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  • Writer's pictureBarbra A. Rodriguez

Choosing the Best Editing Level

Whether you’ve just begun working on a book in recent months, or have ploughed through a sixth or later draft, at some point, you’re likely to consider getting professional eyes on it. After all, it’s hard to keep a proper perspective on whether what’s in your head matches what’s on the page. Given that even dedicated bibliophiles max out at reading about one book a month, providing them with a compelling, glitch-free narrative is key.

Based on what stage of manuscript development you are in, here are factors to consider before hiring a book coach, one of the various types of editors, or a proofreader. I have included descriptions of typical services that are available, whether you seek traditional publishing or pursue independent authorship (hybrid presses, which I'll cover in an upcoming feature, often provide similar services to a traditional publisher).

Early Content

It’s possible you’re still figuring out the focus of an early work that's half written or involves just a few chapters and perhaps an outline. If you're wanting the best from this work, or to build a career as an author, now is a great time to work with a book coach who'll help guide you in seeing what content elements and skills you may need to strengthen, help you polish pages, and see the full potential of the work, as well as increasing your ability to critique it.

The focus of book coaches vary, with some (like me) focusing on early and middle-stage content development. In early stage coaching, I'll guide writers for a few months on strengthening overall concepts, such as the main theme or point of view, and how to ensure the most important manuscript challenges are addressed first, such as a lack of logic holes. I highly recommend this mile-high view step whenever possible, including if something isn't working in your manuscript, but you're unsure what that is.

For a writer with more established skills and a first or second draft, consider hiring an editor to do an overall manuscript evaluation. The evaluator will provide a basic review all the big picture elements that help your manuscript gel. Among the elements they’ll consider is whether the main protagonist is clear, chapters contain built-in tension, and there is narrative drive. In addition, an editor/evaluator will consider the author’s voice and tone, and elements such as character development (even non-fiction books have main "characters" to consider, such as a book focused on advances in artificial intelligence, or the physics of floods).

Basic manuscript evaluations, aka manuscript critiques or reviews, aren’t about the editor making specific changes to the text. Instead, they’ll write up several pages that summarize the main elements that are working well and those that need work.

For independent writers who don't pursue coaching, a more detailed developmental edit frequently is ideal, and can involve a longer summary, called an editorial letter. If a book was compared to a train being built from the ground up, the developmental editor is the one who helps ensure the frames for the cars are built to spec, the head lights and horn of the

locomotive work, etc. A developmental edit (sometimes called a structural edit) covers what needs to change with the overall content structure for clarity, energy, and so the content all works together — aka, cohesion (such as ensuring that a chronological memoir doesn't have unexplained, noticeable gaps in time).

In addition, a developmental editor may provide call-outs as comments in the manuscript that are associated with specific text to show what you're doing well and examples of where things went awry (this combination of an editorial letter and some text-related comments is sometimes called a substantive edit). Depending on their skill set, the editor might also discuss factors like your audience and the work’s potential market.

The two types of developmental edits cost more on average than copy edits because of the complexity of whole-scale thinking about a manuscript. Either approach, in my experience, can be overwhelming for a novice author whose content needs a lot of work, in which case I'd suggest a client consider early stage book coaching instead, as funds permit. (Note that traditional publishers may recommend an author pay to have a developmental edit done, sometimes on a short time frame before the work goes in-house; when I've provided this service, it's been a full developmental edit directly on the content, so more hands-on and costly than is typically true for independent authors).

Visit the Services page to learn my approach to the above big-picture editing options, as well to ghostwriting. A separate editing step or more is commonly done after developmental editing to consider line-by-line details, as described in the "Completed Manuscript" section below.

Mid-Manuscript Help

If you’re second or later draft manuscript needs more polish, or you've looked at it for so long that you can no longer see what's missing, that's another good point to consider hiring an author coach/book coach if funds allow (coaching tends to be more hands-on, and therefore, more expensive). They will give as-you-go developmental advice for you to enhance the manuscript in chunks. For instance, you may swap content back and forth for months while working on refining the purpose of certain chapters, and replacing telling with showing as part of polishing them.

Line editing is another service I provide, and is the stage that occurs for some works after developmental editing, i.e. once the final structure of the content is fairly well established. Like copy editing, this stage involves reviewing text line by line (some editors will, in fact, call copy editing "line editing" for that reason). In what I'm referring to as line editing, though, the emphasis is on improving the style of prose and addressing factors that get in the way of the author's voice and providing a compelling story. Line editing is most often done for literary, historical and other forms of fiction, as well as for memoir and other forms of narrative nonfiction. The approach can overlap with copy editing, such as when repetitive words are pointed out. But it takes a different focus to look at writing primarily for the rhythm of the language, how well word choices match the mood being created, and things like whether parts of a scene could be tightened up to help with narrative drive.

Completed Manuscript

For writers seeking a traditional publishing house deal, if you've had a book coach who helped with basic editing needs, now may be the time you work with that coach or on your own to develop a plan for pitching the book to agents (the gatekeepers to accessing pub. houses). Your work has to be in great shape to catch most agents' eyes. They still may suggest it undergo developmental or copy editing (covered below) before they feel your work's ready to be pitched.

Here’s my breakdown on what this step and proofreading involves (be sure to ask an editor what they specifically do for each level of editing, though, because individual approaches vary):

Copy editing, also sometimes called line editing, gets into the details of how each sentence is structured and how paragraphs connect to each other and so on. It’s akin to checking that the interior lighting is consistent in all of a train’s cars, and the seats have the same comfort level and coloring – all to give the reader a smooth “ride.” Besides checking if you’ve used proper grammar and punctuation, and used a consistent style for headlines and such, a copy (i.e. content) editor calls out elements such as best word choices, how consistent your sentences and paragraphs are, whether the sentence-level text flows well and passages are clear and lack logic gaps.

Certified editors like me might offer three levels of copy editing. The lighter the copy edit, the lower the cost — but also the more instances in which the author will be left to decide how to address an issue that’s been identified. For instance, in a medium copy edit, a section that could use restructuring tends to be pointed out to the author, but may not be restructured by the editor unless they only see only one way you could "fix" it. A copyeditor should tell you what they provide in each level of service they offer (see my approach on the Services page).

Your book may be a family history one sent to a dozen-or-so loved ones, in which case a light edit may be good enough. If you plan to share your work publicly and a prospective editor suggests at least a medium edit, I'd take that into serious consideration. A heavy edit, if recommended, would likely be needed if your content challenges are many fold or serious issues exist in something like the overall structure. Or you may prefer the heaviest level of editing to receive the most input a professional editor can offer, perhaps because you're gunning to get book reviews, to enter book competitions and such (keep in mind that no editor can/should guarantee you'll achieve publishing success, given that they don't control factors such as book marketing, and how agents, publishers, or readers respond to your words).

Regardless of the copy editing level you've selected, ask whether a prospective editor checks outside sources for the accuracy of facts or not; fact checking does become more common with a heavy edit (though editors should point out any internal inconsistencies within a document regardless of the editing level). In all but overall manuscript reviews, your editor should also provide a copy of the manuscript with their edits visible for your consideration. Editors usually use Comment bubbles or query in some other way about edits where they may have misinterpreted your meaning. Many editors, particularly for heavier stage editing, will include follow-up communication within a certain time frame by email or phone/video to ensure you understand their edits.

The Finale

At traditional publishers, a book will go through proofreading steps after any developmental and copy editing stages. Proofing is a final catch-all step to check for glaring errors, such as double periods at the end of a sentence, misspelled words, a misnumbered page or a headline that’s in a different style than all other headlines. It’s very common for a few grammar glitches and more to be caught.

As an indie author, it could be tempting to skip the proofing step and just run Spell Check and purchase software to flag potential grammar gaffes. But passing on this step is risky; editing software often can’t pick up certain errors, such as the fact that you had mistakenly used feat while referring to your lower appendages. That’s why even seasoned writers hire proofreaders.

I do recommend hiring one person for copyediting and another for proofreading if possible. Though it’s a more involved process to do this, a new set of eyes may catch something the initial editor overlooked. In fact, a publishing house I’ve worked for has a proofreading step done by one expert right before a book is formatted, and a final proofread by another after layout is done. I've even done a "cold read" for a book from Counterpoint Press, which is a final proofreading round beyond the normal two proofing steps.

In the end, decisions about what level of editing to pursue boil down to your budget and comfort level, But it may help to keep in mind that your book can influence how others view you. And, with hundreds of thousands of new books coming out annually in the U.S. alone, meeting professional publishing standards can help a book get noticed for the right reasons.

By Barbra A. Rodriguez

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