The Stages of Editing

Image courtesy of markusspiske via Pixabay under CC0

Editing isn’t a single transaction where you hand over your manuscript to a professional and it comes back, a few weeks later, gleaming and perfectly polished.  It is, instead, a collaborative process, roughly comprising three separate stages: critical assessment, copy edit and proofread.  After each, your manuscript will come back to you with suggested changes.  You’ll need to sit down and review these, deciding which to apply before your book is ready to continue to the next stage of editing.


Critical Assessment/Structural Edit

This is an appraisal of your writing (hopefully) carried out by a qualified editor. It provides an objective critique of what’s working and what’s not and looks at areas such as characterisation, plot holes, pace, flow, readability and structure.  It tells you if your style is compatible with the genre you’re writing in and if there’s anything that just plain doesn’t make sense. A good editor will give you constructive suggestions on how to improve your work.  You may well find yourself undertaking some lengthy rewrites as a result of your feedback.

To provide this service, some editors read a synopsis of your book and a sample of about 10,000 words.  This is an excellent, cost-saving method of performing a critical assessment.  Others read the whole book which is obviously a pricier affair.

You won’t receive detailed line-by-line feedback.  This stage isn’t about picking up individual spelling mistakes and typos.  Instead, you’ll be given a general report of anywhere between two and ten pages, outlining issues with your work as a whole.

Your editor may be able to advise you on whether there’s any chance of getting commercially published and/or if self-publishing is a viable alternative. Some services have links to agents and occasionally act as talent scouts.  However, this only happens in truly exceptional circumstances. The main aim is to help you make your work as compelling and effective as it can be.

Copy Edit

A copy edit takes place only after you’ve made the changes suggested by the critical assessment.  Some authors choose to put their book through several rounds of critical assessment, submitting revisions for further editing, before moving on to this next stage.

Although a copy edit may, like a critical assessment, look at issues such as structure, generally its focus is more detailed.  A copy editor examines your writing on a line-by-line basis.  They search for errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar whilst also ensuring that characters, timelines, viewpoints and even such minutiae as how you write dates, are all consistent.

He/she roots out clumsy sentences and makes suggestions on word choice.  They might advise you to re-write certain sentences or paragraphs but are unlikely to suggest broader changes.  They may also fact check and make you aware of any legal issues you could encounter.  You’ll generally receive your work back with tracked changes in a Word document.  This enables you to decide which suggested alterations to keep and which to discard.


This is the final stage of editing.  It’s often confused with a copy edit and, indeed, the two do overlap.  However, a true proofread takes place only after you’ve made the alterations suggested by the copy editor and your work has been laid out exactly as it will appear inside your book (typesetting).  It’s literally, as the name suggests, the correction of your book proofs before they go to print or your eBook is uploaded.

Its focus is narrower than that of a copy edit and doesn’t deal with issues such as structure.  It’s there to pick up surface errors, anything that got through the net during the previous editing stages.  Like a copy edit, it looks for errors and consistency in spelling, punctuation and grammar.  A proofreader also searches for glitches in formatting and layout, page numbers, chapter headings, references and footnotes. The big difference from a copy edit is that you don’t expect rewrites at this stage.  Any substantial changes will alter the layout and cost you serious money (if you employed a designer for typesetting) or blood, sweat and tears (if you did it yourself).

Babel’s Tower of editing

The above explanations are designed to give you a general idea of the processes a manuscript traditionally goes through in order to become a polished book.  However, the reality isn’t quite as neat as the theory.  There are a plethora of companies out there, many of which offer subtle variations on services and the titles they use to refer to them.

For example, you’ve probably noticed there’s some overlap between what’s involved in each stage of editing.  At times, this confusion extends to the providers themselves with some referring to what is essentially a copy edit as a proofread and vice versa. In addition, critical assessments may be referred to as editorial reports, critiques or manuscript assessments.

Try not to worry too much about the technicalities.  Simply read the description of the service offered and decide if it’s what you’re looking for.  If in doubt, clarify with your editor exactly what you’re getting and whether they expect to see your book before or after it’s been typeset.  Asking questions is always OK if you’re paying for services.  If anyone makes you feel stupid or doesn’t answer clearly, move on and give your money to someone who’s willing to engage with you.


Next time: Edit for Free



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