The Complete Guide to Book Editing
Publishing your work doesn’t have to be a difficult, complex process.
Publishing a book can feel like a monumental task, especially when you do it on your own. There’s a whole world of design choices, marketing strategies, and printing options that you need to navigate before your book finds its audience. Count on Palmetto Publishing to guide you along the way.
Book editing is crucial but sometimes a scary part of writing a book. You’ve already invested so much of your time and energy into the manuscript, and in some cases, it feels like you’ve invested a piece of your soul.
When you’re that close to a project, how are you supposed to look at it objectively? How can you tell what’s working and what isn’t? There’s a possibility that you’ll miss large problems or stop out of frustration.
Take a breath. You’ve already done the hardest part — you’ve created something new. This book editing guide will help you tackle the rest. After going over some important distinctions, it lays out an editing road map. Wherever your project is now, this is what you need to turn it into a strong, publishable book.
Book Editing 101
Like all disciplines, book editing uses a specialized vocabulary. Here are some essential distinctions and available resources.
The right vocabulary can help you clarify your objectives during self-editing. When working with others, it’s even more important to establish clear expectations. Note that these definitions have some fluidity and overlap built into them. Talk to any editor you consider using to make sure that you’re on the same page.
Different Types of Editing
Editing covers a range of activities. They all center on improving your book, but different types of editing focus on different areas and are suited to different stages of the process.
You can — and should — perform these critiques on your own work, but it’s also useful to get input from an expert outsider. Depending on the level of engagement you want, you’ll pay different rates.
So, what are the different types of editing? And how much is book editing?
Palmetto editing services include:
- Developmental editing. A detailed analysis of the manuscript and advice on how to improve it at every level. (Starting at $0.08 per word)
- Line editing. Some general feedback on overarching elements but focusing on tone, organization, and line-level edits. (Starting at $0.033 per word)
- Copy editing. A late-stage pass to fix clarity, flow, grammar, and typos. (Starting at $0.026 per word)
Your needs depend on the state and stage of your manuscript. Here’s a little more clarification on these and other services you might see offered.
Developmental editing is big-picture editing. You should expect comprehensive feedback about what works and what doesn’t in your manuscript.
If your manuscript is fiction, a developmental editor should address story-level concerns about plots, characters, and individual scenes. Non-fiction writers will get suggestions on structure and theme. Editors will help them focus and convey their central message.
No matter your genre, you should also receive notes on voice and style. A good editor will provide examples, but the advice will cover repeated issues or opportunities for improvement.
- Find the right editor for you. Chemistry matters. You want a good editor with whom you communicate well. The process should leave you invigorated and inspired, not frustrated.
- Be open-minded. It can be hard to hear critiques. Trust editors to provide a valuable perspective, and stay open to their ideas. That said, remember that at the end of the day, this is your book. You make the final choices.
- Prepare to be patient and re-write large portions. Most books go through multiple drafts. Keep old drafts in separate files, so that you can look at earlier versions if you ever feel something has been lost.
Line editing is the middle ground between developmental editing and copy editing. The editor should still pay attention to overarching issues, and you might get some general suggestions for improvement.
But the focus is on local issues. How can individual scenes and sentences be stronger? How can they better contribute to the whole?
You’ll get little suggestions throughout instead of synthesized, large-scale ideas for revision. The editor should also correct obvious errors of continuity and grammar.
Copy editing is an even more tightly focused edit on the sentences of the manuscript. The editor will improve clarity and flow and tighten language and grammar.
A proofreader makes a final pass over a manuscript. They check for literal mistakes such as typos, errors of punctuation, and formatting issues with the manuscript.
Note: There’s a lot of potential overlap and confusion between line editing, copy editing, and proofreading. Any professional book editor will have established their own vocabulary, so discuss the parameters of their services.
But here’s one way to think about the possible distinctions between forms of book editing and proofreading. Let’s say a line editor, a copy editor, and a proofreader all look at the same piece of dialogue (which sounds like the opening to a strange joke).
The line editor will tell you if it’s well-placed and consistent with the character’s voice. A copy editor makes sure that the writing is clear and strong. A proofreader checks it for mistakes and typos.
Even fiction writers need to create worlds and characters that feel real. Non-fiction writers must be fact-perfect.
You can do your own fact-checking, paying attention to potential problem areas. You can also hire a professional.
Pro-tip: If you want an affordable specialist on a subject, reach out to departments at local universities. Ask them if they could pass along this opportunity to any graduate students who might be a good fit. They’re often excited about a fun chance to earn a little extra money.
Most writers get several different pairs of eyes on their manuscripts before publication. You’ll need at least some of the following.
You are your primary editor. You are the expert on this story or material. There’s no version of the editing process that doesn’t involve some careful work on your part.
Editing applications have become more sophisticated and more popular in recent years. If you’re interested, you have multiple options for good book-editing software.
Depending on what you choose, these apps can help you identify:
- Grammar, usage, and spelling errors
- Problematic words or phrases
- Wordy or unclear constructions
They make a great supplement to your editing toolkit, but note that they still have serious limitations. They’re no substitute for a human editor.
The Beta Reader
Think of a professional editor as your alpha reader. They treat your manuscript as a manuscript — a living document in which they can make changes and suggestions.
Beta readers instead treat your manuscript as a book. They might note a few mistakes along the way, but they give you general impressions about what they like and what they don’t. They can help you understand how close the manuscript is to being done.
Good readers are invaluable, and there are plenty of places to find beta readers. You might use friends, family, or freelancers. One of the best options is to find other writers with whom to exchange manuscripts.
Finally, you can hire a professional book editor to give you the benefit of their expertise.
There’s a lot of debate over when to hire an editor, and the right answer varies by the author and manuscript. Take stock of your abilities and resources as you decide what you most need.
The 10 Steps of Editing a Book
Now that we’ve established a common vocabulary, let’s look at the process of editing a book. How can you take your manuscript from its first draft to the best book it can be?
That’s right. The first step in editing your book is to do absolutely nothing. Put the book down and walk away for a couple of weeks.
You need to separate yourself from the momentum that carried you through the initial composition. Then you can really see what’s on the page instead of the driving intention behind it.
Once you’ve given yourself — and your book — a break, read back over the entire thing. You can make notes as you read, but get through the whole manuscript without making any major changes.
Engage with the text as a reader. If you picked it up, what would you find satisfying? What isn’t working yet?
3. Look at the Big Picture
At this stage, don’t worry too much about individual sentences or scenes. Focus on the bigger elements of the text.
Start by redefining the story or argument. What’s this book about? You’ll want to keep this answer in front of you as you go through the rest of this book editing guide.
Re-outline the book, as well. Create a new scene or chapter catalog that tracks the main theme or plot as well as any minor arcs. What’s there, and what isn’t but should be?
This is also the time to tackle characterization, world-building, and the fit between your book and its imagined audience.
Pro-tip: Pay particular attention to the first few pages of the manuscript. Do you start your book in the right place? Will it hook readers?
4. Break it into Pieces
Once you understand the overarching structure or plot, you can focus on strengthening individual scenes or chapters.
For each of these pieces, make a note about the point of the episode. How does this contribute to the whole? What do you want to accomplish through it? (Tip: if you struggle to answer the question, the scene may not belong in the book.)
Then follow through on these intentions.
5. Try the Change that Scares You
One of the most common mistakes in editing is getting too comfortable with the material already on the page. It’s easy to think of certain elements of your book as static givens rather than dynamic choices.
There’s probably one niggling suspicion or concern about a major element of the text. Would it be better if you struck a subplot or added a major character? Does your non-fiction work need a less-obvious inclusion to make it stand out?
Force yourself to make a huge, scary choice and then live in that version of the text for a few days. It may not be right for the book, and you may go back to the original. Even if you do, you’ll have a newfound confidence in those earlier decisions.
6. Fix Any Problems of Accuracy, Continuity, and Clarity
Do you need to do some additional fact-checking? How’s the continuity of your world and plot? Are there ideas or connections that you know aren’t yet clear? Do multiple characters blend together so that a reader might confuse them?
A book is a huge undertaking with many moving pieces in play. Rework anything that might confuse your reader. For example, many fiction writers accidentally give characters names that are too similar. If one of your protagonist’s best friends is named Maggie, don’t name the other one Megan.
7. Make Line Edits
It’s time to delve into the nitty-gritty details. How can you strengthen your writing and improve your manuscript at the level of individual sentences?
You can find plenty of tips to tighten your copy. Get rid of adverbs. Vary sentence length and language. Streamline your prose by getting rid of wordy phrases and instances of the passive voice.
Sometimes, it’s hard to see these problems on the computer screen. Try these two tricks:
- Print it out. Pick up a pencil and edit the manuscript manually. The shift in format can help you focus.
- Read it aloud. Is your book easy to read? If not, why not? Reading your work aloud will force you to confront awkward bits of writing.
Here is where those editing apps really can help. Don’t rely on them to catch everything or make changes without checking to ensure that they work in context. However, the messy process of editing has probably left you with a slew of typos. Let editing apps help.
9. Get Outside Perspectives and Fresh Eyes
You’ve finished the first draft — maybe even the second draft — but how do you know when you’re done? When is the book ready for release?
Good writers don’t assume that they’re entirely sufficient in and of themselves. Good writers get input from good readers and editors.
10. Revise Accordingly
Incorporate the feedback you receive into the manuscript. Then go back to step one. Set it aside for a few days and then take stock.
Where is this version of the book? Which of these steps do you need to revisit?
Editing is an iterative process, not a single box you can check on the way to publication. You may need another draft — or three. That’s okay and perfectly normal.
Let Us Help
Editing is hard. Finding a good editor doesn’t have to be. At Palmetto, we honor your manuscript with enthusiasm, respect, and thoughtful critique at every level.
Take advantage of Palmetto editing services. Let’s work together to realize your creative vision.