Category: Tips (page 1 of 2)

The Editing Process

Many authors aren’t sure what should happen after they’ve written their first draft. This post will walk you through the editing process as it would occur at a publishing house, which is how I think it should occur even if you are self-publishing. I see editing as an in-depth conversation between author and editor. It is a conversation that must occur out of respect for the reader.

My ideal book publishing process is as follows:

  • Writing
  • Revising
  • Manuscript critique
  • Developmental edit
  • Line editing
  • Copy editing
  • Manuscript clean up
  • Interior book formatting (aka typesetting for those of us from the old school)
  • Proofreading
  • Proofreading corrections
  • Final review
  • Print
  • Celebrate

Many authors tell me they only need copy editing and don’t want to engage in the developmental editing and line editing process. Often the reasons behind this reluctance are time, money, and ego. My responses to these excuses are brief.

  • Time: Excellent writing takes time.
  • Money: One bad review will cost you more in sales than you would have spent on editing.
  • Ego: The right editor will fall in love with your manuscript and your purpose. A developmental editor is your assistant, not your boss. (A copy editor is your boss, though. It’s okay to hate them a little.)

The following sections describe each step in which the editor is involved. My turnaround time for each stage is ten business days for manuscripts under 90,000 words. For manuscripts over 90,000 words, I’ll review your book and provide you with an individually tailored timeline. Except for the manuscript critique, every step is performed using Word’s Track Changes and Comments features.

Manuscript critique

In the offices of America’s Editor, the manuscript critique can work one of two ways:

  • I read the manuscript and provide you with notes on your overall plot, diction, audience, marketability, organization, structure, premise, pacing, characters, and dialogue.
  • My assistants and I do all of the above on our own. We meet to discuss your manuscript (chair slamming and name calling ensues). We then provide you with our combined notes.

Developmental editing

In a perfect world, authors will make time for a manuscript critique and a developmental edit. In my experience, however, few independent authors do both. It’s possible to skip the manuscript critique, but that usually means the developmental edit will include redundant notes and questions that could have been easily addressed during the manuscript critique. The manuscript critique yields a sharper developmental edit. Developmental editing focuses on storytelling and your book’s purpose. This stage can begin as soon as you have a book idea. It’s a collaborative step where you and I discuss and research your manuscript at length. My suggestions at this stage are specific to your voice and intention. It’s not only about what you’re doing with this book now but also about what you want to do in your writing career and what you want the book to accomplish. This is where I really get to know you. Scary, right?

Line editing

During line editing, we fine tune your voice, sentence structure, and word choice. You’ll receive notes line by line, paragraph by paragraph. If we’ve done all of the ideal steps, the manuscript will begin to shine during this stage in a way you never thought possible. (This even goes for those writers who have fifteen books under their belts and feel they don’t need anything but copy editing.) I’ve heard of editors combining developmental editing and line editing into one step. Do I recommend it? No. If you’re at the stage in writing where you feel you can’t look at the manuscript anymore, combining these steps will make it feel much, much worse.

Copy editing

Copy editing is where punctuation, grammar, and consistency are finally addressed. If you’ve done all of the other steps, copy editing will be painless. In fact, it’ll be fun because we get to take a look at your shining manuscript and perfect it. You know the feeling you get when you look at your baby sleeping in an adorable pose? That should be the feeling you get when reviewing copy editing changes.

Manuscript clean up

Manuscript clean up is a step I perform for many publishing houses. After the author reviews the copy editing changes, I take a quick look to ensure there are no remaining comments or changes to be addressed. I also perform this step for independent authors who choose to work with my interior book designers.


Authors often think proofreading is the same as copy editing. It’s not. Proofreading comes after the book has been formatted. The proofreader reviews the proof pages. In addition to reading the manuscript and checking for grammar, punctuation, and consistency, the proofreader checks for missing text, incorrect formatting, stacks, widows, and orphans, erroneous running heads or page numbers, and more. There is a technical aspect to proofreading that requires a different mindset from all other stages of editing. Performing a proofread without first doing a copy edit will result in expensive revisions. A single comma can shift the text dramatically, sometimes even altering the page count. The book formatter has painstakingly styled your book, and every small change requires several minutes of work. The book formatter will charge you accordingly.

Working with tracked changes

This video gives a quick overview of how to review your editor’s changes using Microsoft Word.

A sampling of the Bard of Avon

Three steps to immortality:
  1. Skip the clichés.
  2. Use your own words.
  3. Live forever.

The secret life of a book manuscript

Author Thomas E. Ricks recently penned an interesting article in The Atlantic detailing the intricacies of the author–editor relationship as he wrote Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom.

Over our Caesar salads with sliced steak, I asked Scott why he had been so rough on me the previous winter. “Sometimes my job is to be an asshole,” he explained with equanimity. I wasn’t startled at this. At one point on an earlier book, when I told him how stressed I was feeling, he had replied, a bit airily, I thought, “Oh, every good book has at least one nervous breakdown in it.”

Whether you’re familiar with the writing process or not, this piece is a great read.

The next surprise, about three weeks into this process, was coming to realize, over the days of thinking about it, that Scott’s criticisms were spot-on. I saw that if I followed his suggestions and revamped the book, with a new structure that emphasized biography and told the stories of the two men chronologically, the book would be much better. I emailed a note to Scott. “You are right,” it said. This wasn’t so much an apology as the beginning of the next phase of work.

“Only a good writer would be able to say that,” he graciously responded.

You can read the article in its entirety here.

How long did it take to write the world’s most popular books?

Find time to write

Use those few minutes before a meeting starts, standing in line at the supermarket, and waiting in the doctor’s office. Instead of watching TV or checking social media, write. All those micro writing sessions add up to pages, which add up to chapters.

How not to start your story

There are many overused story openings that you should avoid at all costs. Several literary agents, acquisition editors, and publishers have written about this, but here is a short list of the most annoying and disliked ways to start a story.

Do not open your story with:

  • a dream;
  • an alarm clock buzzing;
  • a character jumping out of bed, running late;
  • the first day of anything new (e.g., school, job);
  • a wake up of any kind; or
  • the protagonist in bed for any reason.

Get your characters out of bed already.

Keep personality in your nonfiction

Nonfiction authors have the benefit of being real-life narrators, yet they often remove their own personality from their books.

When writing a nonfiction book, use your own voice. It should be a voice of authority about the subject and a voice that matches the tone of the book.

The question authors dread the most

“So, what’s your book about?”

I’ve heard authors do everything from groan to ramble when asked that dreaded question. As unpalatable as that question is, authors should be able to answer it well.

How do you explain something so near and dear to your heart? After all, the manuscript is 80,000+ words for a reason.

Start with one paragraph and whittle it down to one concise sentence. Mention the genre or subgenre. Prepare two versions of the sentence: one for readers and one for the publishing industry.

In the publishing industry version of the sentence, include the literary conflict and blockbuster concept.

Practice your response. Let your passion show through.

Below is Dick Van Dyke’s attempt to summarize Romeo & Juliet.

Please excuse the poor video quality.

Protecting your writing time

J. K. Rowling’s advice about protecting writing days is fanciful. Days? How often does the average writer get a full day just for writing?

Work, school, and family obligations keep most writers I know from ever enjoying so much as half a day to themselves. However, Rowling is correct in using the word “ruthless”; writers need to be unflinching when it comes to their writing time.

Set boundaries

In order to manage whatever writing time you get, you must set boundaries.

It’s important to let anyone who might overstep those boundaries know what you expect during your allotted writing time. Your family and friends need to know to leave you alone. It helps if you can be specific. Saying “I’m going to write for an hour” instead of “I’m going to finish this scene” might actually result in an uninterrupted hour of writing time.

Let go of the guilt

When you have a stretch of time during which to write is when people will most want to spend time with you. This is an unexplained phenomenon similar to what happens when you sit down to read.

Write first and spend time with them later. It’s nothing to feel guilty about.

Don’t sabotage yourself

Sometimes getting other people into the habit of respecting your writing time is easier than getting into the habit yourself.

Don’t answer the phone thinking you’ll be able to get off the call in a few minutes. If you went to a coffee shop to write but did more people watching than writing, don’t go there again. Turn off the TV.

Time management starts with saying “no”; drawing boundaries is more like saying “not right now.” It’s the crucial second step to having enough time to write.

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