What Every Self-Publisher Ought to Know about Editing

by Joel Friedlander on January 29, 2010 · 67 comments

Podcast: What Every Self-Publisher Ought to Know About Editing [8:16]
(Right click the link to save the podcast, or click the play button below to listen.)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

books and pagesNew self-publishers are often confused about how the editorial process works. They want to know what takes place at each stage of their book’s development.

It seems that if you have a map, even if it’s a sketchy one, it’s easier to understand where you are on the road to getting your book into print. Let’s take a look at the stages through which your book moves.

Keep in mind that the entire editorial process may be long, extending from before the completion of the manuscript through proofreading of the final page proofs. Self-publishers need to understand the whole process so they can hire people with the specific expertise needed to complete their project.

Although publishing houses vary widely in how they implement the editing process, and change has also come over time, this schematic is intended to be a simple and helpful “map” to the journey of your book from manuscript to printed books.

Manuscript: Developmental Editing

Before you even finish your book, perhaps before it’s more than an outline, a sample and an idea, you may start the editorial process. The first kind of editing you will encounter is developmental editing.

Developmental editing, as the name implies, helps develop the author’s concept, the scope of the book, the intended audience, even the way elements of the book are arranged. The relationship between author and developmental editor is intimate, and their work is something of a collaboration.

It can require a great deal of time, as the author responds to the editor’s suggestions, and may require a good deal of patience and tact, since the editor may be instrumental in helping to shape the final work.

Developmental editing can be assigned to specific editors, or some of these functions may be done by either the author’s agent or an acquisitions editor at a publisher. Self-publishers who make use of this type of editing will hire freelance editors to help with the development of their project.

Manuscript: Copyediting

When the author and developmental editor have finished organizing the manuscript, and the editor considers it complete and ready to take the next step, it will go to a Copyeditor.

Copyediting is accomplished by editors who examine the manuscript line by line, word by word. It takes people who are meticulous, excellent at spotting errors, and who mostly don’t mind working without interference or accolades from the world outside.

Copyeditors have vast knowledge of English vocabulary and usage, command over style resources such as the Chicago Manual of Style or other style guides in use at the publishing house. In reviewing the manuscript, they will be paying attention to and correcting:

  • Punctuation, capitalization, spelling, and grammar
  • Errors in word usage
  • Subject-verb agreement
  • Consistency in treatment of material
  • Adherence to establish standards of style and formatting
  • Accuracy and completeness of citations, references, notes, tables, figures and charts
  • Ambiguity, incorrect statements, lapses in logic, libelous comments, and so on.

In the course of editing the manuscript, most copyeditors will also produce a style sheet for the book listing the correct spellings of any unusual names, the proper format for each element in the manuscript, and any other usage or style guidelines that will be useful to other people reviewing the book farther down the production line.

When the copyeditor has finished her work, the manuscript goes back to the author for clarification of any remaining open questions, and then the changes are input into the manuscript.

Manuscript to Book Page Proofs: Production Editor

The manuscript is next routed to a Production Editor who will be responsible for the entire production process. The tasks of the production editor include:

  • Scheduling the project and tracking its progress
  • Hiring and coordinating the work of the book designers, illustrators, indexers, proofreaders and other professionals needed to complete the book
  • Getting estimates from printers or print brokers for the physical production of the book
  • Making sure the books are properly printed and delivered on time.

Book Page Proofs: Proofreading

The last stage in the editorial process is proofreading the book. This step can be easily overlooked in self-published books, to their detriment. The proofreader is the last guardian of the publisher’s reputation for accuracy and care, the protector of the author’s reputation for diligence, and sometimes the least noticed professional to handle the book in its journey.

Proofreaders examine the book’s complete and final pages for more than typographical errors, although that’s a big part of the proofreading job. In addition they will be on the lookout for:

  • Inconsistent line, word, or page spacing
  • Misnumbered list items and mislabeled captions
  • Improper word breaks
  • Page break problems like widows and orphans
  • Irregularities in the use of the books type fonts
  • Accurate and consistent page headers, footers and page numbers
  • Accuracy and completeness of tables, figures, charts, and graphs
  • Consistent use of abbreviations and acronyms.

The End of the Line

When the proofreader is finished with their work, the book is corrected for the last time. Once the pages are set, the final page proofs can be sent to an indexer, if one is being used on the project, and the book will be ready to go to press.

In brief: Developmental editors help shape the work in progress; Copyeditors correct the language, usage, and consistency of the manuscript; Production editors manage the physical manufacturing of the book, and Proofreaders hunt down and fix any errors that have crept into the book. All are necessary to produce a top-quality book.

Be Sociable, Share!

    { 35 comments… read them below or add one }

    Jeff Emery December 23, 2014 at 11:33 am

    Thank you for this. This is the most clear and concise explanation of the editing process I’ve found online.


    Eline October 9, 2013 at 11:36 pm

    Wow, what a post!
    This is a great article to present to book authors so that they would know how laborious editing is and not just a job where an editor is tapped to find a lacking period, comma, colon or missing letter in a sentence.
    As an editor (who practically does the developmental/line/copy editing, I am the only editor in the house actually), the copyediting stage is one that really raises a neck-to-neck battle between me and the author. I am a prescriptive editor but open to exceptions when necessary, and dealing with authors who are not open and does not accept that editing rules ‘exist’ and that they make mistakes despite the Masters and Ph.D.s, makes it hard for me to do a copyedit. There are times that even if you already had this lengthy explanation about why this particular rule must be followed or that a change in this part is necessary for the reader to understand what the author is trying to convey, the author’s response will crush you and make you think “damn, I bet this book will just collect dust in the shelves”. So, since you are just the editor and your hands are partly cuffed “to make some changes”, you just nod in approval.
    Add to that, I work with people (20-30 years my senior) who are not even authors per se, but were just tapped to ‘author a book’ (but hey that’s another issue).

    >sending some love to an article that makes me love what I do more.<


    Liz Broomfield July 28, 2013 at 11:32 pm

    Thanks for the reminder about this article on Twitter today. It’s a great one and all self-publishers should read it (and the comments!).

    I’m an editor myself (mainly line but do developmental too. And proofreading), but when I self-published my book, I had someone else edit it, and she found loads of things to put right. How embarrassing – but obviously necessary. I wrote a blog post about it, as it taught me a great deal about the process from the other side and, I hope, made me a better and more understanding editor. I hope you don’t mind me linking to it here: http://libroediting.com/2013/02/13/on-being-edited/


    JC March 16, 2013 at 4:52 pm

    Great post, Joel! I’d really appreciate yours and readers’ thoughts on this:

    My agreement with the person doing my interior layout is to include three rounds of corrections. I’ve worked with a proofreader on the first two. A handful of typos remain for the final round.

    I had been planning to print out the proofs in soft cover (as opposed to just on my printer) so I can do the final round as a reader would experience it. I’m very interested to know what others have done. Did you print proofs/ ARCs at this stage too, or later?

    The interiors person feels the indexing can wait til after the third round of corrections – I feel it needs to be done before that, so that any corrections are done in the third round.



    Elizabeth November 5, 2012 at 12:35 pm

    You might want to change Amgibuity to Ambiguity in the article above about copy editing. This has helped me realize that even the most assiduous editors can miss something when their brains are overloaded and their eyes begin to cross. Furthermore, it’s even harder when it’s your own work.


    Don Darkes October 14, 2012 at 5:05 am

    Great article. I have been told repeatedly that I need an editor and proofreader. I disagree- my computer needs one. I know exactly what I want to say but the computer thinks and does otherwise. When I read what it has written it shows me exactly what I wanted to write but it secretly reverts to what IT wants to write when I am asleep. A lot of writers tell me they have the same problem.
    Since I simply cannot afford an editor – I am seeking a relationship with an editor who will opt for revenue sharing instead. Despite several adverts the silence has been deafening. Any suggestions?


    Ian October 14, 2012 at 5:12 am

    Have you tried Elance Don? I managed to get a NY based editor with considerable experience (and Elance earnings) to go over my work. I got a two page report and 140 actionable comments throughout the manuscript for well under $500. Lets face it it was only 4 or 5 hours work for her so a fair price IMHO.

    Well worth it. Incidentally she was at the upper end of the proposals I received but I figured that if wasn’t a pro it was money wasted.

    Cost nothing to have a look at least :-)


    Becky Livingston August 1, 2012 at 3:34 pm

    This whole report is simply exceptional. So easy to read and clearly displayed. You certainly inspire confidence in someone who’s wondering who best to turn to. Thanks.


    Sandi Redman July 20, 2012 at 7:34 am

    Hey, Joel – this is wonderful website – excellent job! I’m learning so much about editing, writing, publishing, design – thank you!


    Cameron Chapman March 7, 2011 at 7:10 am

    This is a great breakdown of the editing process. I’d like to share one tip for copyediting your own manuscript: read the entire thing backwards, paragraph by paragraph. I’ve done this for a couple of books, and I have to say that it works really well. It makes you focus on the individual lines and words, and your brain is less likely to fill in what it thinks should be there. I’ve found it helps me pick up on repetitive words and phrases a lot more, too. For anyone who does their own copyediting and proofreading, it’s a great technique.


    Joel Friedlander March 7, 2011 at 10:21 am

    Hey, Cameron, thanks for that. I’ve never heard that one before, but it reminds me of the test we used to use for graphic design projects: we would flip the layout over so it was upside down to see if it worked as well in that orientation, and it would frequently allow us to see weaknesses otherwise missed.

    I’ve read some good articles on self-editing, and I do a fair amount of self-editing myself. Maybe the optimum situation is being able to get your book to the point where an editor is left with little to do, but I still think they work significant magic on the books I work on.


    Ian Anderson January 8, 2012 at 5:31 am

    Wow, great tip for avoiding the “not seeing the wood for the trees” syndrome when reading soooo familiar words forwards.

    Bit like the other tip of reading the words out loud which is difficult for the self conscious!

    Great website Joel, learning loads!


    bob juran April 21, 2015 at 2:59 pm

    I’m a professional copy editor. A heavily experienced and highly skilled copy editor. Recently I read Ludovic Kennedy’s book “The Airman and the Carpenter,” about the Lindbergh kidnapping case. This author managed to misspell Norman Schwarzkopf (about two hundred times), Amelia Earhart, San Bernardino, Eric Sevareid, Eamon de Valera, Adela Rogers St. Johns, and Bathurst, Gambia. He also said that the Yorkville neighborhood, which is in Manhattan in New York City, is “in the Bronx.”
    Would the the copy editors you people work with catch those errors.? Very unlikely. But I would catch them, and many other errors like them.


    Joel Friedlander April 21, 2015 at 3:42 pm

    bob, the copyeditors I personally work with would certainly have caught those errors, and I don’t think it’s particularly fair to other editors to imply wholesale that catching them would be “very unlikely.”


    Ian Anderson April 21, 2015 at 11:10 pm

    Bob, whilst I’m all in favour of confidence, and indeed of blowing ones own trumpet from time to time, I find your attitude hostile (particularly towards Joel), and not just a little bit arrogant.

    Incidentally, in your original comment you say…

    “Would the the copy editors you people work with catch those errors.? Very unlikely. But I would catch them, and many other errors like them.”

    “the the” Repeated word.
    “you people” Really? Do folks actually say this?
    “errors.?” Superfluous punctuation?

    Proving that even the best copy editor the world has ever known (Can you guess who that is?); but has never heard of, makes mistakes occasionally.

    p.s. errors in my comment are gracefully accepted as my own… ;-)


    B.C. Young March 7, 2011 at 7:05 am

    Sounds like the traditional process. I feel that start-up self-publishers can’t afford to hire someone to edit. So their process may be simplified. Plus, some of the things described above hurt a self-publisher in my opinion. Part of self-publishing is being able to write whatever you want, even if it means being unsuccessful. Too much input from an editor can take away from the author’s creativity in my opinion.


    Joel Friedlander March 7, 2011 at 10:18 am

    B.C. yes, this is a breakdown of the traditional editing process. And while I’ll stand shoulder to shoulder with you on the ability of authors to write what they like, the way they like, we’ll have to part company on the usefulness of the editing process. I don’t believe that good editing is harmful to writers, quite the opposite. And my experience is that getting your book edited is the number one priority of anyone self-publishing who wants to actually sell books. Thanks for your comment.


    David Colin Carr December 11, 2011 at 9:14 am

    That’s a common misunderstanding, B.C. – and it’s one that many writers seem to hold.
    I have heard (from potential clients too many times) of editors who have taken a writer’s work and rebuilt or rewritten it without consulting – until the editing is complete – with the person whose name will be on the title page.
    Sadly, most people approach their editors the way they approach their doctors – with awe and trepidation. They are afraid to say, “This isn’t what I wanted.” Or, “I don’t want to pay for something that doesn’t serve my intention.” Remember, you are hiring a service – you need to stand up for yourself if it doesn’t meet your needs.
    I always give my clients a chapter or two to approve before I proceed into the depth of the editing process. And I invite my clients to collaborate in the process as much as their time and capacity allow. Some are not interested, others are delighted to experience their writing from an editor’s perspective – they become better writers through their participation. It’s much more fun for me to have my clients very involved in a project. And I’ll arm wrestle them till they appreciate my input, but I’ll always give them what they want.
    One thread I perceive within your comment is that self-publishing is about the writer. My perspective is that writing practice is about the writer and as Natalie Goldberg says, Don’t be afraid to write the worst crap in America. But writing practice and self-publishing are two different attitudes for writers. Any writer intending to go to publication needs to consider their likely audience (who will pay for their writing, not who needs their writing) and approach them with content of interest in a language/voice they can understand. Once you, as writer, have an audience in mind, you’ll understand the importance of bringing an editor into the process.


    Jaye February 23, 2012 at 3:43 pm

    B.C., I come at it from all angles. 17 novels and change via traditional publishing, short stories self-published and soon some novels self-published, plus I’m a freelance editor. I’ll argue to the ground with developmental editors, especially in genre fiction, but not copy editors. A good copy editor will enhance your creativity through tightening, clarity and consistency. They’ll also keep you from being so creative with punctuation and sentence so as to make your work unreadable. I’ve never met any writer who can fully copy edit or proof their own work. Story blindness affects us all. So yes, writers have the right to publish the unpublishable, but why would they? It seems to me pride alone should induce writers to only put their best, most polished work in front of readers.

    Learning to work with an editor is a skill every writer should have in their toolbox.


    Betsy Gordon August 5, 2010 at 8:30 am

    Joel — I enjoyed this the first time I read it, and even more this morning. I especially appreciate your clear explanation of the different steps of editing.

    I’m sure there are quite a few of us, like me, who wear ALL the Editing Hats of Developmental, Copy, and Production Editors, as well as Proofreaders — but seeing the job broken down like this makes me remember how much is really involved.

    One of my favorite writers, New York Times best-selling author Diana Gabaldon (whose wonderful “Outlander” series has countless fans worldwide) put it beautifully. In one of her books, she thanked her editor for “ever-necessary vigilance against the hordes of errors that breed in the gutters of books, hatching out into the light of day when the covers are opened” (“The Outlandish Companion,” 1999). And yes, I did get Diana’s permission to use that quotation in a blog some time ago — so I share it with you, feeling virtuous about having followed the correct procedure!

    Thanks again for the ongoing learning experience!


    Joel Friedlander August 5, 2010 at 12:27 pm

    That’s funny, Betsy. Not sure you need permission to quote in blog comments, but it’s a great line. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I’ve worn all those hats at one time or another, but definitely don’t do proofreading any longer. Keep reading!


    Victoria Mixon July 13, 2010 at 9:16 am

    Joel, thank you for helping to educate self-publishers on editing. It is so vital, and yet many writers new to publishing don’t realize it even matters.

    You might want to include Line Editing, which is editing line-by-line not just for Copy Editing errors, but for voice, flow, tightness, and professionalism. Although I work a lot with authors on Developmental Editing, it’s the Line Editing that takes a wonderful idea that’s properly structured and makes it a book readers will want to read again and again and again–the essence of literature.

    Please feel free to link to my discussion of Copy, Line, & Developmental Editing if you like.


    Joel Friedlander July 14, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    Victoria, thanks so much for your addition, I’m sure that will be useful information for people. And I’m very glad to add your link as a resource, I appreciate your extensive work in this area very much.


    Victoria Mixon July 14, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    Thank you, Joel!

    (You know we’re in the same neck of the woods, don’t you? I live in Mendocino. Maybe one day on one of my family’s trips to the Bay Area, you & I can have coffee.)


    Joel Friedlander July 14, 2010 at 3:53 pm

    Hey that’s right! Sure, if you’re down this way I’d love to connect. I’m in San Rafael.


    Joel April 14, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    Hey bowerbird, thanks for the visit. I’m in the lucky position of having a ton of projects, but it does keep me from completing several projects of my own. Have to stay up a little later I guess.


    bowerbird April 14, 2010 at 12:33 pm

    any more articles in this series?

    how’s the book coming along?



    Joel April 14, 2010 at 11:55 am

    Dana, thanks so much for your comment, I really appreciate it (and the link!). My aim with all these articles is to educate prospective self-publishers and others involved with the creation and production of books, so it’s nice to know they are useful. Thanks for stopping by.


    Dana Lynn Smith April 14, 2010 at 11:12 am

    Wow! You have done a terrific job of explaining the editing process and this is info that all authors need to know. I have added a link to this article from my Aspiring Authors Resource page at http://bit.ly/AspiringAuthors. Keep these great articles coming, Joel!


    Joel February 4, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    Bowerbird, this is actually part of a series that I’m putting into an ebook (and a print book too) so it will appear eventually as part of a PDF book, but thanks for your generosity.


    bowerbird February 3, 2010 at 11:09 am

    joel said:
    > thank you for the corrections bowerbird.

    sure thing. thanks for an interesting series.
    how about i turn it into an e-book for you?,
    to give a workout to some software i’m writing…



    Joel February 2, 2010 at 10:15 pm

    everybody needs an editor…

    Most certainly, and thank you for the corrections bowerbird.


    bowerbird February 2, 2010 at 7:55 pm

    bad> and tracking it’s progress
    new> and tracking its progress

    bad> Proofreaders examine the books complete and final pages
    new> Proofreaders examine the book’s complete and final pages

    bad> In addition they will be on the lookout for
    new> In addition they will be on the lookout for:

    everybody needs an editor…



    Joel January 29, 2010 at 11:10 pm

    Linda Jay, thank you. I take that as high praise coming from you. Thanks for stopping by!


    Linda Jay Geldens January 29, 2010 at 10:37 pm

    Joel, Thanks for explaining so clearly the many stages of the editorial process. You are so right — each step is critical to the final product — an excellent book! LindaJay, copyeditor of 60 book manuscripts in the past two years…


    Leave a Comment

    { 32 trackbacks }