If you haven’t been through the publishing process before you may not know that there are three fundamental types of editing. These editing phases occur in order, with developmental editing first, followed by line editing and proofreading.
New authors, authors attempting particularly ambitious works, and those writing outside their usual genre or area of expertise should go through all three phases of editing, ideally with professional editors. Some authors who are well seasoned within a particular genre–for example, a mystery writer cranking out her sixth book in a series–may have mastered their genre well enough to skip developmental editing, or may use fellow authors or beta readers in place of professional editors.
Writers who are very disciplined and highly skilled with the language may skip professional line editing if they’re willing to make many passes through their own manuscript (as, for example, John Grisham does).
No one should skip proofreading. Ever. Period.
The developmental editor looks at the big picture of your book. Are you communicating key points effectively? If not, what isn’t coming across, and what might you do to correct the defecits? The dev editor usually highlights and comments on whole paragraphs and sections of your book.
They may ask quesitions like, “Why are characters A and B ready to kill each other in this scene? I can see them being annoyed with each other, but I didn’t see anything in their previous encounters to make them hate each other this much.”
This kind of comment tells you you need to rework previous chapters to better illustrate the conflict between characters A and B.
A dev editor will also comment on parts where the book drags, where it moves too quickly (potentially losing the reader), which scenes are overwritten, which need to be better developed, which could be cut, etc. They also flag discrepancies and continuity errors. For example, if a character enters a scene wearing a raincoat, he should not (without explanation) leave in a ski parka. Authors often miss these details during their revisions, but dev editors find them.
Finally, the dev editor looks at the overall arc of the story. Did the characters evolve in a logical way? Did your ending wrap up the key threads that needed to be wrapped up, or did you leave some things hanging?
The goal of the developmental edit is to strengthen and clarify the overall story. It’s common for books to go through two or more rounds of developmental editing. Each time the editor returns the book to the author, the author may have to make substantial revisions.
It is natural for authors to want to kill their dev editors. Keep in mind that just as elite trainers prepare athletes for everything they will face in competition, dev editors will point out ahead of time every annoying (but valid) criticism that impatient readers and haters will bring up in their annoying one-star reviews.
Part of your job in working with the dev editor is to discover what kind of book you’re actually trying to write. You may legitimately decide not to fix some parts of the book she has flagged because you really intended them to be the way they are. People who don’t like those things just aren’t your audience.
The line editor goes through your writing line by line to clarify and tighten up your prose. They may combine two sentences into one for brevity, or divide one into two for clarity. They’ll cut out unnecessary words and try to replace ambiguous words with more precise ones. They generally try to avoid altering your style and meaning. Their job is to polish diamonds, not recut them.
After developmental and line edits, proofreaders are the last people to get their hands on your words before they go to print. Proofreaders correct spelling and punctuation errors. They fix double-word and omitted-word errors, like “I went to the the game,” and “I went to game.”
They make sure styles are enforced consistently, so, for example, 18th Street in chapter one doesn’t appear as Eighteenth St. in chapter two. They also fix a thousand other little details, such as blond vs. blonde, capital vs. Capitol, etc.
If you are a skilled writer, your readers may forgive you skipping developmental and line editing. However, they will notice and they will not forgive proofing errors. Most people cannot adequately proofread their own work. Hire a proofreader!
Other Editing Services
Sometime after the last round of developmenal edits and before publication, a “cold reader” may come in to offer an honest, professsional “outside” look at your book. The idea here is to get an informed opinion from someone who has not been involved in the project.
If an author is too close to his or her project, they may not be able to see the flaws. They may not understand that certain audiences might be put off by the work, or that some of the information that the author cut during revisions contains background information that the author and dev editor know, but which the cold reader does not. That information, which is missing to the cold reader, may have to be restored for the book to make sense.
The cold reader’s job, in short, is a final sanity check. Most books don’t go through this step unless the publisher thinks it’s wise or necessary.
Sensitivity readers look for language that may alienate audiences, suggesting changes as necessary. Melissa Haun’s Sensitive Writing Guide describes a number of common sensitivity issues and how to handle them intelligently to reach the broadest possible audience.
Professional Editing Services
- Reedsy helps you find and hire some of the best editors in the business.
- Booklife has links to editors who work with indie authors.
- Girl Friday Productions provides professional editing services to indies and major publishers alike.
- DartFrog Books offers developmental and line editing as well as proofreading.
- Kirkus, known for decades for their book reviews, now offers editorial services as well.
Editing on the Cheap
If you don’t want to pay for a developmental editor, use beta readers. Scribophile is an online community of writers willing to review and comment on each other’s work.
Goodreads friends whose reading tastes align with what you’re trying to write can be good beta readers.
Reading is an intensely subjective experience. One reader may love a character that another reader hates. A scene that resonates with one reader may leave another cold. If you use beta readers, be sure to use more than one. When you collect their feedback, focus on problems that multiple readers have flagged. If one reader hates your main character, that may be her problem. If they all do, it’s your problem.
Spelling, Grammar, and Style
The spelling and grammar checking tools built into Microsoft Word, Google Docs, Libre Office and other word processors will catch most spelling and grammar errors. Grammarly provides more sophisticated help for grammar, syntax and sentence construction. The Hemingway Editor can help simplify and clarify your sentences.
While Grammarly and Hemingway can help clarify your writing, they can’t give it a sense of style. They can’t add wit to your writing, or make the scary parts of your suspense novel scarier. That’s up to you.
The human elements of writing–wit and humor, tenderness and insight, tension and denouement–require a human touch. Computers can’t help you here. You have to put in the work yourself. Read what moves you. Read it closely, with heart, and you’ll start to write in a way that moves others similarly.
Limits of Editing on the Cheap
If you’re already a competent writer, you can do well with beta readers, especially if you’re deeply familiar with your genre or topic and with your audience.
If you’re not already a competent writer, you should consider getting guidance from writing groups and editors. The more you practice, the better you’ll get, especially if you have a qualified guide. This is why every top athlete in the world has a coach.