it really shouldn’t. But why? Real writers don’t need editors. Editors are just gatekeepers holding writers back.

Somewhere in school, I don’t remember if it was in grade school or high school, I was taught a terrible myth. I was told that when Ernest Hemingway was ready to write a book, he walked up to his typewriter and started typing. What came out the other end was literary gold and didn’t need a single word edited—such was his prowess as an author.

This was a lie.

I have a copy of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms sitting on my shelf. At the back of the book, the publisher included several of the over sixty different endings. And guess what? Many of the alternate endings were heavily edited.

Everyone needs an editor, even Hemingway.

First, some realities

To kickoff the editing process, the author must acknowledge a few fundamental truths:

  1. Writing is easy, editing is hard.
  2. There is no room for ego while editing.
  3. The author still owns the car, but someone else is driving.
  4. Not all editors can edit all writing.

Editing can be really easy. Or it can be absolutely brutal. This depends on the type of writing and the author’s goals.

When I start a project, I strive to ask tough questions, for example:

  1. What is the goal of the writing?
  2. Who is the writing for, the author or the audience?
  3. Why should readers care?
  4. Does the market really need another book on [fill in the blank]? And what is unique about this book?
  5. If non-fiction, where is the data/science to back up claims in the book?
  6. Is the author avoiding an uncomfortable or unflattering series of facts?
  7. Is the author actually open to being edited? (Remember that bit about editing being hard? Not all authors are into that).

The answers to these questions guide how the editing process should unfold.

Sometimes the goal of the writing is the personal enjoyment or questing of the author. For example, a family legacy book. In this case, the goal is typically to collect, archive, and pass on an eloquent piece of family history. Editing a book like this is easier than say a revolutionary idea aimed at mass audiences. And editing scholarly work involves opening up an entirely different tool chest.

The Process

Running a book through the complete editing process is rigorous and time consuming. However, it is worth the labor, every single time. Authors pour an incredible amount of physical and emotional energy into writing a book or article or even a poem. So it makes sense to run the book through the finishing touches to get a high quality workpiece.

Developmental/ Conceptual Editing (1-2 editors plus the author)

The first stage of editing is the Developmental or Conceptual stage. (I prefer Developmental Edit). Here, we focus on the big picture: the story and the style. We do not worry about grammar or typos at this point (if we see something, we’ll fix it, but we’re not implementing the Chicago Manual of Style or the AP Stylebook at this point.

These are a few of the things we focus on in Developmental Editing:

  • The author’s style and voice
    • Is there a distinct writing style and is it consistent?
    • Is the narrator’s voice clear, distinct, and consistent?
  • What is the plot? The focus of the story?
    • Does the story wander too much or stay on point?
    • Does the plot raise questions that go unanswered?
    • Is there sufficient background information to understand the plot?
  • The first sentence, the first paragraph, the first chapter. And then the first paragraph of every chapter thereafter. And finally the last chapter, the last paragraph, the last sentence.
    • Do they hook the reader?
    • Do they carry the story forward? And at the end resolve something?
    • Are they the essence of the author’s style and the narrator’s voice?
  • Broadly, highlight what works and what doesn’t.
  • What is the Story Arc?
    • To answer this, I create a Story Map on a spreadsheet.
  • Does the story flow?
    • Where are the speed bumps? Are they good or bad?
    • Where are the straightaways that allow the story to go fast?
    • Are the chapters in the best order?
    • How are the chapter transitions?
    • Should some chapters be combined, split, deleted, or added?
  • How is the readability?
    • Are some sentences, paragraphs, or chapters cumbersome, awkward, or difficult to read?
  • Is the verb tense consistent?
  • Is subject-verb agreement correct?
  • What, if any, additional material does the book need?
    • Prologue, Preface, or Introduction?
    • Epilogue, Appendices, Bibliography, Glossary, or Index?
    • Images and Illustrations? Maps and graphs?
    • Footnotes and Endnotes?

Copyediting (1-2 editors plus the author)

Next comes copyediting. I love copyediting. Copyediting focuses on clarity, coherence, consistency, and correctness. It is very much a process that focuses on the nuts and bolts of good communication. Here is where I direct energies during copyediting:

  • Mechanical Editing and Grammar
    • This is all about consistency and often involves the use of a style guide. The guide can be the Chicago Manual of Style (for non-fiction books especially), the AP Stylebook (primarily articles), or an in-house style guide (the Chicago Manual of Style started out as the in-house guide for the University of Chicago Press).
    • Punctuation
    • Spelling
    • Capitalization
    • Numbers and numerals
    • Hyphenation
    • Quotations
    • The list goes on and on…
    • Wrong word usage
    • Pronouns
    • Verb tense
    • Sentence fragments
    • Adverbs and prepositions
    • Parallelism
    • Passive voice
    • Jargon
    • Run on sentences
    • Restrictive vs nonrestrictive clauses and commas
    • Scare quotes
    • Apostrophes
  • Fact-checking
  • Permissions (Acquiring permission to use long, copyrighted quotes or copyrighted images)

Proofreading (Minimum 10 readers plus the author)

And finally comes proofreading. This is the last step in the editing process before moving to publication. Remember that proofreading is not editing, rather it is a detailed reading that looks for errors. While some folks will proofread un-formatted manuscripts, I suggest sending the book or publication to the designer after the copyedit but before the proofread. Why? This way the proofreaders are checking the final typeset workpiece and can catch errors in the design.

For me, proofreading includes checking the following:

  • Spelling
  • Punctuation
  • Grammar
  • Consistent formatting and design

Sometimes a proofreader may offer unsolicited developmental edits. But that is not their job. At this point in the process, we do not want to be rewriting the book. Proofreading is all about finding each and every typo or mechanical hangup and resolving them. There is nothing worse than a book with lots of typos!

Concluding Thoughts

If you read this entire post, you have realized that editing is a process that requires effort. And it is worth the effort! We create polished and professional writing by following the editing process.

*Plug for our services: if you are in need of editing help, reach out to me.

Thanks for reading!