How many stages of editing does your book really need?

how many rounds of edits do you need lynsey g

You’ve spent a lot of time and energy putting together the first draft of your amazing, one-of-a-kind, world-changing book! You’ve written and edited, written more and edited more, handed it over to your BFFs and family members to check out, and at long last…you’re ready to let your creation be examined by an editorial professional. So, what next? You’ve heard of about a zillion different types of editing, but you’ve got a limited budget, and you’re so ready to get this book out into the world… How much editing do you really need to prepare your book for publication?

Honestly? Three rounds of edits. Ideally by three different editors. At least. I know that sounds like a lot, but there’s are a whole lot of reasons why your book deserves at least three editorial professionals. The most important one is simple: More eyes = better book. The more points of view (especially those with training and experience behind them), the more likely that your plot holes, grammar errors, and comma splices will all be caught and fixed. And every editorial professional excels—and most specialize—in one area more than others. If your book gets each of the below editorial processes from a different editor, it will be in tip-top shape when it comes time to put it out into the world!*

Here are the three most important editorial steps your book should be put through:

1. The Developmental Edit.

This round of editing can go by a few different names—substantive edit, structural edit, developmental edit—but they all refer to the same process. Your developmental editor is your big-idea consultant—the one who will check the architecture of your book to make sure it’s sound. They’ll read through your book to look for the big stuff: plot holes, character arcs, general developmental issues. In most cases, if you’re working with a traditional publishing company, your editor there will also be your developmental editor. Sometimes an agent may engage in developmental edits with clients, as well.

If you’re self-publishing or otherwise need to hire someone to help you with your developmental edit, it’s important to find someone who understands the book you’re writing (its genre, its purpose, and so on. But more than that, it’s important that this person understands you as a person. Developmental edits can go deep, sometimes requiring big-time re-writes. And that kind of editing can be painful. If you’re working with someone who you connect with and have an easy time communicating with, the process will be much easier to get through! Furthermore, a developmental edit can last for several rounds. (The second round, for what it’s worth, is often called a “line edit,” as the editor checks through the changes that have been made, line by line, to look for errors.) Basically, you’ll be working closely with this person for a while, so the more you like them, the better!

2. The Copyedit.

Think of your copyeditor as your consistency wizard. In the process of working with your substantive editor, it’s likely that you’ll make some big changes. A copyeditor’s job is to catch these. They’ll also keep track of the little things: the spelling of your characters’ names, where they put their car keys in one scene and whether that’s where they retrieved them from later on, and whether the timeline makes sense.

On top of all those details, copyeditors are grammar and punctuation experts and those make corrections as they work. A great copyeditor will be careful to respect your writing style, punctuation preferences, and other eccentricities, and will walk a delicate tight rope between correcting errors and undoing your unique work. The copyeditor’s job is to know all the rules, understand what you prefer as an author, and make executive decisions based on all that knowledge.

Great copyeditors also create style sheets as they work. These are reference guides that will explain to you, your editor, and your proofreader the rules that apply to your book—and the unspoken rules that you, as a writer, have created. Things like your comma-usage preferences, details about your characters, and sometimes the timeline of your story. This style sheet can be a great guide for later books in the series, as well as for the next editor in line: the proofreader.

3. The proofread.

Your proofreader is your clean-up crew. With all the editing that’s been done, it’s inevitable that some things have gotten jumbled. In the styling and layout process, too, it’s likely that a few errors will be introduced. A proofreader will check over your formatted book (the proof) and fix remaining problems, errors you introduced when you made edits, and issues introduced during design. When you added that much-needed comma the copyeditor suggested, for instance, did you put it on the correct side of the space? Are words at the end of the lines broken in the wrong places? That kind of thing.

A proofreader’s job is to tread as lightly as possible so as not to rock a nearly-launched boat, but to be sure that errors don’t end up in the finished book. They’re usually your last line of defense. (Although, in some cases, a cold reader and possibly a slugger will also go over the book to do further checks, but this is growing less common, even in major publishing houses.)

Extra Tip: Don’t Skip Steps!

Those are the most basic, most common, and most important stages of editing. If you ask me (and I guess you kind of have if you’ve read this far), they’re the indispensable ones. You might find yourself tempted to do without at least one of these, and I understand why. These steps can each be expensive (prices vary wildly from editor to editor…but that’s another blog post!). And even if you are made of money, they’re time-consuming. Each edit can take from several weeks up to a few months. And it’s certainly possible to skip a step or two and still end up with a good book! But if you follow these three steps, you’re far more likely to end up with a polished, error-free book.

A tempting shortcut that’s available is to find one person to do all of these tasks. Or to cross your fingers and hope that the copyeditor will fix every error on the first go-through. Then you won’t need a proofreader! Truthfully, there are a few rare individuals who might be able to tackle both steps easily! Outside of astonishing internet videos, few people can do two jobs at once and do them well. The truth is this. For most books, the greater the number of trained professionals that look at it, the closer to perfect your book will become. It can be time-consuming and expensive, but your book will benefit. A lot.


* – Please note that traditional publishing houses often cover editing. If you’re self-publishing or working with a small, indie publisher, you will likely need to provide some or all of these edits. Even if you have a publisher, make sure that you talk to them about what editing they’ll provide. You may want to supplement what they can do for you.

If you’re interested in finding help with your own writing process—any kind of editing or even one-on-one accountability buddying, coaching, or advice—let me know! I’m a certified, trained editor with years of experience under my belt, and I’m always looking for ways to help!

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