Mysteries explained: The editing process

Hiya, friends. Thought I’d re-post something from Women and Words here (tweaked a little for updating purposes).

This is a post I did on the different kinds of editors and how they figure in publishing. Someone recently found it and pinged it, saying it was “useful.” So I figured I’d pass it along to you.

So let’s go find out about the editing process, one of the mysteries of publishing.

As some of you know, I occasionally let fly with a blog post about the publishing business, geared toward readers and aspiring (and perspiring, perhaps) writers. The last one I did — on royalties — sparked a lot of discussion, which was cool.

So today I thought I’d talk a bit about editing. That is, the process a manuscript goes through on its way to book-dom. There are many different types of editing, and a manuscript most likely will go through each one.


Okay, so a publisher has decided to sign you up for publication. Go, you! I’ve decided to start here, rather than point out that I recommend that you hire a freelance editor to go through your manuscript before you send it off even for consideration. That’s a step geared more toward authors. So let’s hop right to publication process.

Your book is under contract, and your publisher considers where in the schedule to put it. Most of the time, it’s 9 months to a year from contract to publication, though that does vary (maybe 6-9 months), with the advent of ebook-only presses. That cuts out the wheeling, dealing, and scheduling with traditional printers. It depends on the publisher. And if you’re self-publishing, it depends on what you manage to work out with your editor(s), proofreader(s), and cover designers. For the sake of argument here, let’s pretend you’re working with a traditional house.

The publisher then hires/assigns an editor to the project. Most often, the publisher puts the editor directly in contact with the author and the two of them work together, keeping in mind the publisher’s schedule.

But what does that mean? What goes on with “editing”? First, let me explain what a good editor does, from an info sheet I put together for the authors I work with:

Professional editors are not ghost writers. They do not want to write your book for you. They want you to succeed as a writer, and they’re honored to be part of that journey. They will, however, offer suggestions for re-writes and maybe provide their own example of what a better-worded construction would look like, but they know this is YOUR book. A good editor is able to figure out your style and where you’re going with your story and she’s able to help you get there WITHIN THE VISION YOU THE AUTHOR HAVE SET. A good editor works within the parameters you have set. I use a mechanic analogy to illustrate this point. If you bring your 1997 Toyota Camry into my shop, you’re going to leave with a 1997 Toyota Camry. It’ll run better, it’ll be detailed (and smell and look pretty), but it will still be the car you brought in. If you bring a 1997 Toyota Camry into a shop and you leave with a completely different make and model of vehicle, something’s not right. So, too, with editing.

My job as your editor is not to re-write your work. It’s not to write the story I want to write because it’s not my story. It’s yours. My job is to look at your story, fine-tune it, provide alternative directions if something doesn’t feel right, offer suggestions for you, the author, to consider, and hopefully make it a stronger narrative. Ultimately, it’s an author’s decision whether she wants to take those suggestions. Like a mechanic, I can tell you that you need a brake job, but it’s up to you, the driver, as to whether you want to get it. My advice is based on years of experience in the industry, and I offer it to you to do with as you choose, like a mechanic does.

Okay, here’s a primer on types of editors, also from the info sheet I wrote, along with a continuation of my mechanic analogy:

Developmental (or substantive) editor
You’ll probably hear these terms interchangeably. Technically, that’s fine. These are the editors who see your work prior to publication. They’re big picture kinds of editors. That is, they go over your infrastructure, characters, narrative, plot arcs, subplots. They’re looking to ensure that all things hang together. They’ll recommend scene additions, scene cuts, re-thinking things, getting rid of things altogether, and usually extensive re-writes. They work closely with an author to help that author do the heavy lifting of a manuscript. Think of this type of editor as the car mechanic who pulls the engine out of the car, takes it apart, and then shows you how to put it back together.

These are the editors who see your work after a substantive editor has done his or her thing and you, the author, have created a draft based on that. By the time a manuscript reaches a copyeditor, there should be no major issues at all with the manuscript. This is how the process works in mainstream publishing, but some houses and niche publishing use a person who is a substantive editor/copyeditor all rolled into one. Most of us are. But technically, most mainstream/large publishers tend to use different types of editors at different stages of the game. Anyway, copyeditors check grammar, spelling, flow, narrative, facts, and ensure that things like names, dates, places are consistent throughout. For example, a good copyeditor will see a minor character’s name listed as “Jon” in his first appearance in the book and will notice that it changed to “John” twenty pages later. Sometimes called “line editors” because they go line by line, copyeditors are thus the kind of mechanic who tunes your engine. She checks your oil, your filters, your fluids, the air in your tires, and makes a few recommendations for you, the author, to consider.

These are the people who see the manuscript when it’s in final form, usually. That’s prior to publication. A proofreader (who can be other types of editor, as well) is another set of eyes and she’s just looking for really obvious things like spelling and grammar or mistakes that were introduced during the copyediting process. She also checks consistency in names and that kind of thing. This is the final gate-check before publication. In auto mechanic terms, she’s detailing your car.

There are a few other types, mostly in mainstream publishing, but we’ll keep it to these for our purposes here.

In lesfic, a manuscript most often goes initially to an “editor.” That editor is expected, usually, to do a substantive (if necessary) AND a copyedit on your manuscript. In mainstream publishing, a manuscript would go to a substantive editor prior to sending it to a copyeditor. Alternatively, in mainstream publishing, a manuscript would not be contracted if it required a substantive edit and instead, an acquiring editor at a mainstream house would recommend to an author that he or she hire a substantive editor and then re-submit for consideration.

All right, so let’s say I’ve been assigned to work with an author. The publisher sends me a copy of the manuscript and I’ll send an email to the author introducing myself. I’ll also provide a brief background of my editing experience, and explain my editing philosophy (which I provided above). Then it’s a back-and forth between me and the author.

1. I do an initial read-through of the manuscript to get a feel for the author’s style, and a big picture view of the direction the author is going. I’ll also be able to pick out issues I feel the author needs to address.

2. I begin my edit, which is usually a hybridization of developmental and copyediting. I’m taking the engine out and taking it apart, but also thinking like a copyeditor. I thus keep track of spellings and phrasings that the author uses that are unique to the author (and not necessarily incorrect) and place name and character name spellings. I keep a list of these so I can make sure that they’re consistent throughout the manuscript.

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3. A deep edit (my term) like my hybrid developmental/copyedit usually takes me at least 40 hours. Sometimes longer, maybe around 60. I use “track changes” in Word so that the author can see what I’ve suggested she change, see comments/questions I’ve raised in the margin of the document, and see corrections I’ve made. I also make longer comments at the end of chapters if I feel it’s warranted.

4. I’ve completed my edit. I’ll send the manuscript back to the author instructing her to “yay” or “nay” the changes I made and suggest other options if she doesn’t like a suggestion I’ve made. That’s fine. Editing is a dialogue between editor and author. I usually include a separate overview for the author, in which I note some of the things with regard to craft, plot, and style I feel the author needs to address. The manuscript is now with the author for an extended period of time for her to deal with.

5. Author finishes with the manuscript and sends it back to me, usually with her own questions and comments. She’s either accepted or denied the changes I suggested, so the manuscript will look a lot cleaner than when I sent it to her. Now I go through her suggestions and either accept them or contact her with an alternative suggestion. This part of the process may take around 2-3 hours total, but if I have to contact the author again, it might take longer, pending her response to my email(s). I may send the whole thing back for another read-through, if I feel it’s necessary.

6. Once we’ve got this second draft okay’ed between us, I then send the manuscript to the publisher. While all that editing has been going on, the publisher has had a designer working on a book cover, and that designer will be working with the author, as well, but the publisher has final say over book covers unless contracted otherwise.

7. The publisher takes that manuscript that I sent back and sends it to a proofreader for a new set of eyes. The proofreader will contact the editor (me) if she has questions about anything. And yes, proofreaders do catch things, and thank goodness for the fresh set of eyes!

8. The proofreader finishes, makes the corrections (hopefully, there aren’t many), and sends the manuscript back to the publisher who then sends it in for typesetting. That’s how the manuscript is going to look on the printed (e-printed) page.

9. Once the manuscript is typeset and in .pdf format, the publisher sends it back to the author for a final check. The author will now read through it again, and she’ll find things that need correction, because every time a manuscript changes formats, it’s almost like a new set of eyes, and errors show. At this stage of the game, the author cannot make major changes. She can correct spelling and grammar, but she has to maintain the integrity of each page and not add extra lines/paragraphs.

10. Once the author is done with the typeset proof, she sends it back to the publisher, who makes the corrections and prepares the file for publication/release.

So there you have it! A bit about editing and the journey a manuscript makes from author to publication. It’s a work-intensive journey, and involves a lot of different hands, but hopefully you, the reader, end up with a quality product that provides lots of enjoyment.

Happy reading, happy writing, happy editing.

6 thoughts on “Mysteries explained: The editing process

  1. A very clear, inclusive, and detailed run-down. I think ever publisher should offer such an article to both their editors and authors before the editing process starts. One of the most important points and that the author and editor are a team both aiming to provide the best product possible. Thank you!

  2. Pingback: Different types of editors in publishing, cont. | Andi Marquette

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