Wednesday 1 September 2021

What’s what when it comes to editing


The editorial process can seem impossibly complicated to writers who are just starting to interact with the publishing world or who are thinking about self-publishing. One thing’s for sure – it’s not just a matter of handing your manuscript to a single editor and having it emerge publication-ready. There will certainly be several rounds (usually known as ‘passes’) of editing before your manuscript if ready for publication.


Here’s my guide to the process:


Developmental editing

This is the big-picture edit, where an editor (or possibly your agent or an editorial consultant you’ve approached yourself) will take a look at the whole manuscript and give you feedback on what’s working and what’s not. They’re going to be looking at your characters and their relationships, the pace of the book, whether the beginning and ending work, the themes and structures of the book. Bear in mind this could happen several times before the manuscript is ready to move on.


Line editing

OK, so you’ve got the story working properly, and now it’s time for an editor to scrutinise the manuscript line by line. They’ll be looking for inconsistencies, errors of fact, repetition, places where the language could be tighter. Think of it as a style and substance edit. The great thing about going through this type of edit is that in the long run it really raises your awareness of the language you use and the way you structure your work, so that you’re always upping your game with the next book you write.


Copy editing

A copy editor is looking for errors of spelling, syntax, punctuation and grammar. They may also be concerned with applying the publisher’s house style to your book. House style is the list of choices a publisher makes in the case of certain rules of style or spelling where there is more than one option that is accepted as correct. For example they may choose to use double quotation marks rather than single for speech or they may use serial commas for lists (sometimes called ‘Oxford commas’ because they’re required by Oxford University Press’s style guide). A line editor is quite likely to also point out some errors along the way, but they won’t be paying deliberate attention to these matters.



Proofreading is the final stage before a book goes to print. The proofreader will usually see the text and images laid out in final page form. They will check that all the corrections marked up by the copy editor have been taken in, that the copy editor hasn’t missed anything and that no further errors have been introduced. They’ll be looking at the words but also at things like the page numbering, the placing of text such as headings and captions, and checking that the fonts follow the style correctly. In some cases copyediting and proofreading may be carried out by the same editor, but this would usually be done in successive passes of the work.


The key to understanding the process is that it starts with the big picture and then gradually works down to the level of the smallest detail. You’re very likely to be sick of the sight of your book by the time it’s returned to you to approve and answer queries for the nth time. What a good thing there’s quite a gap between the end of the editorial process and the moment you receive finished copies of your shiny new book. Now you can love it all over again!

Header image: A few of the editing tools I keep on the shelf next to my desk.


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