My heart hurts when I get this kind of email from an author:
I already hired a proofreader who cleaned up my manuscript, so now I’m looking for big picture edits.
Ooooh, how my heart hurts right now.
Because the author has wasted money on the wrong editorial services. Their manuscript may be mostly free of typos, but that doesn’t help them when chapters will be rewritten, scenes will be added, and the manuscript will need to be proofread all over again before it’s ready for readers. No proofreader should agree to take on a project that hasn't been through other rounds of editing first, but apparently someone is doing this. So please, beloved writers, take care. Do your research (by reading this article) and save yourself time, energy, and money.
The Editorial Process, in the Right Order:
Let’s break this down.
Write and Complete the First Draft
This is no easy feat! It can take months or years. By the time you’ve finished your story, you know your characters and plot better than anyone else in the world, and you’ve likely memorized entire lines from the manuscript. This makes you the best person to tell the story...and the worst person to critique it. What you need next is a fresh perspective.
Beta readers/critique partners offer big picture insights on how they felt while reading your story. This process will let you know your manuscript’s strengths and areas for improvement, and hopefully allow you to revise before you hire an editor. This will save the editor time, which saves you money. You can pay professional beta readers, but I recommend reaching out to readers in your community, whether online or in-person. Often, fellow writers will give you feedback on your work for free. Be sure to return the favor.
Developmental Editing / Editorial Report
After you’ve revised your first draft, it’s ready to be seen by a professional developmental editor. These editors are well-versed in storytelling structure. They help you hook your readers and keep them hooked with smooth pacing, give you advice to make your characters come to life on the page, and can discuss your story’s themes and plot with you in detail. A full developmental edit will include multiple rounds of editing (passing the manuscript back and forth so that the editor can review your revisions), and the editor will offer concrete solutions for major issues like plot holes and weak characterization.
An editorial report is a more affordable, lighter version of developmental editing. It includes a detailed assessment of your manuscript’s strength and growth areas, and may offer limited suggestions for improvement. It’s more affordable than a full developmental edit. Choosing one or both of these options may make sense for you, depending on your budget and your manuscript’s needs.
Line editors focus on the prose at the sentence level. This may involve rewriting sentences to improve clarity, emotional impact, tone, and stylistic consistency. While that sounds daunting to some writers, a good line editor should preserve and strengthen your voice rather than change it. Additionally, remember that the writer is always the final arbiter. At every stage of the writing process, Track Changes is on, meaning writers can see exactly what edits were made. They remain in full control of the final text at all times.
Some writers skip line editing or hire an editor who provides both line and copyediting in one go (as I do).
Copyeditors correct typos and catch minor plot inconsistencies, remaining plot holes, and timeline errors. Is it Friday three times in a row? Do a character’s green eyes inexplicably turn brown ten chapters later? Does the hero’s friend live in “Montreal, in the west of Canada”? Is it course or coarse? Were the first ten pages in third-person and past tense, but then the writer switched to first-person and present tense?
The questions go on. Copyediting is an art and a science, and a trained copyeditor will produce a manuscript free of the kinds of errors that inspire one-star reviews from frustrated readers.
No individual can catch every typo. Even after all of these rounds of editing, typos will remain. A fresh pair of eyes will correct the book to as near perfection as is possible.
Finally, the book needs to be readable, whether it’s printed or sold as an e-book. A designer/formatter can ready the text for publication, or authors can do it themselves after they research how. The choice depends on whether the author would rather save time or money.
Does every manuscript require every editorial service? I don’t think so. The services depend on the manuscript’s needs. In general, editors ought to read a sample of your work before agreeing to take it on. I prefer to read fifteen pages of the manuscript: the first five, five from the middle, and the final five. This gives me a clear idea of what kind of editing the story needs, which is imperative for making the process as easy as possible for you.
Remember the general rule: Go from big picture to small picture. This applies to self-editing, too. There’s no reason to focus on the placement of commas in a chapter if the chapter might later be deleted. No matter what editing path you choose, make sure you’re improving your book in the right order.