Editing can take your manuscript from being a pile of words into a story that can move people or a non-fiction book that can change lives.
I've been working with professional editors since my first book, and I continue to invest in editing to ensure my finished product is a high standard, and to keep improving my craft.
In today's article, Zara Altair outlines the three stages of manuscript editing.
Editing your book manuscript can intimidate authors. As a creative, the idea of checking for tiny errors seems tedious and alarming.
Approach editing with a perspective that aims to make your story the best it can be and arrange the editing process into manageable chunks. You’ll discover editing is a skill you can learn to make your story ready to go out into the world.
The three stages of manuscript editing lead you through a progressive journey to creating the best book to offer your readers.
With all the heart and soul and long hours you’ve put into your manuscript, it’s not perfect. No manuscript is perfect. Accept that and know editing will make your book better.
The storyline will work with no gaps or confusing scenes. The prose will be fluid and readable. And, grammar nazis won’t toss your book aside because there’s a misplaced comma on page 197 and a misspelt character name on page 251.
Each editorial process addresses separate issues of the story.
- Content edit. The big story picture.
- Line edit. The language you use.
- Copy edit. Grammar, spelling, and syntax.
Each phase of editing addresses different aspects of your manuscript and they work in sequence. There’s no point editing for commas and typos if your story needs rewriting and additional plot points.
Editing makes reading your book a joy for readers because they aren’t tripped up by story gaps, clunky writing, or grammar mistakes. Editing won’t make your book perfect, but it will make it the best it can be to create an enthusiastic reader.
Authors who take the time to go through the three phases end up with a polished manuscript.
Another set of eyes
A professional editor will read your manuscript with an objective eye. The editor’s job is to make your book the best it can be. To benefit from the objective overview put artistic feelings aside and focus on the recommendations.
Hiring an editor is an investment that costs money. You can reduce those costs by first working through the three editing steps yourself. Every change you make saves the editor time and saves you money. But, the biggest benefit is learning how to think critically about your story and the manuscript.
As you work through the three phases, you’ll have a better understanding of how each process works and why editorial input will enrich your manuscript.
How to start editing your manuscript
Creating a critical mindset is the first step in the editing process. As an editor, you will examine every part of your story to make it seamless and engaging from the first sentence to the last.
You need to establish a distance to apply your critical eye to your novel. You can build your critical distance with a few steps.
- Put your manuscript away for at least a week. Several weeks are even better. You’ll want to apply fresh eyes to your story.
- In the meantime, read for excellence in your genre. Pick three writers you consider masters of your genre and then choose what you consider each writer’s best work. While your novel is set away, read each of these three books while practicing your critical approach. You already know these stories, so practice being an editor for your favorite professional author. Make notes. What improvements would you make? What are the writer’s strengths?
- After rereading these works, without looking at your manuscript, make a list of the ways you would like to improve your story and your writing based on the positive discoveries you’ve made in your reading.
When you take off time from your own story and practice critically examining other stories in your genre, you get your mind in gear to examine your own story with the same critical distance.
Gather your notes, take a deep breath, and pull out your novel manuscript. You’ll work through the editing process from the big picture down to the tiniest details.
1. Content editing
As you prepare to reread your story after your break and critical exercises, plan on making changes. As wonderful as your story is, you can make it better. Your aim is to make your novel as professional as possible.
You’ll be going through your story at least three times. The first pass at editing focuses on the story elements. There’ll be time enough for details like punctuation, spelling, and grammar after you make your changes.
The story editing, often called the content or development edit, looks at your story structure, character arcs, dialogue, and scene sequence. Keep asking yourself, does this work in the story?
You’ve just read three great novels in your genre, compare your story to these examples. Know those professional authors, went through this same process before they sent their manuscript off to their professional editor.
Print out your manuscript formatted for lots of white space — wide margins, double-spaced. You will hold it in your hands, make marks, and read it as a book. You’ll be entering “track changes” in your word processing software later.
Now you will use your personal editor’s blue pencil. Yours may be red or purple or green or any color that shows up against the black print.
Some authors use different colors for different editorial changes — grammar and spelling, character arc, plot, scene changes. If this is your first time editing, pick a contrast color like red and start reading your story. You can refine your system later as you become familiar with the editing process.
In this first editorial read, you’ll be scrutinizing your story. If you find smaller issues like grammar or spelling mark them knowing they may disappear as you rewrite. Be looking for ways to make your story sharp and crisp.
Does the first page hook you? Does it plunge you into the story? Does it clearly reflect the genre? Do your protagonist’s words and actions introduce his or her character?
Notice pacing like chapters or scenes that rush the story or get bogged down with detail or long descriptions.
Does the story have a clear three-act structure? (or another form of structure that leads the reader through a book to a satisfactory conclusion).
Is your protagonist confused and thwarted in the first part of Act 2? Does she take the reins after the midpoint? Once the story reaches the climax, does it take too long to wind down?
Is the story predictable? How could you improve the twists, turns, and reversals to challenge your protagonist?
Do two characters have names that start with the same letter? If so, find a new name for one character.
[Note from Joanna: I have made this mistake! Another tip is to make sure the character names sound different when spoken aloud as your book may turn into an audiobook. ]
If your story feels overpopulated, combine two characters with similar motivations to keep your reader from being confused.
Do your subplots integrate with the overall story? Are they spaced throughout the storyline?
Is the voice consistent throughout the story? Is one passage in a different tone?
Do you need to research a location or an object to give it more punch?
Does each character speak in a recognizable voice? Would your reader know who is speaking by the way the character speaks? Does the dialogue reflect subtext rather than always being on point?
Is the point of view consistent throughout? Is each scene told from only one point of view? If your story is told from multiple points of view, is it clear who is “speaking” in each scene?
Content editing can be a long process.
But it's well worth going through your story looking for every way you can tighten your manuscript to give your reader the best experience in your genre.
If you have concerns about elements of your story, this is a good time to find a content/developmental editor. Many writers hire a developmental editor at the story outline stage before they have a completed manuscript. Starting with a sound story structure speeds up writing time.
[Note from Joanna: Check out my tutorial on how to find and work with a professional editor. ]
Before you go to the next stage of editing, rewrite your story making the changes you noted during your critical editorial reading. Take as long as necessary to make your changes. Remember you are doing the hard work of becoming a professional writer.
2. Line Editing (Language)
Once you’ve made your story changes, it’s time to look at the language you use to convey your story. Now you are looking to refine the language in the text.
You are not looking so much for mistakes as the best way to structure your sentences and paragraphs to improve the readability.
You want the language to be fluid, clear, and pleasurable for your reader.
- Are your words precise rather than general? Have you avoided clichés?
- Do you repeatedly use the same words or sentences?
- Are there run-on sentences? Sentence fragments?
- Is the same information repeated more than once?
- Does the tone shift?
- Is the phrasing natural?
- Is the language bland causing readers to skip a passage?
- Do you use strong verbs rather than describing an action with adverbs?
After you read through to line edit your manuscript, you can use software tools to help you with your language editing. Hemingway app helps you with sentence structure to make your writing bold and clear to improve your story’s readability.
Grammarly examines text for several writing style elements including readability, grammar, clichés, diction, and dialogue.
[Note from Joanna: I have a tutorial on how to use Grammarly here. ]
The Line Edit phase is challenging for authors because it’s easy to miss how your phrases sound. A good line editor has no emotional attachment to your manuscript and sees your writing style from an objective standpoint.
Getting a line editor will improve the overall tone and readability of your story.
Other people/ beta readers
Once you have performed your content and line editing, is a good time to get feedback from other people. This is an extra step in the editorial journey but worth the time.
It is easy to get lost in your own story. Feedback from other people who read in your genre can help you spot content and language gaps you may miss.
If you are a member of a writing group, you can present your new passages for feedback and comments from members of the group.
This is a good time to get beta readers involved in your story. These are non-professionals who read in your genre and will give you honest feedback about your story.
You want these readers to share anything that gives them pause while reading your story from a passage that isn’t clear to a typo.
[Note from Joanna: Be careful about involving too many other voices. YOUR voice is the most important in your project, so beware of ‘writing by committee' which might just drown your voice out. ]
This final editing process takes a fine eye for detail. You’ll want to do this in small batches because it is easy to overlook details if you spend hours working through the manuscript. You’ll be looking for consistency as well as grammar, spelling, punctuation, and syntax.
The Chicago Manual of Style is one option for guidelines around proofreading and editing your manuscript.
What to look out for:
Double check spelling, grammar, and sentence construction (syntax).
Make sure your usage is consistent. Throughout your book hyphenation, numbers, capitalization, and fonts appear in the same manner.
Check for ambiguous statements or incorrect facts. Remember how you checked your research during the line edit?
Internal consistency. Is your blonde always blonde? Does your stutterer lose his stutter? Is your setting consistent when it shows up in various places in the story?
Mark your printed copy and then go to your writing software to make changes. The search and replace function will help you spot every use of a word to make it consistent throughout your manuscript.
It’s next to impossible to find every error. This is especially true because your mind plays tricks and you see what you think is right.
A copy editor has never seen your work before. Every sentence, comma, and character name is new. They bring an objective, professional view of text that is new to them.
One last check. Read your book aloud.
However diligent you are throughout your editing process, hearing your story read aloud can help you find awkward sentences, repeated words, and typographical errors.
You have several options to help you listen to your story. Text to Speech Reader has a Chrome extension that will read your text. Natural Reader provides several voices so you can hear your text read by male and female voices with different tones and inflections.
Open your manuscript so you can make edits as you listen.
From writer to professional author
Taking the time to edit your novel before you send it out sets you apart as a writer who approaches the publishing process as a professional. Every step in the editing process refines your story to appeal to your target readers. They are the readers who love your story and become your fans.
As excited as you are to get your story out there, taking the time to go through the editing process not only improves your story, it gives you a better understanding of what it takes to make yourself a professional.
Keep in mind that best-selling authors take these self-editing steps and then work with a professional editor to find the spots they missed. Publishing houses will always assign a professional editor to your book.
Using professional book editing services works in the same way as beta readers but with a trained professional focus to give your book the best readability and flow.
If you are serious about your writing career, hiring an editor for each of the three stages of the editing process is a satisfying investment in your author career.
Just as you create story, characters, and worlds the professional editor has an eye for your story, your language, and the tiny details. Think of it as merged energy between you and your editor to create a professional manuscript.
All editors are not created equal.
Every genre has tropes that meet reader expectations. Find an editor who is familiar with your genre. A Regency romance will have different story and language parameters than a techno-thriller. You can start your search for the right editor at The Creative Penn editor resource page.
What's your book editing process like? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Zara Altair writes traditional mysteries set in Ostrogoth, Italy when murder was not a crime. A mystery lover since childhood, she has written about writing for a number of publications, including ProWritingAid and International Thriller Writer, and is a member of Sisters in Crime. She writes about mystery writing at Write Time.
Follow her mystery writing tips on YouTube. Zara lives in Beaverton, OR, where she reads, walks among trees, and practices Italian cooking. Find her on Twitter @ZaraAltair
[Laptop photo courtesy rawpixel and Unsplash.]