Believe me when I say that being a book editor isn’t all that complex. Still, clients regularly approach me with questions, sometimes admitting they are mystified with the editing process.
Let’s clear some things up! Here are 8 secrets of the book editing process.
1. I usually work on a client’s manuscript about 2-3 hours per day.
Slow and steady is best. I can never rush through a manuscript. Overworking myself on a manuscript or not being 100% mentally available when editing just isn’t fair to an author and their work, and it’s not a shortcut I’m willing to take.
I find that I’m sharper in the morning, so I schedule more analytical projects like proofreading before noon. After lunch, I’m in a much more creative mood, so I generally set this aside time for big-picture editing (like developmental editing or a manuscript critique, where I’m looking at the overall story structure and determining how the story could improve).
2. The timeline of editing a manuscript can vary drastically.
The entire editing process generally takes 3 to 4 weeks, but can go as long as 6 weeks, depending on the size of your manuscript and the number of editing services. Some editing services, like developmental editing or a manuscript critique, are so in depth that I schedule a review period for the author to look over my changes (in developmental editing) or suggested edits (in the manuscript critique).
Once the author approves my big-picture changes in the developmental editing process, I take the manuscript back and begin the next editing processes (usually line editing, then proofreading).
3. I always edit books in a specific order.
Each of my editing services are very different from one another, and therefore require separate edits. It’s impossible to look at so many areas at once: when trying to determine if a sentence is set up as best as it possibly could be (line editing), it’s easy to skip over a missed comma or bit of punctuation (proofreading).
What's the order of editing? Developmental editing (or a manuscript critique), line editing, and proofreading—specifically in that order. Doing these out of order could leave errors in the manuscript. It’s important to get the overall “big picture” of a story perfect (developmental editing or a manuscript critique) before moving on to the smaller issues at the paragraph (line editing) and sentence (proofreading) level.
While some authors might be able to skip an editing service, I always, always recommend authors not to skip the final proofread—otherwise, while your manuscript may be beautifully edited for style, consistency, or content, you may have petty grammatical or punctuation errors left over…which readers may pick up on, and which may bring your book negative reviews.
I offer three different editing services, each focusing on a different aspect of any manuscript.
- Developmental editing, usually the first editing process, is where I look at improving big-picture issues including improving character development, overall story structure (including fixing loose ends), pacing, perspective, narrative style, and your story’s organization.
- Line editing focuses on improving sentence structure, checking for consistency, removing clichés or awkward phrasing, and improving clarity and sense of scenes. It makes sure, for example, that each character has consistent actions, or that the spelling of a name or place doesn't change. If something is muddy or hard to understand, I will ensure it is clear and reads easily. I also format the book (for e-publish via Amazon Kindle, or to be sent to agents/publishers) during this process.
- Proofreading is the last step in the editing process before publication, ensuring the manuscript is free of surface errors. In this process I focus mainly on word choice, punctuation, spelling, syntax, and grammar, and is essentially a final read-through to make sure your book doesn’t have any surface errors.
4. Authors can save money in the editing process—as long as they’re willing to do some work of their own.
Opting for a manuscript critique instead of a developmental edit (both of which look at big-picture issues including character and plot development, story structure, pacing, and so on) is a great way for authors to cut down on editing costs, and it’s something I recommend to my clients who want a hands-on learning process.
Authors can also recruit beta readers to read and give feedback on their book. Although beta readers don’t always know the nuances of the publishing industry, their advice is often valuable to authors who are willing to make changes to their story to better reflect the desires of their target audience.
5. Diagnosing a need for a developmental edit isn't always easy.
I always offer a free sample edit to new clients, especially those who aren't sure what editing services their book needs. When reading a small, 1000-word excerpt, it's easy to determine if a manuscript needs line editing or proofreading (which focus on improving sentence structure, clarity of scenes, readability of paragraphs and punctuation, grammar, and word choice, respectively). However, as developmental editing focuses on the "big picture" of your book—think overall plot, character development, and pacing—it's impossible to get an idea of this by just reading a short excerpt of a large manuscript.
This is one of the biggest drawbacks of my job, and I make this clear to authors. I often leave it up to my clients to decide whether they’d like to sign up for developmental editing. If an author is aware that a character is underdeveloped, or a part of the story reads boring, that’s usually a good indication that developmental editing is needed.
In most cases, a round of developmental editing only serves to make the overall story that much better—even manuscripts that are already well done with a tightly woven narrative. As a rule, I’ve found that my most successful clients often schedule their book go through multiple editing passes: developmental editing, line editing, and proofreading.
6. Whether you plan to self-publish or traditionally publish affects how I finish the manuscript.
During the line editing process, I format the manuscript to be ready for immediate publication via Amazon Kindle or to be sent to agents and publishers for traditional publishing. Because the majority of my clients choose to self-publish, I generally format the manuscript for publish on Amazon Kindle, but I can always format the manuscript to be sent to agents upon request.
7. Editors can't always catch every error.
Although us editors will spend hours poring over every word in your manuscript, we can't always catch every error. The industry standard for editing is 95% error detection—this means that if an editor picks up 6,000 errors in a manuscript, it is considered acceptable in the publishing industry that up to 5% (300 errors) remain.
I strive for perfection and have found that my error rates are much better than that. (Although each manuscript is different, I recently learned that I caught 99.996% of the manuscript's errors. To put this into perspective: After catching over 6,000 errors, less than 20 remained in the manuscript.) This very high standard of quality (95%) is guaranteed in editing; however, small errors may remain even after multiple passes. I'm aware of this, and because of it, I personally guarantee to continue working on the manuscript as long as necessary until the client is satisfied and no other changes are needed.
These remaining errors usually happen when, the editor will catch, say, 14 errors in one paragraph, but miss the one that gets through. Authors can help cut down on the number of errors in their book by self-editing their manuscript before sending it to an editor, and by reading it through one more time after editing and before publishing. This means that there are fewer errors to start with, which translates to an overall cleaner document after a round of editing. This is also why many editors say that if a self-published book absolutely needs to be 100% free of errors, it should go through several rounds of proofreading—preferably by different sets of eyes.
8. Sometimes, I do more than just edit.
Depending on whether the authors I work with want to pursue self-publishing or traditionally publishing their books, I offer a range of services: Self-publishing authors generally ask me to write their book’s blurb (the description that goes on the paperback’s back cover) and paperback book formatting. Traditionally publishing authors often ask me to write the query letter and synopsis for their book, which they find is too difficult to write themselves.
I hope I've shed some light on some little-known facets of the editing process. I am always transparent and I love talking about my craft, so if you have any other questions, just ask me!
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Book editor Kristen Hamilton is the owner and sole employee of
Kristen Corrects, Inc., where she provides manuscript editing
services for traditionally and self-publishing authors. Several
authors whose books she has edited have won awards and have
topped Amazon's best sellers lists.
Reading is Kristen's passion, so when the workday is over, she
can usually be found curled up with a good book alongside her
four cats. She loves watching cat videos and scary movies,
eating pizza, teaching herself French, and traveling, and she is
likely planning her next vacation. She lives outside of Boise, ID.