Once you have a complete manuscript draft, congratulations are in order. It’s a big deal to finish the draft of a book project of any length and that is definitely cause for celebration. But! Don’t rest on the laurels of that accomplishment for too long, because finishing the manuscript is only the first step. As much as we hate to break it to you, we must be the bearer of the reality check that your work has only just begun.
Your next big step will be to hire and work with an editor to get the book publish-ready.
It’s all too common in the new world of publishing for writers, especially online content creators, to have one of two misconceptions about the editing process. They either 1) assume that their work is good enough as it is and doesn’t need editing, or 2) don’t fully understand what working with an experienced professional editor can do for their work. If your perspective on the editing process is some combination of these two misconceptions, read on.
That’s what this chapter is all about: helping you to understand the editing process, what working with an editor is like, and what an editor can really do for you. The first thing we’ll say is that all writers need editors. It doesn’t matter who they are or how good they are—the best and most popular writers all have editors. Editors are the first line of defense for writers. They are your earliest official reader, and they help you to ensure that your work is ready for a larger, more public audience.
Think of it this way: Every year the president of the United States gives the State of the Union address, and that speech is written and revised and critiqued and revised and rewritten some more before it’s in the final form that gets delivered to Congress. Now, granted, your book is probably not as seminal a work as the State of the Union (not yet anyway!), but the point is that if the president of the United States takes that much care in crafting his message, then don’t you think it’s a valuable component when communicating something that is important to you?
Communication is often tricky, especially when you are attempting to introduce readers to new or unfamiliar ideas, because you have to ensure that you lead your reader on a logical path so that they can follow along in your thinking. That means that the sequence of how you present information is incredibly important. The breakdown happens when the complex idea that you are attempting to communicate on the page appears clear to you because it makes sense in your head, but it may not make sense to an objective reader. Your reader is not a mind reader and not intimately involved with your logic or thinking—you are the only person who knows what’s going on inside your head—and that’s where an editor comes in. The editor helps you to sort out and organize your ideas so that they are clear to anyone who encounters them, and so that they do make sense to readers who are new to the concept.
You may recall that a lot of us here at Team SPI have background and experience as editors. In that experience working with authors we have encountered writers periodically who, when we gave them feedback, attempted to verbally explain what they meant. This is usually an indication that the author didn’t communicate clearly and didn’t sufficiently translate what was in their head onto the page. The problem is if it’s not on the page, readers will not have access to you, the author, to get clarification on a topic or a point when they are reading your book—all they’ll have is the book, which means you need to make sure it’s as solid as it can be to stand on its own and communicate effectively on your behalf.
Everyone says my book is great; why do I need an editor?
You may have already had friends and family read early drafts of your manuscript, and you may have already revised to incorporate their feedback. That’s a great strategy to get your draft ready for an editor. And, yes, unless your significant other or best friend is a professional editor, we do still advocate hiring a professional even after you’ve passed your manuscript around to your personal network. (For the record, Pat has worked with professional editors for all of his self-published books. He shares more about that experience for his book Will It Fly? In chapter 3.)
As much as your friends and family love you and want to support you, unless they have training, there are things that only a professional editor will be able to do for you. First and foremost a professional whom you pay to work on your manuscript is going to give you critical, strategic, and objective feedback that people who know you are likely not in a position to give. When you hire an editor, you’re entering a business service relationship, in which the editor has a professional responsibility to help you create the best book possible because your editor will be invested in delivering the best work possible to you, the client.
Objective feedback is essential. You parents or your spouse or your best friend or whoever you’ve asked to read your early draft are probably more concerned about whether or not they hurt your feelings than they are with giving you feedback that you can actually apply toward improving your book. Not so with an editor. Beyond objectivity, your editor will also provide you with critical and strategic feedback. By critical feedback, we mean that your editor will analyze your draft and identify its structure and order, making suggestions to rearrange material if necessary. Your editor will also identify material that might get off track and make suggestions of where to cut, and where to expand if the material is lacking and needs further development.
Editors also think critically about your target audience, which may be something you haven’t given much thought in your writing process. That’s okay because 1) when you’re writing you need to just get the material on the page, and 2) that’s part of the revision process that an editor can help you with. This is the stage where you refine the manuscript to include references and examples that are relevant to your audience, and maybe take out the obscure Back to the Future reference unless, of course you are Pat Flynn, and you know your niche audience will get it.
More than anything else, hiring an editor means bringing on a teammate. With an editor you’re no longer a team of one, you’re a team of two. Your editor becomes your coach, your cheerleader, and your partner. If you find a good editor, someone who understands you and your book and who works well with you, then that person will be just as invested in the book as you are—and that’s what you want. You want someone who cares about your message as you do so that together you can produce the best possible manuscript. We’ll talk more about how you find that person, but first let’s talk about the different types of editing.
How do I know what kind of editing I need?
You may not know what kind of editing you need without first consulting an editor. That may seem a bit counterintuitive if you’re wondering how you hire someone if you don’t even know what type of service to look for. Don’t worry—most editors and content service providers will offer an entry-level service such as a manuscript evaluation, which would help you to identify the type of editing you might need.
Here at SPI we take our books through three levels of editing and define them as follows:
- Developmental editing is all about structure, flow, and story design.
- Line editing focuses on your manuscript line by line to improve language, word choice, tone, sentence structure, etc.
- Copyediting concentrates on bullet-proofing your manuscript, looking to correct errors in the areas of grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.
Typically the first and best place to start is with a round of developmental editing. Unless you’re an experienced writer with more than one book under your belt, chances are that you’ll need to do some restructuring, reordering, and rewriting on the manuscript before it’s ready for the next stage. This is where you get the structure and order, what’s often called the narrative arc of the book, finalized. If the draft is super rough, then this phase is all about simply determining the focus of the book, eliminating anything that doesn’t support that focus, and identifying what new material needs to still be written to make the focus work. You don’t want to do a lot of the nit-picky corrections that happen in the copyediting stage before getting the structure nailed down, because you’re often writing new material, moving material around, and introducing all kinds of new errors in the process.
Once you are done with developmental editing, you can move on to line editing and copyediting, which is beginning to fine tune and polish up the manuscript. Whereas developmental editing works at a higher, holistic level, line editing works at the lower, sentence level. This phase of editing ensures that sentences flow from one to the next, that there are appropriate transitions between sections, that there’s a solid finish to each chapter, and that your word choice throughout is consistent with the tone you’re using to speak to your audience—for example, line editing would eliminate the introduction of profanity mid-way through your manuscript, because it would be jarring to readers if it is not part of the tone you’ve set with them from the outset.
In addition to correcting grammar errors, copyediting also ensures that your manuscript is consistent throughout with style choices like, for example, whether to use SmartPassiveIncome.com vs. Smart Passive Income vs. SPI. Copyediting is often combined with a final round of proofreading to catch any straggling errors, but in traditional publishing houses you’ll find that copyediting and proofreading are two separate roles and proofreading is the last step after a manuscript is laid out and before it goes to press. Every manuscript needs a minimum of copyediting and proofreading. Whether you also need line editing depends on how messy your manuscript is to begin with.
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What is it like to work with an editor?
A good editor is like a business partner: You both have defined roles and responsibilities on the project and you both are working toward the same goal of making the best possible book. Your editor will challenge you and probably give you feedback that you don’t like or is a little uncomfortable to hear at times. But it’s all with the intention of bringing out the best writer in you. Your editor will also be your biggest cheerleader, identifying the strengths of your work often by asking for more of the same. And, if you think you will write more than one book, you may find that you continue working with the same editor for years because you’ve built a relationship with someone who not only knows your work but knows how you work.
One of the most important things to know about developmental editing is that it does not mean that the editor is doing the work of rearranging and rewriting. A standard deliverable for a developmental edit is a written critique, evaluating the following elements of the manuscript and making recommendations for each:
- show vs. tell
- point of view
A developmental critique means you end up with a list of homework assignments from your editor and you go to work revising based on the editor’s recommendations. The editor is often available by email or phone to answer questions as you work on the revisions and then to review your manuscript one more time when you have a revised draft ready. You can expect more back-and-forth and a longer-term relationship with developmental editors, who are spending more time with you and with the manuscript, helping to inform the shape of the book and helping you to make decisions. There are even some developmental editors who will sub-contract for line and copyediting, and in that case you may not have contact with the next level editors.
With line and copyediting, you can expect an editor to make corrections directly in the document. The deliverable at this stage typically includes two files: one marked up file with the changes tracked, and one clean file with all changes accepted. Copyeditors will likely ask for a style guide that dictates treatment of words and punctuation specifically for your book. If you don’t have one, then they can also help you create one; it’s usually one page or less listing book-specific style choices that supplements the designated style guide you’re following such as The Chicago Manual of Style or The Associated Press Style Guide.
Keep in mind that editors often prefer and specialize in one type of editing. Developmental editors in particular may even specify that they will not copyedit a manuscript after they’ve done the developmental edit, and vice versa. Line editors almost never also copyedit. And copyeditors never proofread. The reason is that once you get to the next level of editing, you want a set of fresh eyes on the manuscript. The more familiar you are with the work, the more likely you are to miss something. Not to worry, most editors have a network of professionals in the field and can refer you to someone for any type of editing that they don’t do themselves.
How long will editing my book take?
That’s a hard question to answer because it depends so much on each individual book manuscript and, really, the author. There are so many variables, like how long the manuscript is, how much development it needs, how strong of a writer you are, how quickly you write, and, perhaps most importantly, how dedicated you are to the revision process.
The short answer to the question is, it depends on you and how much time you give it. If you get a developmental critique and you’re able to implement the recommendations within a week or two, you’re that much closer to having a finished manuscript. But if you are able to dedicate only a few hours on the weekends, it could take you several weeks or months to finish. So, bottom line is, it’s largely up to you how long it will take.
How do I find an editor?
Finding a good editor who you click with and want to work with long-term can be a bit tricky. It’s not like looking at a beautiful website, knowing you love it so much that you want to work with whoever designed it. The work of a good editor is hidden behind the scenes and unnoticeable—and that’s the point. An editor’s job is to make the author look good. When you love a book you think it’s well written, not well edited. So if you can’t see the editor’s work, how do you even know where to start?
Of course there’s always the good ol’ Google search, although you never quite know what you’re going to get there. Some of the trusted resources for authors online include sites like Jane Friedman and Joanna Penn’s blogs, where you’ll find resources listed for help with your book including editors. But in our opinion, the best way to find an editor is word of mouth. Ask your author friends who they have worked with in the past, and what their experience was like. If you don’t know anyone who has written a book and worked with an editor, there are professional organizations that provide directories for their members and some, like the Editorial Freelancers Association, have a job board where you can post a listing for your project and request proposals or quotes from interested members. You could also use a site like Upwork to find a freelancer for any type of project, including editing.
My book has been edited, now what?
You’re on your way! And you still have a lot of work ahead of you, including some important decisions about how you want to proceed. Do you intend to self-publish, or try to get a traditional book deal? Keep reading; we’ve got a chapter to give you an idea of what to expect from each avenue that will help you to make an informed decision. But first we need to cover how to get your manuscript ready for publishing, and we’ll get to that in chapter 3.