What sort of editing do you need?

“It just needs a light proofread… ”


Before you go looking for a proofreader …

… consider what your writing might need from an editor and what your expectations might be.

There are several stages and levels of editing. And, ideally, the different types should not be done at the same time.

1 Developmental edit

A book’s first edit is often a substantive one; sometimes also called a developmental edit. This is one round of editing and is carried out by a specialist developmental editor.

At this stage, we’re looking at the structure of the book. By structure, we mean how the information in the book is ordered. That structure is crucial in determining whether the book is understandable and enjoyable to read.

In a non-fiction developmental edit we’d consider if the text flows logically from one point to the next, and if it is covering all the points that it is meant to cover with sufficient balance. Also, is it communicating the information in a compelling and creative way? Is it conveying that information in a marketable way?

In a fiction book we consider if the plot makes sense; if the story is flowing in an effective way; if the characters are well characterised; if it has a strong beginning, a suspenseful middle, and a satisfying conclusion; if the characters progress, change, or learn something; and if the type of narrative voice is effective in telling the story.

In a developmental edit I will not usually make sentence-level suggestions unless there are obvious problems in the writing style that will maybe affect the structure, such as overwriting (telling rather than showing), over-describing the action, or unrealistic dialogue (which can affect characterisation).

Sometimes I’ll suggest that it is too soon for a developmental edit. That the book’s concept still needs work; that the writer would perhaps benefit from some feedback from fellow writers in a writing group, to hone their skills a bit more. There is no shame in this and it is usually because a writer is just impatient to move forward before they have truly found their own writing style. A developmental edit at this stage would be very costly and not necessarily very helpful.

Sometimes at this stage a writer does not want (or have the budget for) something as in-depth as a developmental edit. They’d prefer a manuscript evaluation. For someone “just” to read the book and give feedback. The parameters of this could vary enormously, depending on the quality of the writing, the length of the book… lots of things. As always, communication is the thing.

Another option – suitable for very long books or books where there are some writing problems to be ironed out – is a detailed copyedit of a couple of chapters and an evaluation based on the book’s synopsis.

2 Line editing and copyediting

Once the book is well-structured, the text will need a second stage of editing, where it is scrutinised at a sentence level and word level. Some fiction editors call this a line edit. Most non-fiction editors will call it a copyedit. Some editors consider there to be a significant difference between the two. Some consider that a line edit takes a much more creative look at the language chosen – the poetry and sound and imagery of the words. Some think of a copyedit as a third stage where the checking of facts, and editing for readability, good syntax and correct grammar are carried out.

In my own business, I don’t make a distinction between the two stages and I will use the term “copyedit” to include a more creative analysis of the words used and their potential nuances, as well as correcting grammar and syntax. It depends which editor you hire – and it may be a US v UK thing – but many of my colleagues don’t see a distinction between the two stages either. Line editing is not even a term I was familiar with until I started networking with US editors.

In my experience, there is often neither the budget nor the time to make a distinction between a line editing stage and a copyediting stage. The stages are combined. For both terms, we’re considering if the words work. We consider if the vocabulary choice is effective; if syntax and grammar are used correctly; and if the syntax and grammar used break the rules, whether they do so in a useful way.

All the changes at this stage need to be sympathetic to the author’s voice. We all have a writing style and we should not impose ours on someone else.

Whatever the terms used, it is always worth having a conversation about expectations.

3 Proofreading

The last line of defence is the proofread. Just a few years ago, this would have involved reading galley proofs of a fully designed and typeset book. These days, it probably means the last stage of the onscreen editing process before the book goes on to become a print book or an ebook. There is a lot of misuse of the word, in and out of the industry, and this is understandable in a time of flux like this, where workflows have changed to accommodate the production of ebooks and audiobooks into the publishing schedule.

Many of my freelance colleagues have reported independent authors asking for proofreading when it’s a more in-depth substantive edit that is required.
(“It just needs a light proofread. My sister has an English degree and she says it’s great.”)
When looking for an editor, consider what stage you are really at. You can ask the editor for feedback before you decide what you want to do.

We try to catch as many typos and grammar and punctuation errors as we can while we copyedit, but it is impossible to catch everything. It really is. So you rely on that second (or third) pair of eyes in the proofreader, to nitpick and spot the final few (we hope) flaws.

It is not (usually) the proofreader’s job to go rewriting or rewording things to make the text “better”. That stage has passed with the copyedit. Most managers will not thank a proofreader for making hundreds of suggestions when a print deadline is looming. But if the proofreader spots very many instances where the text sounds poor they should speak up before they do anything – and ask if the client wants these changes (and if they are prepared to pay for them! Let that decide it!).


Goal: The book needs help structurally (plotting, character arcs, characterisation, story structure).
Solution: Hire a developmental editor.
Outcome: A story that works well and makes sense structurally.
Will it be 100% error-free at this stage? No. Not in the least.

Goal: You’re happy with your structure but need help to make the text more readable, dialogue more realistic, etc.
Solution: Hire a line editor or copyeditor.
Outcome: Text is reworded in some areas, facts checked, dialogue improved, grammar and syntax corrected. The copyeditor creates a style sheet to pass on to the proofreader.
Will it be 100% error-free at this stage? No. A few errors will remain.

Goal: You are very confident you have written the story you want to write, the way you want to write it but just want it checked for errors.
Solution: Hire a proofreader.
Outcome: The proofreader will read your work very carefully looking for mistakes and inconsistencies, and they’ll be following a style sheet. Be aware that a proofread will take substantially longer than reading a book for pleasure. They may use specialist editing software and Word macros to help find errors and inconsistencies but the crucial thing is that the book is being read by a human being who will invariably give the text more consideration than a mere spot-the-typo exercise.
At the end of a proofread will there be ZERO flaws? No. No published book is ever PERFECT, there are always a few flaws, but they are likely to be debatable, or minor, or hard to spot, if a good workflow has been maintained.
Your proofreader will be aiming for perfection, but your proofreader is also a human.

“No one catches everything, but an editor will catch more than most.”

The reality

The above levels of editing represent one idea of an ideal workflow. These days, for reasons of budget or timescale, writers or publishers may want just one editor to do everything.

If you are a writer who wants one editor to just fix everything, be aware that after the third check of your book, while the editor will know the book inside out in terms of story, they may have gone a bit word blind when it comes to spotting typos. The possibility of missing a typo at this stage is high.

Communication is everything. It’s worth checking that everyone knows the terms being used and, crucially, that they are using the same definitions of those terms.

It is crucial to discuss expectations and to understand the goals and likely outcomes for each editing stage.

Image copyright © Aniwhite, courtesy of Shutterstock

Silent changes

Word’s Track Changes function is a blessing and a curse. It is a fantastic tool to record the revisions in a text and present them in a way that is, visually, fairly easy to follow.

But, if a file is very heavily corrected – or includes some lengthy comments for discussion – potentially thousands of tracked changes can look very tangled and overwhelming. A guddle.

For this reason, most editors will tidy up a file before they even start, and not record certain minor changes. We are advised to do this. The SfEP’s excellent Efficient Editing: Strategies and tactics course recommends it. These are often called “silent changes”.

A silent change is a correction that you don’t record with track changes. I mentioned this in a writers’ forum and a few writers were absolutely appalled that an editor might do any untracked changes to a book without a writer’s permission.

So why on earth would I deliberately court such ire? Is it my ginormous ego? Is my hypertension getting scarily too close to normal that I need to raise it some more?

Silent changes are often made before an editor even starts reading. It’s usually done before a copyedit, though I have done it before a developmental edit, when the manuscript was really messy, just to make that first read a bit easier on the eye.

Not tracking these minor changes allows more space to highlight more serious errors and problems.

What sort of things are we talking about? Well, here’s what we are NOT talking about:

  • A silent change is not a grammatical change. I might think a grammar error is obvious but my writer might want to keep it to create a certain effect.
  • It’s not even necessarily a style change (by style I mean the choice of US or UK English, -ize or -ise, choosing hyphenated or unhyphenated versions of words, etc). I prefer to track those until we have a well-established and agreed style.
  • It’s definitely not rewording.
  • It’s not necessarily a spelling correction, even a simple one.
  • It’s not ANYTHING substantial that you, as a writer, would want to debate about or that can teach you anything about writing.

When you are tracking changes, in Print Layout view, Word presents the changes in little bubbles in a side pane to the right. If you have hundreds and hundreds of changes, Word starts to nest these little bubbles (i.e. it only shows you a snippet of the comment or change) and you have to click on them to expand them, which is annoying. But worse, it then activates the Reviewing Pane which opens to the left of the page. Not without cause has it been nicknamed “the Reviewing Pain”. Have any of you ever done this and not ended up in a complete rage? It freezes your computer. It’s awful. (Edit: Full disclosure, latest update of Word 16 for Mac seems to have fixed it for me. Yippee! Older versions may still languish with “Pane Pain” though.)

So, when I say too many changes can be overwhelming, I’m not trying to spare a writer’s feelings. I am trying to keep them (and me) sane and allow us to work more efficiently.

Silent changes are:
— Removing spaces that are in the wrong place:

  • before commas, full stops, colons, semicolons
  • after opening quotes
  • before closing quotes
  • accidental double spaces.

— Blindingly obvious spelling mistakes like:

  • teh instead of the
  • liek instead of like.

— Tidying a mish-mash of font sizes and word styles (obviously where it is not a formatting decision)

— Punctuation problems:

  • Obvious, missing full stops
  • Two consecutive colons, semicolons, quotation marks, commas or full stops
  • Quotation marks that are round the wrong way.

Do you really need to sign off on each one of these?

Now, I may be changing these types of things without tracking the changes, but I will, however, track them in the old-fashioned way, with my notepad and pen, and type up the list to show you.

For some clients, I will do many more silent changes than this but only after we have established a relationship and we have an agreed-upon style sheet. For example, punctuation in dialogue is something a lot of people have a problem with. So a writer might benefit from seeing these changes in their first book, but maybe I can just fix them silently in their later work.

The relationship between editor and writer should be symbiotic. Editors are not your enemy. We have reasons for doing stuff and most of it comes down to what we think is the best way of working, and what is best for your book. We don’t tend to have massively big egos (have you ever heard of a famous editor?) and we want your book to be the best it can be, for its own sake.

Although being able to say “I edited that” in airport bookshops is kinda nice.



Picture copyright © durantelallera, courtesy of Shutterstock.