About Editing

Why Editors Are Needed

There are a multitude of reasons that an editor is a necessary asset to an author. We exist to make authors and their work shine! Some authors believe we want to change or twist their work, but a good editor wants nothing of the sort. Editors are trained professionals who are there to spot plot holes, weaknesses in the narrative, spelling and grammar mistakes, and so much more.

In the space below, I outline what editors are, what they do, and why they’re so important.

The Editing Process Explained

The editing process can begin as early as a story’s conception, or after the completion of your first, second, or fifth draft. Often the first stage of editing is called Developmental Editing, and this deals with developing the story’s plot, characters, and message. Once finished, the next phase of editing is Substantive and Line Editing. These types of editing deal with the flow of the prose and how well it reads. Copyediting is the next stage, and this is what most people associate with editing as spelling and grammar mistakes are zapped away. One final stage, which some find optional, is Proofreading — one final skim through the manuscript for any problems that hadn’t been caught during the Line or Copy Editing stages.

Editing should be a collaborative process between the author and editor. The editor works with the author to polish a manuscript into a market ready book.

Fiction Vs. Nonfiction Editing

Not all books are edited the same way, and this is most apparent in the differences between editing fiction and nonfiction manuscripts. Developmental and substantive editing are the two most different phases for these types of books. Let’s take a quick look at the major reasons why these two are so different.

Fiction books are interested in telling a good story and taking the reader’s mind on a journey that will leave them both satisfied and eager for more. Prose is liable to be more fluffy and verbose, and scenes have to transition well into one another. Developmental editing is going to focus much more heavily on making sure that a story’s plot and sub-plots are cohesive and exciting, along with making sure that each major act flows into the next. The characters all need special attention as well to ensure that main characters are the ones readers are excited to follow, and the side characters and antagonist are well rounded and believable.

Nonfiction can go a variety of different ways depending on the subject, type, and goal of the book. Memoirs and biographies usually follow a chronological series of events that should be both educational and interesting. Textbooks and references following a certain topic should have very clear organization and be clearly written for a certain audience at a certain level. Academic papers and journalism should have a very clear message and arguments, along with well sourced references. Nonfiction books usually require a great deal more fact-checking and may also require the author to request the use of certain rights for quotes or images.



Developmental editing is often the first and longest phase of the editing process. This can take anywhere from 1-6 months on average, depending on how complete an idea or draft is, going back and forth between editor and author as the books plot, flow, and pacing are hammered out. Admittedly this can be the most stressful phase of editing for authors because it can be difficult to want to make minute or major changes to a story’s design. Remember that editing is a collaborative effort, and unless the author is with a dedicated publisher intent to make certain changes, the author does have the power to veto.

Keep in mind, however, that editors are individuals trained to look at the big picture and the small details. Many editors spend years studying story structure and form, they understand trends in the market that authors may not understand, and have read hundreds (possibly thousands) of books to help solidify their knowledge. They do not make requests for changes without reason, and the author can ask the editor at any time about the reason behind a requested change.

Developmental editing will often require adding, moving, or rewriting scenes in the story to help with the story’s cohesion and flow. Don’t be afraid of change, and don’t be afraid to ask your editor to walk you through their thoughts. If you don’t like the editor’s suggestion, but understand that there should be a change, work together to come up with a solution that works for both parties!


Oftentimes the developmental editing stage for nonfiction begins as early as the conception of a book’s idea. Employing a developmental editor this early into the process can ensure that the author has a sure understanding of who their audience is, what the book’s message will be, and the way that the book will be organized. This can cut back on the need to cut or rewrite sections, or reorganize the entire manuscript after its completion. A developmental editor will go over the needs of the book compared to its audience, and help to research other books in the same field or subject for comparison and to ensure that this new book will stand out against the others.

For authors who already have their first draft written and go into the developmental stage of editing, it will be expected to have sections of the book reorganized for clarity and cohesion. This can include cutting, merging, splitting, or rewriting sections.

Developmental editing for nonfiction is often focused around having a clear and cohesive subject matter and message for the audience. This often requires a lot of research, and the sources for that research should be saved in case they need to be referenced later.

Substantive & Line Editing

When it comes to the substantive and line editing phase of editing for fiction, you should now have a solid story with good pacing and structural flow (for fiction), or a well organized subject and message with solid references and sources to back up your claims (for most nonfiction). The goal of this phase of the editing process is to start sanding down all of the rough edges of the writing itself by paying close attention to sentence structure and word use, along with making sure paragraphs and scenes transition well. Additionally, this is the phase where fact-checking starts to come into play (see below for more about this). There shouldn’t be any major story or character changes in this phase. This usually takes 1-3 months on average.

For nonfiction in particular, it’s important to make sure that all points make sense to the subject being discussed, and any leaps in logic are smoothed out with a deeper explanation or a strong reference.

Copy Editing

This is what most people associate with editing; an editor hunched over a manuscript, slashing away at spelling and grammar errors with a violent red pen! In reality, this is usually the quickest part of the editing process unless there are some major fundamental errors. Copy editing usually takes about 1-2 months, and 2-3 passes through a manuscript to catch most errors.

It is important to understand that no editor or author is perfect. No manuscript is without error, and there’s no promise that even the best editor will catch every single mistake! The English language in particular is one full of controversy, change, and confusion. The writer’s job is to write, the editor’s job is to catch as many errors in the manuscript as they possibly can before the book is sent off to market. Copy editing ensures that about 99% of errors are caught and corrected, which makes the author look really good in turn! Never be ashamed if you see a good copy editor fixing a lot of errors, because that’s what they’re trained to do! They scrutinize every period, comma, and dangling participle with a magnifying glass in their hunt to make a writer’s work as clean and polished as they can.


Often seen as an optional stage of the editing process, proofreading comes after copy editing. This is when someone makes one last pass over the book from cover to cover in search of any remaining errors in the text. This is a quick process, usually less than a month.

Heavy, Medium, and Light Editing

With all forms and phases of editing, the editor is often contracted to do either heavy, medium, or light levels of editing. This level can be determined by several means, such as a short deadline, a small budget, or a nervous author. Medium tends to be the most commonly used level of editing for mid-sized publishers and authors, and light editing is usually what is affordable to indie authors.

The Editor and Author Relationship

Ideally the relationship between an editor and author should be a positive one. The editor is there to help the author make their work the best that it can be. Editors aren’t supposed to just slash and cut and change a writer’s work without reason or permission, thus most editors today use a feature called ‘Track Changes’ in their preferred text software for any editing done to the manuscript, and query the author through comments about areas that need special attention. This is designed to keep an open dialog between both parties, so that the editor understands the authors needs and message.

Style Guides & Sheets

So how do editors keep track of so many little details when reading through a manuscript? From quickly detecting an incorrect street name to keeping track of how to format numbers and dates, there are a lot of small moving parts that need to be checked over all at once. This is done with the help of Style Guides and Sheets.

The Style Guide is a book of dedicated style and grammar rules outlined by a particular source. The most common one used in America is the Chicago Manual of Style (or the CMOS). If you’re concerned about making sure that your manuscript follows a certain style guide, make sure you bring it up with your editor or publisher. Remember that most publishing houses have a preferred style guide, and will usually stick to that.

A Style Sheet is an editing tool that allows editors to keep track of every name, place, date, important item, and so much more. This is especially important in nonfiction, where an index means that every name, place, and important element needs to be tracked and logged (and we’ll get to that in a moment). There are a dozen different style sheets that editors can use, and which one they use is often determined by editor preference and the specific needs of their contract. Some publishing companies also have dedicated style sheets to keep things consistent across all of their editors.

Indexing & Referencing

This is primarily for nonfiction works, but is sometimes found in complex works of fiction as well. The purpose of indexing and referencing is to make nonfiction books accessible to find specific mentions of names or places, or to find sources for referenced works or people. This should be kept track of by the author themselves, but in the event that a manuscript needs this service, it is often a separate service altogether.

Indexing is the process of logging every name, place, and important element in a book. The index is usually found at the back of a book (in America at least) and has an alphabetical list of all important topics, people, and places in the book and what pages they can be found on. This makes for easy finding when someone wants to find information about a specific subject discussed in the book without flipping through every page.

Additionally, I would like to quickly mention the Appendix. Some people confuse the Index and Appendix, however the Appendix is an entirely optional, and sometimes replaces an index altogether. The Appendix concerns additional information, and sometimes is used to quickly define topics not as well covered in the book. It is important to discuss with your publisher whether they feel that an Appendix is necessary, and at what level.

Referencing is a means of keeping track of all outside sources and material used within the book. This is often called the Bibliography, and is found at the back of the book or at the end of a scholarly paper or report. It’s important to remember that a well-referenced book or paper can build credibility. However be careful about using references off the beaten path — personal blogs, newspaper or website articles, and wikipedia are not usually considered credible sources!

Fact Checking & Research

As the author of a work, whether fiction or nonfiction, it is important to do your own research. The publisher and editor are not responsible for researching your assertions for you! Fact checking is something done throughout the editing process, usually from the start, and only as needed by the editor. The editor is probably not an expert in whatever field is being written about, and thus only have a basic knowledge of the subject matter. They will likely only look up information that they feel might be wrong or need additional referencing. This means that the author is responsible for all information and facts in the book, and it’s the author’s credibility that will be on the line.

Request For Rights

When a manuscript quotes another book, article, or source beyond a passing mention, it is important that the manuscript obtains the legal ability to use those rights from the source. Depending on the source in question, this could be as simple as emailing the author or as difficult as going through the red tape of a publishing house or record label (in the event of quoting song lyrics). It’s important to begin this process as early as possible as to not risk having to cut an important section of material or push back the release date of a book.

Manuscript Formatting

Whether it’s submitting a manuscript to an agent, publisher, editor, designer, or galley, manuscript formatting is both immensely important and wildly varied depending on who and where it’s going to. Many places have different requirements for how a manuscript needs to be formatted for it to be acceptable and readable to whomever is on the other end. In the case of agents, publishers, and editors, this can usually be done in any standard word processing software.

Final Formatting

When it comes to the final format of a book, this is usually done by your publisher and designer. For small and mid sized publishers, this is often outsourced to freelancers. For self-publishers, this should almost always be outsourced to a professional to ensure your product looks good no matter what screen or page it’s being read on.

EPUB is the most commonly rendered file for e-readers and is accepted by Google Books and the iBooks store primarily (among other smaller digital booksellers). This formatting allows for a book’s text to be adjusted in size (and sometimes font) to make it more easily readable, and will automatically adjust the number of pages needed accordingly.

MOBI is the file format for Amazon Kindle books. This is very similar to EPUB in how it can scale text, font, and sometimes even page color, while adjust the book’s pagecount to match.

IBA is the specific file format for the iBooks store (though they also accept EPUB and PDF).

PDF is a rigid form of digital format that is almost universally accepted and readable (except by Amazon). The page size, count, along with the font size and type are set by the author and won’t be changeable once published. However this format is easily shared and universally readable by computer, web browser, and mobile audiences. Additionally, PDFs can be made interactive, including animated text, and forms that a user can fill out and send back.

INDD is a commonly used format for physical publishing. This is used with Adobe InDesign, and stands for InDesign Document. Once the book is formatted through this program, the INDD file will be sent to the printer for making a test copy (often called a Galley), then for mass production for sales.