Editing a book is a complex, multi-part process 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, I have become intimately acquainted with all five stages. In this guide, I break down how to edit a book properly. And you’ll get options depending on your individual needs and budget.
Those five stages 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 isn’t one correct way to edit a book; you need to develop your own process. You will find advice on that below as well, along with help on finding an editor.
A beta reader gives feedback on early drafts so the author knows what needs to be improved. Writers can be blind to flaws in their own work; they have the whole story in their heads… regardless of what actually made it onto the page. A third-party has the requisite emotional distance to spot such omissions. They come at your book cold, pointing out any deficiencies.
Beta readers often focus on big picture stuff – story problems. Do your jokes hit the mark? Is the core romance believable? Did that big ending work? Are your characters 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. 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 remember 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; the actual text will probably be polished anyway. What I really need to know is whether the big twist works, or if my villain is compelling enough.
Finally, 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. However, at the beginning you might benefit from multiple beta readers and listening closely when the same issues crop up.
Beta readers can only help so much; the yeoman’s work of editing a book is next.
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. But even the best editor is limited by the manuscript in front of them.
The more you can improve your manuscript before firing it over to your editor, the better the final product will be. Self-editing will also improve your overall skill as a writer. It will 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.
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. (Developmental editing is very time-consuming; editors aren’t some form of literary brigand). Authors incorporate feedback from beta readers, in conjunction with doing multiple drafts and several self-editing passes.
Newer authors may be keen on a developmental edit but I recommend exploring options like a manuscript assessment instead. Rather than a line-by-line commentary, you will receive an overall report on the story aspects, replete with concrete examples. And that is usually more than enough to get started on those bigger story 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 story stuff at all, but things like spelling, grammar, and punctuation as well as general language usage and overall style.
Traditionally, there would have been a separate stage of line editing beforehand, focusing on style. However, copy editors serving the self-publishing market understand that these roles are basically combined these days; 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; a good copy editor should help you straighten it all out. This is the final polish, but not the final step.
Proofing is the very last stage in editing a book. After that, your manuscript is locked down. (And feasting may commence).
You can handle this in-house if you have an eye for spotting errors; all that temping I did in college paid off. Do note that authors 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. (This is another good reason for authors to buy a Kindle – indeed it’s the original reason I got mine.) You will be amazed how many fresh errors you 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; they will surely be there, even with the best copy editor in the world.
Designing a process for editing a book
Every writer is different and should develop their own individual 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 write multiple drafts, going over the text from start to finish as many times as necessary, 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. Some authors use developmental editors, others prefer beta readers (and everyone can use betas at different stages).
My own process
The first draft is what I call the “vomit draft” – sorry! 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. No one gets to see it so I don’t really care about unfinished scenes, spelling mistakes, cardboard characters, non sequiturs, or plot holes. I tend to fix all that in the second draft. When finished, I send it off to betas. (Although, I use those far less now that I’m more experienced.) When their feedback lands in my inbox, I incorporate whatever was useful in the final draft.
That 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. When she’s finished tearing it to pieces (and I’m done moping), I make all the changes that I agree with. This tends to be most of them, once I let that feedback… simmer a little. I handle proofing personally and then, finally, I’m done!
My process won’t necessarily be your process – you will discover what works best for you over time.
Minimum recommended editing set-up
- self-edit your book until it’s as good as it can be
- hire a professional copy editor and incorporate the necessary changes, and then
- proof your manuscript until you eliminate all typos and errors.
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, those still learning their craft will likely need extra help there.
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 work well together. Every editor has their own style; not all author-editor pairs are 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Check out my personal recommended list of providers – which you get as part of my free guide to self-publishing.