The editing process can be confusing to first-time authors and published authors alike. Which is why it’s especially important to know what editing involves, and the different types of book editing that are at an author’s disposal.
Editing is intimately tied to the author’s creative process. It’s the first step in the publication chain and involves someone carefully reading through your manuscript, then offering feedback on a number of levels: from stylistic, character and plot analysis to basic spelling and grammar corrections. The editor’s job is more than just catching typos. Your editor is in many ways your creative partner, a professional whose job is to bring the best out in your book, to push you out of your comfort zone and challenge you to aim higher.
Sadly, far too many self-published authors forego the editing stage when publishing their book. If self-publishing today has a reputation for breeding lesser-quality products than those produced by trade publishers, it’s largely because so many uninformed authors continue to underestimate the value of a professional editor, skipping it altogether. Editing is often considered a non-essential luxury. But the truth is, if your goal is to compete with trade-published books in your genre, you’ll need the services an editor provides.
The different types of book editing
There exist different levels or types of editing that can be included in the publishing process. A book published by the Big Five (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster) will typically include all levels, in order to ensure the best possible quality of writing. As a self-published author, you can decide which types of editing to use, depending on your publishing goals (and budget).
When done properly, editing should follow a certain order. You shouldn’t have someone checking spelling and grammar before you’ve gotten feedback on the overall structure and flow of your story (there’s no point correcting the grammar of sentences that may not exist in the next draft). The different types of editing below are listed in the order in which they should be undertaken.
Structural edit (Manuscript critique)
The structural edit always comes first. It involves having an editor conduct a bird’s-eye view analysis of your manuscript, after which she or he will provide feedback and recommendations on the building blocks of your manuscript: plot, characters and flow. The feedback you get from a structural edit can often lead to major rewrites, or even complete reorganizations of sections of your story, its characters and order.
While the structural edit addresses a manuscript on a broad level, a line edit approaches a manuscript line by line. The goal in the line edit is to review how the author’s language is being used to convey story and ideas. Is the language clear, is the style consistent, are there breaks or unevenness in the flow of writing? The line edit isn’t about correcting mistakes and grammar. It’s a fine-tooth review of your manuscript’s substance, making sure your language is best serving your content.
Once the structural and/or line edits have been completed and the manuscript has reached its final form, it’s time for a copy edit. The copy edit addresses flaws on a very technical level: among these are spelling and grammar mistakes, typos, inconsistencies, factually incorrect statements. The copy edit is no longer concerned with how you’re communicating your story (that’s the job of a line edit). It cares only about combing your manuscript for mistakes.
As the name suggests, proofreading involves reading a proof of your book. In other words, it takes place once your book has been designed and formatted for print. The proofreader reads through a copy of your final book (generally in PDF format, occasionally in hard copy). The focus here is to catch any mistakes (typos, spelling, blatant grammatical blunders) that were missed in previous rounds of editing, and to make sure the book goes to print as error-free as possible.
The self-published author has the freedom to choose which types of editing she wishes for her manuscript. While a structural edit can be reserved for those authors who are dedicated to improving their craft, any author who plans to sell their book commercially should plan for at least two rounds of editing: one round of line editing followed by a round of copy editing.
It is possible in some instances to combine line and copy editing into a single round. But authors who go this route should be aware that it will affect the quality of the editing. Asking an editor to simultaneously provide feedback on a story’s content while also checking for spelling and grammar mistakes is somewhat akin to asking someone to simultaneously tap their head and rub their stomach. It’s possible, but difficult to do flawlessly. One should expect a manuscript edited in this way to still have mistakes once the editing is complete. The reason line editing and copy editing are done separately is because both require a level of attention that makes it nearly impossible for someone to do both (properly) at the same time.
Once your book is published and ready to be sold, it will be competing with hundreds if not thousands of other books, both self- and trade-published. If you want your book to stand out, it has to at least be up to par with its professionally-published neighbors on the bookshelf. Having a flashy cover may grab a passerby’s attention, but it’s the quality of your content that will get them hooked. An unpolished story full of mistakes is as much of a turn-off to readers as a poorly designed cover image.
There’s a reason trade publishers have employed editors for over a hundred years. It’s because the work they do is crucial. Embrace this well-worn fact and invest in a professional editor. You won’t regret it.