Editing Processes in Book Publishing

I thought it would be helpful to spell out the different types of editing that occur in the book writing process. The terms “proofread” and “copy edit” are often used in the general population to mean the same thing (looking for errors in text), but they’re not the same. And most people haven’t even heard of the term, “line edit.” I’ll explain all the differences here.

Manuscript Evaluation

A manuscript evaluation (also called a “manuscript critique”) is high-level short report (1-3 pages) on strengths and weaknesses of the manuscript. A manuscript evaluation can occur after the book has been completed, or part way through the book, if the author wants feedback to see if they’re on the right track.

The evaluation tries to answer high-level questions like:

  • Does this book fulfill its intended purpose?
  • Does it make sense?
  • Does it have a solid structure?
  • Is the material compelling?
  • If a story is being told, does the chronology flow properly?
  • Is the subject matter and/or language appropriate for its intended audience?
  • And for non-fiction books used as marketing tools, does the book accurately represent the author and their services?

NOTE: You don’t HAVE TO start with a manuscript evaluation. Since a manuscript evaluation is usually much cheaper than the more involved developmental edit, some authors start there, and then proceed with a developmental edit if needed. Some people might jump right into a developmental edit. Some editors will provide a discount on a developmental edit for customers who start with a manuscript evaluation (I do this!).

Developmental Edit

“Developmental edit” is a misnomer; a developmental edit doesn’t edit your words directly. A developmental edit is another high-level evaluation of a manuscript to assess its overall quality and effectiveness, with the addition of more detailed feedback. A developmental edit produces a longer detailed report (6-10 pages, often with chapter breakdowns) and also includes inline comments and suggestions throughout the manuscript itself.

At this point in the editing process we aren’t concerned with sentence and paragraph-level editing, or grammar, spelling, or typos. Why? Because the material will likely be rewritten one or more times by the author.

A manuscript evaluation is usually a one-and-done deal, while a developmental edit is often a back-and-forth process between editor and author. The editor gives the author a set of suggestions to work on for the book, the author makes fixes, and then the manuscript comes back to the developmental editor. Most editors include an additional “round” of a developmental edit in their pricing (with additional rounds available for an additional fee).

Line/Substantive Edit

After any higher-level structural or strategic issues are worked out, the book can move to the line editing stage. The editor now evaluates how good the actual writing is, and whether it is communicating information clearly and effectively. The editor will do things like:

  • Ensure terminology is explained
  • Ensure information and/or terminology is used consistently
  • Fix instances of repeated words or phrases in close proximity
  • Fix incorrect word usage
  • Smooth out any awkward sentences
  • Clarify information
  • Ensure transitions between paragraphs and chapters make sense, that the storylines are connected
  • Convert paragraphs to bullets and/or tables to better present information
  • Review structural consistency (e.g., whether headings and subheads are constructed in parallel, or whether bulleted lists are formatted correctly and are parallel in construction)

A good line editor is also concerned with the “rhythm” of the writing. It doesn’t have to be poetry, but it should be easy to read. There’s nothing worse than text with run-on sentences with endless clauses, or conversely, too many short, choppy sentences. Good writing has a mix of sentences of different lengths. And there’s that je ne sais quoi that tells me that the two clauses in that sentence should be swapped and the sentence will sound better.

NOTE: When you hire me for a line edit, it includes a copy edit. I perform the level of edit that the manuscript needs.

Copy Edit

This level of editing checks that your manuscript is free from grammatical errors or typos and adheres to whichever style guide is relevant (for most publishing, it’s the Chicago Manual of Style). The term “copy edit” is somewhat subjective, and the depth of the edit can go from light (just fixing errors and ensuring CMOS compliance) to a heavier copy edit (changing word choices, tightening sentences, maybe some rewriting). There is overlap between line editing and heavy copy editing. Unless someone specifically asks for only a very light copy edit for compliance with CMOS (these requests mostly come from publishers), I will do whatever level of edit the source material requires. If it’s pretty clean, I’ll do a light copy edit for errors and CMOS compliance. If the writing is a little muddled or unclear, or if it needs a little better organization in one of the chapters, I’ll do a heavier copy/line edit.

Here are some of the tasks in a basic copy edit:

  • Ensure the document conforms to the relevant style guide (usually Chicago Manual of Style)
  • Fix hyphenation (e.g., compound adjectives before the noun are usually hyphenated, but when used after a noun, they are usually not)
  • Fix incorrect punctuation (e.g., a colon where a semicolon should be)
  • Ensure parallel structure and proper capitalization in bulleted lists
  • Fix incorrect grammar (e.g., “these things is incorrect”)
  • Titles, headings, and text should have consistent styles

Proofreading

This is the last step in editing before publication. A proofreader will review book page galleys to make sure there aren’t any grammatical mistakes, typos, or formatting problems (such as a few words of a sentence by themselves at the top of a page). A proofreader is simply fixing errors; they will NOT address any structural issues or writing mechanics issues.

People sometimes ask for a “proofread” when they really need a copy edit.

NOTE: I don’t do final proofreads, because if I do any of the previous services, my eyes aren’t “fresh” anymore. I will be able to refer you to a colleague, however.