Editing A Book • The 5 Stages

Editing a book is a complex, multi-part process that is best handled by experienced professionals, even if you are self-publishing, and even if you diligently spend a lot of time self-editing.

There are five main stages to editing a book to the proper standard, although some stages can be combined, repeated, expanded upon, or even skipped, depending on your individual needs (which is a polite way of saying: depending on how much of a dog’s dinner you made of things).

As a regular maker of dog’s dinners myself, I have become intimately acquainted with all five stages and can break down how to edit a book properly, as well as giving you various options depending on your individual needs or budget, and point you to some more resources too.

The five main stages of editing are beta readers, self-editing, story editing (which you may know as developmental or content editing), copy editing, and, finally, proofing. It’s important to note there certainly isn’t one correct way to edit; you will need to develop your own process. You will find advice on that below as well, along with help on finding an editor.

Beta readers

What is a beta reader? Sometimes known as a first reader, a beta reader is someone that reads an early version of your book and gives you feedback so you know what needs to be improved.

Writers can be blind to flaws in their own work, partly because we often have the whole story in our heads regardless of what made it out onto the page.

Another person has the requisite emotional distance to spot such omissions and to come at your book cold and point out any deficiencies. Beta readers more usually look at big picture stuff – story problems. Do your jokes hit the mark? Is the core romance believable? Did the ending work? Are your characters fully fleshed out? Is the dialog natural? And so on.

Authors use beta readers in different ways – and some don’t use them at all! Although it is quite common to lean on them more heavily when writing your first few books then using them considerably less when you are more experienced or dispensing with them altogether.

Some authors will seek feedback from beta readers after every draft, or on particularly thorny sections more than once. Others will only use beta readers at a particular point – like after the final or penultimate draft.

Personally, I have always liked using beta readers after the second draft, and then I use my final, third draft for incorporating whatever feedback resonated with me, as well as general polish. You will have to plot your own path but feel free to experiment with different approaches.

Anyone can act as your beta reader, but keep in mind that fellow authors often make the best beta readers of all. Whoever fills the role, make sure it’s someone willing to give you blunt and honest feedback. It might sting more (spoiler: it does sting more!).

Every beta reader is different, but I usually ask them to focus on story stuff – big picture issues – as the actual text will probably be polished considerably anyway. What I really need to know is whether the big twist works, or if my villain is compelling enough.

Finally, also remember that you are not compelled to accept all feedback. You are the ultimate arbiter of your work, for good or ill. Developing the requisite judgement is part of the job, but at the beginning you might benefit from multiple beta readers and listening closely when issues crop up with more than one of them.

Beta readers can only help so much; the real yeoman’s work of editing a book will be done when self-editing.

Self-editing

Make no mistake: self-editing is not a replacement for professional editing. Nor is it optional for those already planning a professional edit. It’s a compulsory step when editing a book regardless.

An editor is absolutely essential, for reasons that will become clear momentarily, but even the best editor in the world will be limited by the quality of the manuscript they are working with.

The more you can improve your manuscript before firing it at your editor, the better the final product will be. Self-editing will also improve your overall skill as a writer, and teach you to stop repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

Although if my experience is anything to go by, this just means you will make new and better mistakes. Reader, I’m a work in progress too.

To learn more about this essential process, I strongly recommend you read my comprehensive guide to self-editing. Well, I say “mine” but I invited along a professional editor to write it for you – it’s a bumper post of over 5,000 words of superb editorial advice.

What is self-editing? In this comprehensive post by a professional editor, self-editing is explained and you will learn how to edit your own book, but also why it isn't a replacement for professional editing

Story editing

Story editing is often known as developmental editing (or dev editing for short), or content editing, or even substantive editing.

It’s also by far the most expensive type of editing, unless you wander into the (sometimes) murky world of book coaches, where you could end up shelling out thousands and thousands of dollars.

Developmental editors look at big picture stuff to do with your overall story: is your hero weak sauce? Is the love interest annoying? How can you fix the giant plot hole in Chapter 7? Does the cliffhanger work? Did readers feel… nothing when Supposedly Hilarious Sidekick died? That kind of thing.

Most self-publishers will use beta readers instead of hiring a developmental editor because they are just so expensive (which is because developmental editing is very time-consuming, not because such editors are some form of literary brigand). And this feedback from beta readers will tend to be incorporated in conjunction with doing multiple drafts and several self-editing passes.

Newer authors especially may be well served by a developmental edit, but I recommend exploring options like a manuscript assessment instead of a full developmental edit.

Instead of a line-by-line commentary on your story, you will receive a ten-page-ish report on the story aspects, replete with concrete examples – which is usually more than enough to get started on those bigger issues.

Regardless of your exact approach, what a story edit won’t do is look at language use, or grammar, or mechanics. For that, you need a copy edit.

Copy editing a book

Copy editing doesn’t look at that story stuff at all, but things like spelling, grammar, and punctuation as well as general language usage and overall style.

Traditionally, line editing is separate and focuses on style (and is done before copy editing). However, copy editors serving the self-publishing market understand that these roles are basically combined these days, and your copy editor should look at your overall language usage – things like repetition and clarity and clunkiness and simply whether a sentence scans correctly – as well as eliminating errors throughout.

All those successive drafts and beta reads and self-editing can result in sentences which just get all tangled up, but a good copy editor should help you straighten it all out. This is the final polish, but not the final step.

Proofing

Proofing is the very last stage in editing a book, after which your manuscript will be locked down and the god of Bacchus will be invoked for the traditional bout of feasting.

You can handle this in-house if you have an eye for spotting errors – all that temping I did in college paid off! – but do note that we can be particularly blind to errors in our own work.

I find it beneficial to proof the text in a different context. By this I mean printing the whole thing and taking it to a cafe, or even quickly formatting my book so I can read it on my Kindle somewhere outside the house (another good reason to buy one – indeed it’s the original reason I got mine, before I got hooked on ebooks).

My point is, you will be amazed how many fresh errors you will spot when reading your book in a different format.

Whether you outsource this step or do it yourself, just make sure someone scans the text for typos as they will surely be there, even with the best copy editor in the world.

Your process for editing a book

Every writer is different and should develop their own process for editing a book.

Some authors will only do one draft but will constantly cycle back and make changes as they go along. Others will write multiple drafts and go over the text from start to finish as many times as necessary until they are satisfied, focusing on a different aspect each time.

Most typical is probably your classic three draft author, but do whatever works best for you personally; there’s no Right Way here.

You will also see a lot of variation on the editorial side, with some authors preferring developmental editors, and others using beta readers – and even variation within that where people use betas at different stages.

My own process is as follows: the first draft is what I call the “vomit draft” – sorry! – and it’s when I try to get the bones of the story down before I lose the will to write it! This tends to be a really rough draft, hence the moniker, but no one gets to see it so I don’t really care about unfinished scenes, spelling mistakes, cardboard characters, non sequiturs, plot holes, or anything like that.

The reason I don’t care is because all of that will tend to get fixed in the second draft. And when I’m done with that I usually send it off to betas – although I use those far less now that I’m much more experienced – and then incorporate whatever feedback was useful to me in the final draft, while fixing all those errors as well.

Third draft is usually my final one, unless the book has serious problems, and it’s all about polish. Making the dialogue crackle. Injecting some voice into those descriptions. Using language more efficiently so the end result is leaner and meaner.

Then it’s all ready for the copy editor, and when she’s finished tearing it to pieces (and I’m finished moping about that like a big baby), I make all the changes that I agree with, which tends to be most of them once I let that feedback… simmer a little. I handle the proofing stage myself, and then, finally, I’m done!

My process won’t necessarily be your process – you will discover what works best for you over time.

Just ensure – at minimum – that you self-edit your book until it’s as good as it possibly can be, then hire a professional copy editor, incorporate the necessary changes, and then do your proofing until all typos and errors are eliminated.

Newer authors will almost certainly want to also add some extra TLC at the story stage as well, whether that’s a full-on developmental edit, a manuscript assessment, heavy self-editing, successive rounds of beta readers, or some combination thereof.

It has been different for me every time I’m editing a book, and can very much be a horses for courses affair.

Finding an editor

Newer authors can be intimidated by the prospect of finding an editor, but the process is not much different from hiring any other professional, whether that’s a plumber or a lawyer.

Whoever you ultimately work with, it’s usually a good idea to do a sample edit first to ensure you will work well together; every editor has their own style and not every author-editor pair is meant to be. A sample edit can spot issues ahead of time – for both sides – and most editors are happy to do it.

As for finding your own editor, a referral from a trusted source is often best – just make sure it’s an experienced editor who knows what they are doing. But you have a few options here:

  1. Crack open some of the best self-published books in your genre and Google the editor’s name; they will often have a website with rates quoted.
  2. Seek a referral from an author you know. Writers are always happy to share their experiences with editors and other service providers, and recommend the good ones.
  3. Check out my personal recommended list of providers – which you get as part of my free guide to self-publishing.
finding an editor can be a tricky business, but editing a book doesn't have to be stressful - my recommended list of providers will help
David Gaughran

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.


87 Replies to “Editing A Book • The 5 Stages”

  1. In case the date of the comments confuses anyone: this article was originally published in 2011 and I gave it a thorough update over the weekend.

    I will be refreshing a lot of the evergreen posts on this blog in a similar way as there are some really valuable posts like this that are a quite buried right now. It’s part of an overall overhaul of this blog in 2021 to make the best content easier to find. Just FYI.

    Comments are still open though (scroll all the way down for the box), so feel free to share your thoughts!

  2. Hi David. I have just finished my fantasy book of about 100 000 words, and had my fifth read through of editing on my own. I had a friend read the last one, and she gave me some pointers which were great.

    I keep finding things that are wrong and needs changing, and I´m sure I´ll never stop unless I hand it over to someone else – Because I am truly married to the story, and I can´t look at it objectively anymore. I am; however, having a hard time figuring out how to find the right editor, and the right price. I don´t want to waste my money on an editor who doesn’t really do my genre, or the amount of editing I want.

    I might have missed it on here, but do you have any pointers as to how to go about finding the right editor for “my” book? Also, English is only my second language, and so I am sure to have made a lot of mistakes. I know this is true at least regarding commas, as in my language we use them a lot more frequently. I was also thinking about attempting to send my manuscript off to a publisher, but I realized this is all because of wanting to know that a publisher would accept it, and being able to tell people about it. That´s not at all crucial! I just want people to read my work, and be successful at it. Plus – delivering the best possible finished product!
    – Thank you for all your great advice!

    1. Hi Lynn,

      I know you were writing in hopes of an answer from David, but I thought I’d also respond since I’ve written rather extensively on the subject of how to find and hire the right editor. You can read my blog post on the subject here: http://penultimateword.com/editing-blogs/your-4-point-checklist-for-hiring-a-freelance-editor/.
      And there’s a further article on my site on this topic here: http://penultimateword.com/editing/how-to-hire-a-freelance-editor/
      Best of luck in your search for the right editor. 🙂

  3. Thank you for the validation! It’s so nice to hear an author make a case for editors. I edit only nonfiction, but the partnership is just as important in that arena. My job is to help the author and the reader to connect as seamlessly as possible. Sometimes that means taking out a point that has wandered too far afield from the main premise, sometimes that means correcting the grammar so a sentence actually says what the author thinks it says. At all times, however, I try to maintain the author’s voice. It’s their project. I’m just along to help give them the best chance to communicate their vision by removing the obstacles in the reader’s way. Thank you for appreciating that!

  4. Great stuff, once again. I particularly like that you point out Indie authors settle for good enough. Good enough is not an aspiration. It’s the place where you give up. It’s a decision. You’ve decided not to try just a little bit harder.

  5. Hi David,

    You don’t know I happy I am to have discovered your website right now. I’d like some advice on an issue…

    I write for a growing lifestyle and entertainment website. I have done so for 2 years, free of charge. Recently, I submitted an article and when I saw the published version, it was over-edited to a point where I could not relate to it at first glance. I asked my beta readers to read the two versions and they could not relate with the final presentation as well. I’m typically open to suggestions or improvements to my articles and have in the past expressed appreciation for grammatical edits made without prior notice. However, in this case, some changes made to my article actually misinterpreted the original phrases. Also, certain paragraphs were deleted, which made the piece somewhat disjointed in certain areas. Bottom-line: the overall tone and flow were watered down.

    Given the extensive editing that was done, it would have been nice if the Column Editor ran these changes by me prior to posting the article. She didn’t and I am pretty pissed about it. I contacted her and, amidst all other issues with the published script, specifically asked her to reverse the changes made to a referenced quote because her suggested format did not distinguish my words from the quote. She neither responded nor made the changes. I have contacted the Chief Editor, relayed the issue to her, and requested that the article be pulled down from the website as my voice does not come through and I sound like someone else.

    My questions: Is it right for an editor to make extreme changes to a free lance writer’s work and publish it without communicating with the writer first? Aren’t writer and editor meant revise scripts with a common goal of publishing great work.

    What advice do you have for me going forward on this matter, especially if they do not respond to my emails 9as they are yet to) and keep the content on the website against my will? They do not have any copyright claims to my work at all.

    My apologies for posting such a long comment…

  6. David, would you say that getting a referral as opposed to a full edit job is worthwhile?

    I notice that some editors offer this as an interim service, being slightly cheaper etc. I am considering it, to get an idea of how much work my novel needs, but I suppose it would be a potential waste of money if I then decide to get a full edit done.
    Not sure if you have any experience of this, but thought I’d ask.

    Thanks, Tom.

    1. Do you mean an appraisal?

      Some editors will give either credit the cost of the appraisal against the edit (when the time comes), or give you a discount. It’s worth talking to them. In fact, I did this with my WIP. It allows you do address structural and developmental issues that would normally fall outside the ambit of a strict copyedit. I felt I had gone as far as I could with betas, so it was a good approach for me.

      If you haven’t done the rounds with beta readers yet, you should really do that first. Once they have helped you whip it into shape, then you may be ready for edit anyway. If there are still outstanding issues, at that point you can decide whether an appraisal/edit approach is the way to go.

      1. Hi David,

        Oops, yeah, I meant appraisal!

        A couple of fellow self-published writers have beta’d it, and although I appreciate their efforts, I still feel it needs a professional treatment, so to speak. Their edits/reading of it were very much in the vein of a friend or family member’s approach, so not quite what I need.

        If I go down this route, I need to research who to use and what services are best suited etc.

        Thanks for the input.

  7. You are a writer after the hearts of editors everywhere, David!

    I’m relatively new to the world of writing and editing, but I have found that sometimes editors are made out to be the bad guy (and admittedly, I’m sure sometimes they are – we can’t all be perfect). But in general, it seems like the writer/editor relationship can be rocky. Thanks for writing such a great post about the merits of editors!

  8. I’ve read David’s article with interest as well as the correspondence that has followed it. I’m the internet director of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders, a professional organisation based in the UK. You can find out about us on our website: http://www.sfep.org.uk.

    Some people have asked where they can find a list of editors and proofreaders. The SfEP Directory of Editorial Services lists about 450 freelance editors and proofreaders (many of whom have other editorial skills) – see http://www.sfep.org.uk/directory. You have to have qualified to be a full member of the Society before you can be in the directory, and those who have achieved higher qualifications from the SfEP are highlighted. Unsurprisingly most of our members are in the UK but we do have some in other countries, including a few in the US.

    Alternatively, you could try a similar American organisation – the ones we have listed in our ‘Overseas links’ section are the Editorial Freelancers Association and the Bay Area Editors’ Forum . Also, a little further afield, there’s the Editors’ Association of Canada/L’Association Canadienne des Reviseurs .

    A few people wanted some concrete examples of the difference that editing can make. On the SfEP website, we’ve been building up our ‘Why edit?’ section , where you’ll find ‘before’ and ‘after’ versions of short extracts from actual work done by SfEP editors. So far, all of these examples are non-fiction but they may give you an idea of some of the work that our members and associates do.

    Finally, you may find our FAQs of interest . There are ones explaining what copy-editing and proofreading actually involve, plus ones on using copy-editors and proofreaders.

  9. I am a professional editor and proofreader, and I get the same comments every time I work on a writer’s MS or newsletter or whatever … they can’t believe all the mistakes I find, they can’t believe all the problems I point out. So I would have to agree that working with a professional editor and a proofreader are essential. And the emotional and monetary investment in a novel … why skimp on the important final steps to get it published?

  10. Great post! Very helpful. I know we’re talking about self published works here, but would the advice be the same for those still investigating traditional publishing?
    I’ve completed steps 1-3 and am thinking of getting a free lance editor to work on my novel before going agent hunting. Does anyone have advice on that?

  11. Just wanted to add, David, that this post has been an amazing eye-opener for me; thank you for it! You have a new fan of your blog!

    I am relatively new as a writing hobbyist, although I’ve kept a personal blog since 2004. I have been encouraged my friends and readers to take the next step but feel fairly inhibited to put myself out there just yet. This gives me courage and hope to one day become published. Thanks again!

    Oh and BTW, a large portion of my previous career was spent as a professional graphic designer and for about five years I specialized in book cover design, so if anyone needs a good one who understands budgets, I’m your huckleberry… 😉

  12. I found myself nodding in agreement the whole time I read this! One of the best points I think you make here is when you talk about indie authors going for “good enough”. For me, it comes down to taking pride in your work. As authors, we pour our hearts, souls, and time into writing these books. To not do everything we can to make them the absolute best they can be, seems like dropping the ball half a yard before the touchdown.

    I understand that financial situations play a huge role in a person’s ability to get professional designers and editors, but that doesn’t make those things any less influential to the sale of a book.

  13. I bought your book today, and I’ve already learned so much about self-publishing. I feel like a whole new world has opened up for me as a writer. Thank you so much!

  14. I definitely agree. Editing is the #1 concern I have when thinking about self-publishing. Interestingly, many traditional publishing houses aren’t even doing editing any longer — they expect a writer’s agent to do that for them before the manuscript is submitted. Which seems to reduce the value of traditional publishing even more.

    How do we find professional editors who work in freelance capacity though? That seems to be the one point no one seems to talk about. I’ve yet to see a comprehensive list or resource. I think many of us understand how crucial editing is, but just have no idea where/how to hire an editor. If this wasn’t as difficult, I think more new writers would opt to self publish.

      1. I did see a few resources mentioned at the end of “Let’s Get Digital” but another idea for you might be to develop a kind of self-publishing handbook (ebook), with a more comprehensive list of freelance editors, cover artists, etc. Similar to guides that list literary agents, your guide would list self-pub-friendly editors and the type of editing they provide, rates, their website, some of their clients, their background, years of experience, and where possible a testimonial from a former client. Might be a good way to supplement your income as well as provide a much needed resource. Ditto for cover artists and other crucial elements.

        This interview (http://j.mp/ptLoIO) of how Moses Siregar III procured his (three) editors is perfectly indicative of how haphazard and random the process currently is:

        “I nearly hired one editor, but after reading her sample comments on my novel, I realized would’ve been money down the drain.”

        “The first editor was a friend of a friend on Facebook.”

        “The second editor, D.P. Prior, wrote a fairly critical review of my previously released novella. He’s also an indie fantasy writer. I hired him because I decided that if I could write something that he would rave about, then I might have a bestseller on my hands.”

        “The third editor, Joshua Essoe, is a friend that I met at the Superstars Writing Seminar. “

    1. Hi Reacher,

      I’m sorry to be so late to this discussion, but I wanted to let blog readers know that finding a professional freelance editor isn’t difficult. If you Google “freelance editor” or “editorial services,” for example, you will find me (www.penultimateword.com) along with many other editors. I belong to the Editors’ Association of Canada, and the EAC website lists every one of our members — about 1,600 as of May 2013. There are also the Editorial Freelancers’ Association in the USA and the Society for Editors and Proofreaders in the UK. In terms of quality, the Editors’ Association of Canada has a very difficult certification program that many editors opt to earn, giving them credibility and a high level of competence.

      Of course, you will still want to get references and a sample edit. Even with certification, not all editors are created equal, and every editor has a different style and a different way of working with authors.

  15. I have a question: old editors got percentages from what i understand as incentive to make sure they do their best job. Do some freelancers do the same, or is it only one-time pay? I know everyone does their best job if they want more work, but I for one can see the benefit in giving the editor a percentage so they feel they can take as much time as possible making your work the best it can be.

  16. Here I am enjoying a lovely sleep-in, courtesy of my wonderful partner, and meanwhile Dave Gaughran is over here singing my praises! Thanks Dave.

    I wanted to mention a few things that I think make an edit effective, and started to do so here, but it got way too long to post. I need an editor to edit my editorial ramblings! I’ve put it over on my blog instead in case anyone is interested.

    Basically, what I wanted to say was that the relationship between editor and author is what truly makes an edit work. It is a partnership—and a democracy not a tyranny. The author should never feel that he or she is being “ruled” by the editor, or that the editor is “imposing” changes, but that they are working together for a common good. That can be difficult, because at least one ego is most certainly involved (editors don’t have egos. Ha Ha Ha).

    Wrestling a novel over the finish line requires good communication, consideration, tact (this is sometimes my downfall), persuasion and negotiation. I’m lucky that Dave is almost the perfect client. (I say almost because he refuses to take my advice about serial commas!) When an author approaches amendments with maturity, reason, critical thinking and intuition, the work is the real winner.

    It is all too easy to be clouded by emotion and ego when dealing with changes to our writing. Even editors get that, which is why my work is always edited by someone else too.

  17. @David

    (Hm. No reply button on your last reply to me. Depth limit on threading? Anyway…)

    1000 words of original prose is more than enough to get the gist of it. Sounds like you’re considering using Transfection which means you’ll be getting another 35 cents from me (I didn’t buy that one yet) so I can look at the final draft in comparison. Clever marketing. 😉

    1. Not necessarily, but David’s position certainly has merit and is worth considering depending on your personal skill in various areas and what your goals are.

      Dean Smith is putting up unedited shorts with his own covers but says should he go with professional services if he does a ebook original.

      Mark Wheaton is doing novellas to short novels sans editing but paying for covers because he doesn’t trust his skills in that area.

      I’m in neither of their league, but as a personal challenge have decided to enter the digital arena with zero investment and see what I’m capable of buiding from $0. So while I could consider an editor at some point, it will only be after I’ve earned enough to cover the cost, and would be balanced against using it perhaps to buy a better stock image for a cover or something. But I have enough of a backlog of edited stories, and enough skill with PhotoShop and a camera to make this choice just for the fun of it.

      Everyone is different, and with e-pubbing you aren’t forced into the same box traditional publishing requires. Options are nice. (I’m still subbing to traditional publishers too.)

  18. I’ve just finished reading a MAJOR women’s fiction title by a loved author and published by the BIG SIX. By a quarter of the way through I had counted eleven elementary mistakes. I gave up then because I wanted to enjoy the story for the story’s sake. Ditto with a MAJOR YA author.
    So as an indie writer with two print and e-published on the market, I decided no one, least of all the traditional trade, has the right to condemn indies for so-called shoddy presentation.
    That said, my process from first draft to publish via a major literary consultancy and money spent, takes up to two years. And still I worry about that final line-edit!
    As usual, David, quality post and comment.

  19. David, I thought you should have someone to disagree with you, but I see Mark Williams got in before me.

    I didn’t use an editor for my two novels, nor do I believe I need one *shocked intake of breath from crowd*. I’ll be off to bed now.

  20. Nice article, David.

    Have you considered showing rather than telling?

    I’ve always been curious about the value of an editor. For long form it seems rather essential, but for short fiction it’s tough to justify contracting it out and my experience with traditional publishing of short fiction is 9 of 10 magazine editors don’t do much editing beyond a quick copy edit (if you missed something) on stuff they buy so there’s no value to me to do more.

    It appears you’ve gone a different route and actually used an editor on short fiction. I think it would be really informative to see a few passages of “galley” pages showing what your editor has done. It’s clear you’ve found value there, and if others agree it would make for another nice ad for your editor. Two birds… 🙂

    1. Showing/telling is a problem I constantly wrestle with as a writer. Each draft of anything I write I have to cut more and more of it out. I think I try and write big stories (well, most of the time), which can lead me to lapse into telling to try and condense the narrative. It’s something I continually have to work at.

      My first story cost $60 to edit, the second cost $120. The first is paid off, the second is on the way. I wouldn’t publish anything without running it through my editor first, unless I was submitting to a magazine (and I agree that magazine editors can sometimes leave a piece untouched, and not in a good way). I would even do that for a free story. My name is my brand. If I publish something substandard, it damages that brand. Readers will think twice before purchasing anything with my name on it. I can’t afford that.

      I’m trying to think of a good way of displaying the whole cycle of editing from self-editing, to betas, to editor. I think the opening of one of my stories might be instructive – that changed a lot. Plus you will get to see my show/tell issue in all its warty glory 🙂

      1. I’d love to see it, though for me I’m most interest in seeing just what your editor provides as I know explicitly what I can do myself, and how critique groups can help but I have no experience with paid services, or obviously what your pre-edited prose looks like. That little snippet in the picture got my curiousity juice flowing. 🙂

        I once posted the very first story I ever wrote in college and critiqued it mercilessly myself to show newer writers how bad I was at the start and how it’s all about learning vs any sort of built-in “talent.” It’s all about learning and even after all these years I have a lot to learn still.

        Oh, and PS for clarity that was me above accidentally posting on a non-writing related account by mistake. NOOB!

      2. I will only be able to show a tiny fraction of what she does. Blog posts are usually around 1,000, with a max of around 1,500 for an in-depth topic. The story I’m thinking of using is nearly 6k. So you will only get a peek at a small sample of some of the kinds of stuff she picks up.

        Also, what I do wrong is probably very different from what you do wrong. You could see all my mistakes and instinctively know you would pick them up on the second draft or whatever. Another writer’s issues could be very different indeed.

  21. “A bad edit can be worse than none at all, and can really throw you off your stride.”

    That is at the heart of my concerns about this whole argument. My point over at MWi was that while editing a script is essential, having a professional editor to do it is not, anymore than a professional cover designer or a professional format is essential.

    All highly recommended, but it may well be that the writer themselves, or non-professional associates, are quite capable of delivering as good a job.

    Keri says above, “No matter how good a writer you are, you can’t edit yourself effectively.”

    But who defines “effectively”? There are any number of professional writers who make a living from their work who do not employ professional editors.

    There are any number of traditionally published books by major writing names with all the professional services of the Big Six available, including professional editors, whose stories attract embarrassingly bad reviews far worse than many indies.

    Horror stories abound about writers forced to follow “mandatory suggestions” from in-house editors, mangling scripts to suit preconceived notions of what is commercially viable. Of course when these books then fail (and let’s not forget ninety per cent of trad’ published books with all these wonderful professional resources do fail) it is the writer that is blamed.

    The less experience the writer has, the more important it is for them to seek the opinion of someone more experienced, to review their work. But how much value a professional editor can bring to an already experienced writer’s work, as opposed to a group of trusted beta readers, is really my point.

    1. Hi Mark,

      I think we need to separate two things out here (a) the editing a writer receives from a publisher and (b) an edit from a freelancer when you are self-publishing. They are very different beasts. A publisher will have an eye on various concerns such as marketability and they may or may not direct your book in the right way. In fact, your visions of the story could lead in opposite directions.

      That’s very different to how it works when you contract a freelancer to edit your work. Also, if an experienced writer has found an alternate system that works well for them, I’m not questioning that at all. Some pros can even write perfect first draft. More power to them, and I’m insanely jealous of that ability.

      However, for new writers, or those with less experience, or who aren’t blessed with a prodigious talent, I think the best approach is to learn how to self-edit effectively, use competent beta readers, employ a good editor, and have you work proofed. As you gain more experience, you may be able to dispense with some of those steps. But I wouldn’t recommend doing so right from the start.

      1. Concur entirely.

        Those who can write the prefect first draft are either quite remarkable or given to exaggeration.

        As a former journalist, TV, theater and radio writer and creative writing tutor I have confidence enough to “self-edit”, and as a writing partnership now we have two people on the case from day one. Even so our works goes through countless drafts back and forth, and then to beta-readers. We also have a paid proof-reader.

        As late as yesterday our newest book, back from proof-reading and about go to format, went through another “final” edit, and Saffi and I spent literally an entire afternoon agonizing over just two paragraphs we weren’t quite happy with.

        The point about publishers’ editors with their own agenda is well made. I will fight to the death to preserve my story as my story, and it’s the key reason I love indie publishing.

        How a new writer can differentiate between freelance editors is a big concern. I’m very wary of any editor who takes on work in any genre. Most likely they are doing nothing more than proof-reading.

        And I think a big problem for new writers is they will assume that, because the editor is “professional”, they therefore must know best and will go along with changes suggested without further discussion.

        I’m certainly not against editors, and agree unless a writer has very considerable experience they are advisable.

        I’m planning to run several posts on MWi looking closely at what editors do (many new writers would not have a clue how copy editing, line editing, proof-reading and such differ) and why, for most writers, they are an invaluable asset.

        I’ve invited a number of professional editors to argue their case, and if there are any professional editors out there reading this who would like to contribute a guest post I’d love to hear from them, including Keri.

        As the publishing world changes so does the role of the professional services provider within the industry. The role of an editor is changing, just as the role of an agent is changing. We hear a lot of reasoned debate about the latter, but almost nothing about the former. That needs to be redressed.

    2. There’s been a steady decline in the amount (and quality) of editing in traditional publishing. Many publishers have cut back to minimal staff, and books get the barest of edits. But traditionally, an editor does a lot more than just “edit” a work–the best help shape it into something better than what it started as.

      There are different levels of editing, and different needs. I agree that some writers need more editorial guidance than others; I also agree with David that the two types of publishing have different editing “beasts”. Unless it’s a poor editor, I think any writer can improve their final product with an editor’s help–whatever that level of edit is.

      Do I mean every book should have an editor? No, but I think it’s critical that someone other than the writer–someone with some skill and understanding–reviews the work.

  22. “There’s definitely a need for some website which gathers together “recommended” service providers: editors, designers, proofers, lawyers, formatters etc.”

    Dave, I’m waiting for you to set this up… and put in a “will exchange” feature (“worked as a proofreader for a newspaper in D.C./will proof your novel 2x if you format my novel…”).

    1. If one of the 26 projects I’m juggling hits a wall, I’ll think about it.

      (Just so there is no confusion, I’m not really thinking about it.)

      I think we were talking about this here and on Passive Guy’s blog a few weeks back. And I think someone said they might have a stab at it. That’s all the information the brain retained, I’m afraid. But I do remember what I was wearing, strangely. Sometimes you wonder if your brain is on your side.

  23. “The tragedy of the bare bones approach is that many of these books are probably great stories. But no-one will ever find out because the author hasn’t take a professional approach.”

    THIS. My process: Getting the story down, in all of its beautiful messiness, is the first step. Then, it’s time for the next steps: revising until I get it “right” and every word means exactly what I meant it to. Of course, it’s still not “done.” Off to the copy editor it must go. Then lobbed back to me. Then off to a proofreader to catch all those little buggers, things like pesky homonym errors and periods at the ends of sentences that decided to procreate over night.

    By the way, I think you mean Raymond Carver, not Raymond Chandler. 🙂

      1. I actually debated whether to point it out. Honestly, mistakes happen. We strive to write error-free copy, of course, but we’re human. And these mistakes are fixable. Don’t sweat it. Chandler/Carver — it’s all good. Happy reading, writing, and editing. Let’s have a drink now! 🙂

    1. Robyn,

      Just to be clear, a proofreader’s job is not to catch any niggling errors that the copy editor missed — although that may be part of the job. Proofreading is a separate task that comes AFTER design and layout, not after it is lobbed back to you after copy editing. “Reading the proofs” is typically done on a PDF that has been provided by the designer, and the proofreader looks for different problems — errors that may have occurred in typesetting such as chapter numbers not matching the TOC, too much white space on a page, orphans, widows, heading levels, and much more. Of course, the proofreader may also spot residual errors left by the copy editor, but, technically speaking, that is not her primary job.

      Editing and proofreading are two separate tasks and should not be confused with each other.

      Wonderful blog post, David! I’m a freelance editor and a new fan of your blog.

  24. A professional editor helped me immensely with my first manuscript by pointing out a structural problem and some basic errors. My understanding of the craft grew by miles after I worked with her.

    However, even though she is a wonderful editor, she didn’t mesh with my style and “corrected” a lot of informal language I wanted to keep in the story. I had enough self-confidence to ignore those changes (but I paid for her time to make them). This is an issue to watch out for when you hire an editor — don’t let them “correct” all the color out of your writing. Ask for a sample 5-10 page edit.

    1. Yes, a sample is crucial. Editors, like writers, can have their own tastes and quirks. There’s no reason why you can’t get a list of referrals, check out their websites, whittle the list down to a few and request a sample edit from each.

      1. Although I do agree that having a sample is a good idea (sometimes it’s just a case that the two of you don’t gel), I would like, as a professional copyeditor to make one plea – be fair. If you want someone to work on a sample (particularly one that’s 5-10 pages long), you should be prepared to pay for it. Most of us will be able to give you examples of authors who sent different chapters as ‘samples’ to different editors, expecting the editing to be done for free – trust me, word very quickly gets round! You wouldn’t go to a lawyer or an accountant and expect them to draw up your will or do your accounts for free, would you?

      2. As editors have different styles (and different style guides), this penny-pinching approach of hoodwinking a bunch of editors to do your whole book for free by sending a chapter to each as a sample edit will ultimately blow up in the writer’s face. You will have a hodge-podge of styles, and a Frankenstein product.

        Not recommended! (And very unethical.)

        If you are sending a sample to more than one editor, I strongly recommend that it is the same sample so that you can compare the editors’ respective styles. I don’t agree that the writer should pay for a sample edit. I think that if you limit the sample to 5 pages or 1,000 words, that strikes a happy balance between showing the writer what you do, and not having to do too much free work that doesn’t lead to new clients.

        Of course, it’s the editor’s prerogative to offer free sample edits or not, but I advise writers not to engage an editor without getting a sample done first. To protect the editor from unscrupulous writers, I would recommend that they limit the sample as suggested above, and don’t do something like edit a 1,000 word flash fiction piece so that the writer can then go off and submit it somewhere. It really should be part of a larger work so that you know that the writer will have to engage you to complete the edit.

  25. Right on. I think many folks think “editing” means “proofreading” (your step 5)–I’ve even heard that from writers. It’s a challenge to work with an editor, because it can involve your ego and lots of subjective decisions; there are lots of bad editors, too. Often, self-publishers have never encountered an editor, so it can be alarming to see real edits for the first time.

    But there’s an enormous business opportunity in self-publishing for savvy, affordable editors. I’d like to see that niche grow!

    1. I know I spend more than the average self-publisher on editing (maybe I need it more, ha!). But when I look at the time my editor puts in, she’s not going to get rich off me.

      What I would hate to see is writers using their new-found freedom to encourage a race to the bottom on editing prices. Not only would that be hypocritical, it would also ultimately damage them. If my editor is forced to cut her prices in half, then she won’t be able to spend as long on each edit.

      I know that’s not what you are saying, and that comment isn’t directed at you, but I felt it needed to be said. Some self-publishers are scrambling around for the cheapest editor and the cheapest designer without realizing that you often get what you pay for, and that they are – in some cases – guilty of operating just like the publishers that they rail against.

    2. Enormous is right….and the lion’s share will go to people who do quality work. I’m going to gripe again, but the “editor” I hired lost out on the chance to handle the many other writers from my group who are working on their manuscripts as well. She didn’t edit and she barely proofread the material, but still charged $5 per 250 words (a discount to me mind you) for her services. The real edits came from my writer’s group (suggestions for style and flow) then I got someone to proofread the piece after it was done. So my book is great now….but oh what a journey!

      1. I agree. I don’t see a reliable way to find good self-publishing editors yet, though; it seems all over the place, and word-of-mouth still seems the best way to find one.

        PS: Nice website, Katina, I subscribed.

      2. There’s definitely a need for some website which gathers together “recommended” service providers: editors, designers, proofers, lawyers, formatters etc.

        I think part of the problem is that there is still some dispute about best practices. But I think the “professional” approach is gaining ground.

        One thing left out of most of the discussion is crucial. I firmly believe that if you have a professional product, you can get away with a higher price. Perhaps, instead of getting a friend to edit your book and trying to do the cover yourself, and charging 99c and getting nowhere, you could consider employing professionals and charging $2.99 to $4.99.

  26. This one line sums it all up —>”I think too many indies go for ‘good enough’ and fall short.”

    I do have to say though, with regard to editing and proofreading…good help is hard to find. There are people who boast in their skills and do not deliver. This was the case with my first book. After paying an editor to look at it, the manuscript came back with very little corrections. I thought this was odd since no one (not even me) creates a master piece on the first try (lol). I had my mother-in-law look over the manuscript and it came back filled corrections…too many for something that was “professionally” edited. Then I had another person proofread it and they found smaller mistakes had slipped past my mother-in-law. In the end I was fuming mad with the original “editor”…my budget was tapped, and I was extremely grateful for the people who polished my work at no cost to me.The whole experience, with my first book, taught me a few things:

    1. Look for a bestselling indie and find out who they recommend as an editor or proofreader. You’re likely to get what you pay for when it comes to quality service. The same goes for getting a recommendation for a cover artist.
    2. Get more than one proofreader. I find that once a person is familiar with your text, they are less likely to see mistakes in the piece. My suggestion is 3 proofreaders.
    3. Writer groups are an EXCELLENT source for beta readers. Even if one doesn’t agree with the critiques they get, initially, one thing to remember is that if you are in a good writer’s group, every suggestion a person makes is something that they feel will strengthen your material…so it would be wise to consider their thoughts, even if it’s just a little bit.

    Long story short if we do what we are supposed to, then the word “Indie” will not be synonymous with “shoddy”.

  27. I just want to point out one potential error that has caught my eye in this article:

    rather than giving up the lion’s share of your book’s royalties for the term of the copyright (your life plus seventy years).

    NO contract from a legitimate publisher requires the author to sign away the publication rights for their novel for that length of time. The rights have term lengths, and anyone who signed away their publication rights to a publisher for life of the copyright is, quite frankly, a flaming MORON. For example, my publisher requested publication rights for ten years; after those ten years are up, I am given the option of continuing on with that publisher on a month-to-month basis or giving them a 30-day notice and walking away with my books to publish them elsewhere (or even self-publish them). This is pretty typical of most publishers, too; ten years seems to be the average number of years the publisher asks for publication rights on.

    I just thought I’d point that out, as that statement is, quite frankly, fairly misleading for those who don’t know any better.

    1. Jessica, David was not totally wrong in what he said about the length of publishing contracts. While I agree that anyone who does sign away rights for the term of the copyright MIGHT be a moron, this length of contract has been a staple of publishing for a long time. Yes, many of the smaller publishers do limit the term to a number of years, but not all of them do. Even among the big guys, there are still plenty of contracts that run for the term of the copyright. The authors who signed them weren’t morons, just naive or in some cases given no choice. When you’re a first-time author, you don’t tend to think ahead, especially when the publisher sort of makes it clear that it’s either sign or no deal. Few authors are willing to argue, lest they lose their “big opportunity.” Check out this link from someone who knows if you don’t believe me: http://www.thepassivevoice.com/05/2011/how-to-read-a-book-contract-how-long-does-it-last/

  28. I’ve had the luck of finding an amazing editor as well and I feel so much more confident going to publish. She also explained all of her suggestions and corrections, and I’m going through my second novel with all of those lessons. Hopefully, each MS I give to her will have less red. I have no doubt that this step is critical to self-publishing and worth every penny!

  29. All readers sample? Well, perhaps I’m the exception, but I’ve never downloaded a sample. All of the books I acquire are full-length novels; I won’t bother with novellas or short stories. If I like something I want a lot of it, not tiny snippets. Many of the books I download to my Kindle are $0.00 titles from authors I’ve never heard of. I can’t say I even look at the covers. If the description sounds good and the reviews aren’t horrible, I’ll download the free book and stick it in my queue. I’m a bit more cautious with $0.99 titles, but not much. If the description and reviews are decent and it sounds like something I’d like, I’ll pay $0.99 without a second thought.

    When I come across an author whose work I like, I’ll download the rest of his or her titles (at least those in the same series) without a second thought if they’re priced at $0.99 or $2.99 for full-length novels. If they’re more than $2.99, I just skip past them. There’s too much good stuff out there for $2.99 or less to make it worthwhile to pay any more.

    Actually, at some point I’m going to stop buying ebooks, at least for a while. I now have 300+ $0.00 and $0.99 titles in my “to be evaluated” queue, and I expect I’ll find at least 15 or 20 new-to-me authors in that group whose other works I’ll want to buy eventually. I also have close to 200 full-length novels in my TBR pile that I know I want to read because I like the authors’ other work.

    And I’ve yet to download even one sample.

    1. I don’t know if there are hard numbers of what percentage of readers sample. But all the readers I talk to do (you’re actually the first I’ve heard of that never samples). And to be fully clear, I’m referring to cases where the author is unknown to the reader.

      I wonder if likelihood to sample is a function of price. If you are downloading free books, there is no need to sample, you aren’t paying anything. If you don’t like it, you can just delete or stop reading.

      And with 99c books, that’s not a huge financial risk of the book is awful. I would bet that readers who shop more often in the higher price brackets would sample (or use the new Look Inside feature) more often.

      1. Then I’ll be second. I admit to looking at online samples at Smashwords (knowing that it doesn’t show the formatting), but so far I’ve never downloaded an Amazon sample. Just too much hassle for me, as I shop on my laptop and then read on the Kindle.
        On the other hand, I’ve read from a lot of people that they sample on Amazon (much more than I would have expected).
        Of course, the number of downloaded samples is one of the interesting figures the people of Amazon have access to. And – even more so – the ration between downloaded samples and bought books. If I were Amazon, I’d have a programme looking at that, filtering the authors I’d think about offering a publishing contract to (… I wouldn’t be surprised if they have something like that).

      2. I’ve no doubt whatsoever they look at that (and what is read out of what is bought too, and what they buy next etc.).

        Just think: would you rather sign an author that’s sold 100,000 e-books but only one in ten that view his sample go on and purchase, or the writer who has only sold 20,000 but virtually all who sample purchase. Easy decision for me. The second just needs a marketing push (and will probably be cheaper to acquire).

      3. I always sample unless I know the author’s work, and of writers I’m trying for the first time, I probably buy 1 or 2 books for every ten samples. This goes for books published by the majors as well as indies. I want to read a few pages and get a feel for the writer’s ability to use language, introduce characters and situations, and get me into the story. If they can’t do that in the length of a sample, I won’t take a chance with the book, regardless of price.

        If you were publishing traditionally, it would be your job to hook an editor with the very first words. Why should it be any different with indie publishing? Surely the reader’s time is as valuable as the editors. If all writers knew how to open a story, I’d buy a lot more books than I do. Considering I buy more now than I probably ought to do, perhaps I shouldn’t advise writers to _work harder on those first pages to make your reader a promise, then KEEP THAT PROMISE_.

  30. Even hobbyists spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars on kayaks, cameras, computer gaming equipment, why not on editing? It’s noteworthy to mention that there are a lot of traditional publishers putting out poor ebooks, either because they want ebooks to look bad or because they haven’t taken the time to find the right people to transfer the work. Lots of top name writers have been fielding complaints from fans about typos in ebooks, and I know those mistakes are not in the printed versions. Self pubbers have a chance to outshine best sellers, and to show the world eBooks are a force to be reckoned with.
    My editor also provides formatting and uploading. I’ve had reviews that actually comment on the quality of the editing.
    http://www.stragelandediting.com

  31. I totally agree for an editor. I was convinced to get an editor a few months ago for my book. But unlike you when you spent a grand on professional editing, I have no money for one. I’m very fortunate to have an editor to do it for free.

    Just recently I spent a good two weeks with my beta reader getting a short story ready for a contest. Two different edits and I can say that I still have a lot to learn, even on the third-person side of describing a story.

    It will be amazing if I ever get a review for my book. Maybe enough for a literary agent to read it and pick me up. I don’t know, I’m just griping that I’m poor.

    1. LJ,

      Money is very, very tight for me at the moment. I had to make a lot of sacrifices to pay for that edit. I knew it would be an investment in my book, and I knew it would repay itself fairly quickly. I will have that fully paid off within a month of releasing the book.

      I accept that others may be in even tighter financial situations. There are other creative solutions, and I hope to talk about those in an upcoming post.

  32. While I agree with you in theory, there is one major counter-argument. For some writers, like myself, paid design work or editing is out of reach. Steps 1-3 only get an MS so far, and that is the limit for me, for now. I’m not willing to let a financial limitation stop me from getting my work out.

    I’ve only got one novelette up so far. I would have loved to have put money into a better cover than I can do myself. I would have loved the help of a professional, experienced editor. I probably would have learned a lot from the latter.

    But I just can’t afford it. I’m not going to go deeply into my personal finances, so I’m going to ask you to just trust and believe that statement. So I’m bootstrapping.

    My hope is that I can make a small amount of money, even just a few dollars. That’s extra money, so I’ll set it aside. If I ever get a professional sale, more extra. Next self-pub, more extra. At some point I will hopefully have enough to put back in, and hit that next level. And so on.

    Any opinions on bootstrapping as an alternate path? Give me a few months, and I’ll be able toprovide more info on how it’s working out for me.

  33. Love being published in print. Wish I could edit every title. If/when I get to having my series available in digital form, in its entirety, I will never have to live for years with the flinching feeling over oops in text again. I take full responsibility for any of these nagging glitches. I think I had some trouble hitting a productive stride with first few editors. When there’s friction about the vision of the story, there’s more risk of glitches. Having an editor you work with smoothly is golden. Love the one who’s been with me through the last few books – Richard Jenzen.

    1. Hey Lynda. I love being able to catch stuff and change it. I’m not saying my editor makes mistakes, but sometimes I add a sentence or two in after the edits come back. Or sometimes errors creep in when I am formatting. It happens. The ability to change it straight away is great.

      I’ve been in that same boat about conflicting visions. A bad edit can be worse than none at all, and can really throw you off your stride. My current editor is great. And I really need to stop saying that, because now she is getting too busy!

  34. I saw at least some of the discussion that I assume moved you to post on this issue, and I really wish some of the people from that discussion would read this post and spend some time considering the points you’ve made.

  35. Totally agree with your post, David. No matter how good a writer you are, you can’t edit yourself effectively. As both a writer and a professional editor, I can definitely attest to that. Even though I make my living editing, when it comes to my own work I can’t be the most effective editor. I become blind to mistakes, because I know what I MEANT to do. It really helps to have a good editor to highlight your strengths and weaknesses. If you read a lot of self-published books, I guarantee you can pick out the ones that have been professionally edited.

    And like you, I would be terribly embarrassed to publicly display my first drafts. Yikes!

    I would caution people who are looking for an editor to really do their homework, though. Don’t be afraid to ask other writers for recommendations, and to thoroughly vet a prospective editor. I’m constantly amazed at the number of “editors” who advertise themselves and don’t really have a track record or work history. (Same goes for “proofreaders” who’ve never seen a style book.)

    When it comes time for an author to find an editor, it’s important that the editor is someone who is both professional and who the author can have a good working relationship with. Once you find that combination, the results can be amazing.

    1. Yes Keri, I agree.

      A referral is essential, as is a sample. Even if the editor has all the necessary experience, different editors can have different styles, and the working relationship must be a good one for it to be fruitful (for both parties).

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