4 Levels of Editing Explained: Which Service Does Your Book Need?

by | Apr 23, 2014

By Corina Koch MacLeod and Carla Douglas

In our last article, 5 Things You Should Know about Working with Beta Readers, we discussed how you can work with beta readers to enhance the self-editing process. Self-editing, or revision, as we call it, is the furthest you can take your manuscript on your own, with feedback from others, but without professional editing help. This is a great first step towards polishing your manuscript.

Let’s suppose that you’ve gotten feedback from your beta readers and made any necessary adjustments to your manuscript. What else can you do to find out what your book needs?

Why, hire an editor, of course! (If you’re on the fence about hiring an editor, see this article on what editors know about readers).

In this article, we’ll talk about your first contact with an editor — and what happens to your manuscript when it lands in an editor’s inbox.

Finding an Editor

Your first step in connecting with an editor is to find the right editor for you and the book you’ve written. There is an editor for every book and author. To find the perfect fit, consult editors’ profiles at these professional editing organizations:

One of our clients told us that he combed through 60 profiles before he decided to hire us to work on his book. Do your homework. You can learn a lot about an editor’s expertise and manner by reading his or her profile.

It’s reasonable to contact more than one editor before settling on the one who’s right for you. By reviewing editors’ online profiles, you should be able to narrow the field to two or three.

What do I send my editor?

After you’ve found an editor who you think will be a good fit for you, you’ll need to make initial contact. In order to assess your manuscript, your editor will most likely ask you to send a sample:

10-Page Sample
For a quick initial assessment, we ask for 10 pages from the “messy middle.” Why? Because most authors understand the importance of starting well, and as a result, the first chapter of a book often gets a great deal more attention from the author than a chapter in the middle.

If we can see the middle, where many authors’ writing energy tends to flag (and understandably so), we’ll get a better sense of how much time it will truly take to help you with your book.

You’ll want to know an editor’s assessment of the messy middle because it can directly affect how much editing services will cost. It’ll also help an editor to make some DIY recommendations that can reduce editing costs later in the process.

Table of Contents
If you’re writing a nonfiction book, include a table of contents (TOC) with your 10-page sample. A TOC can help your editor to see how you’ve arranged the major topics in your book, and whether you might need help with the book’s structure.

What type of editing does a book need?

When your book sample lands in your editor’s inbox, he or she will assess the “level” of editing that’s needed. There are four levels of editing, and each level builds on the next. Every successful book manuscript will have resolved issues at each of these levels:

  1. Big-Picture Edit
    Also called developmental, structural or substantive editing, this kind of editing involves moving large chunks of text around and possibly cutting some sections as well. It addresses the structure of a book — how everything hangs together.
    This happens more often than you’d think: An editor receives a large fiction manuscript for copyediting. During an initial scan of the text, she notices a few trouble spots — for example, the plot is lost in large sections of background information and the characters are difficult to distinguish from one another. The editor knows the novel would be better if she could address these issues, but how? At more than 350 pages, it’s a large apparatus.

    Her solution? And this happens more often than you’d think, too: She prints out the difficult sections of the novel. Then she gets her scissors. Yes, scissors, and begins to cut and re-assemble those parts of the story, so that they fall together more naturally and present the story in the arrangement that serves both the story and the reader’s expectations. (Note that by now the editor has taken off her copyeditor’s hat — she’s not quite ready for it!)

    Needless to say, big picture editing can be very expensive if you need to address a book’s structure after it has been completely written. The cheapest way to address big-picture items is to get help structuring your book before you write it.

    If you like to structure your book before you write it, send your editor a detailed outline, or a detailed 10-page plot summary to see if he or she can spot any potential holes.

    If you’ve written your book, but you’d like feedback on your structure, you can still send it to an editor. But keep in mind that your editor will need to read an entire book instead of a 10-page plot summary, and this extra time will be reflected in the cost.

  2. Paragraph-Level Edit
    Also called stylistic or line editing, this kind of editing involves recasting sentences for clarity and flow. It can also involve moving sentences around so that your meaning is clear. Stylistic editing always aims to preserve the author’s voice, first and foremost.Suppose you’ve finished your manuscript, and everything is where it’s supposed to be for best effect. What features of your finished book could indicate that it still might need a stylistic edit? Here are a few examples:

    • All your sentences are about the same length.
    • You use a lot of adjectives.
    • The vocabulary isn’t suited to the intended audience.
    • Your meaning is lost in too many big words or jargon.
    • Transitions from one paragraph to the next are awkward.

    Effective writing has a rhythm and pulse, and with practice, good writers learn to develop an ear for these qualities. A stylistic editor can help you hone these skills.

  3. Sentence-Level Edit
    Also called copyediting, this kind of editing addresses grammar, usage and consistency issues. It is entirely understandable that an author can lose track of many small details over the course of writing a book. From how a character’s name is spelled to the colour of her eyes to her mother-in-law’s hometown to how that’s spelled, the possibilities for small errors are many.What’s more, sometimes these errors are introduced by the author himself during the revision phase. I once asked an author I was working with how it could be that her main character was entering high school that September when she had just had her 11th birthday the previous June. The author replied, “Oh, yeah. Hm. It’s because I cut a section out and reordered some events during one of my revisions. This is my fourth revision. I’d better take care of that detail!”

    So in addition to consistencies in spelling and punctuation (colour or color? skateboard or skate-board?), a copyeditor will find issues of continuity that don’t add up. Sort of like quality control.

    This grid lists the kinds of things that editors attend to in a copyedit (Have a look! It’s like peeking over a copyeditor’s shoulder!). You can use a grid like this one to help you determine which copyediting issues you can confidently address yourself, and which ones you’d prefer to hire an editor to fix.

  4. Word-Level Edit
    Also called proofreading, this kind of editing addresses typos, repeated words (the the), spelling, punctuation and formatting issues (how things look on a page) as they occur in your book’s final environment. So, if you’re publishing an ebook, your editor will look at your book on an e-reader, or in an e-reading app to see how it looks and operates.

    If your book will be printed, your editor will proofread a PDF. Proofreading is the last pair of eyes on your book before it goes live: it’s the last chance to catch an error before a reader finds it and gleefully points it out.

What kind of editing will I need?

Typically, a manuscript will travel more or less through all four levels of editing before it’s deemed polished and ready for the reader. But that doesn’t mean that you’ll need to hire an editor for each kind of editing.

What your book needs depends on your strengths as a writer.

If you’re brilliant at outlining a book in a clear and logical way, or if you’re a master at crafting the perfect plot or story arc, you won’t necessarily need a big-picture edit. But if you struggle with explaining yourself clearly, or crafting realistic dialogue, your editor might recommend a paragraph-level edit.

At the very least, every manuscript will benefit from a sentence-level edit, or a copyedit. If your editing budget is limited, you can be strategic about the services you select.

Regardless of what your manuscript needs, working with an editor can help you improve your writing — particularly if you approach the process with a willingness to learn about your writing quirks (we all have them). With a positive and open attitude, you’ll not only get a better book, you’ll save money on your next editing project with what you’ve learned from this one.


Photo: bigstockphoto.com

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Maurice Colbert

    I echo the same sentiments as Tony. I’m just starting out and anything or anyone that I can glean something about writing is something I soak up. Your advice is exactly what I look for…thanks.

  2. Tony

    This is a great post. I’m still learning a lot about writing and editing and this is a wonderful explanation, thanks!

    • Carla Douglas


      Thanks for your comment — so glad you found the post helpful! In these posts we’ll take you step-by-step through the various stages of editing and at the same time demystify the whole process. So do check back in!


  3. Sue Toth

    So many valid points raised here! I am thoroughly enjoying this discussion.

    I would add that authors need to look at their relationship with their editor as just that, a relationship. With the huge investment that editing entails, you’ll want to make sure that you feel comfortable with the person with whom you’re working. Ask lots of questions before you hire an editor. For example, some prefer to only work via email. If phone conversations or in-person meetings are important to you, you’ll want to avoid the editor who only likes email. Think of anything you need to make you feel comfortable, and make sure you look for that.

    For those of you wondering if the investment is worth it, the answer is yes (and full disclosure, yes, I am an editor). First of all, no one can ever catch all their own mistakes. You’re too close to the work. And once you find the right editor, the one that you can have a collaborative, teamwork type of relationship with, you’ll be glad you did. It will make a world of difference in your book.

    • Corina Koch MacLeod

      That’s a very good point, Susan. You might find the perfect editor on paper, but sense that your working styles don’t mesh. That’s okay. As a self-pub, this is a working relationship you get to choose (that’s true for editors, too).

      You may be involved in a lot of back-and-forth with your editor, so it does help if you get on well. And an editor and author can become rather fond of one another throughout the editing process. You’ve been warned!

  4. Katie McCoach

    Great article, ladies! I like almost all points, especially the breakdown in the Paragraph Level Edit. However I must admit I almost get the sense that developmental editing is brushed off here as not quite as important. I don’t think this is something an author can do on their own, up to a point. An author can self-edit and restructure the novel forever, but there will still be those plot points, characteristics, and more that an author is too close to see and that’s why developmental editors are huge in making that happen. Each one of these steps are KEY to self-publishing. Thanks for posting!

    • Corina Koch MacLeod

      Thanks for you comment, Katie. Oops. We didn’t mean to underplay developmental/ big-picture editing. You’re right — developmental editing it is important.

      I abandoned a book I was reading for pleasure the other day because the book’s structure wasn’t making it easy for me to engage with the story. I had to work too hard—and that’s not something I like to do when reading for pleasure. The author had the other three levels of editing in hand, but the big-picture element was missing.

      If you’re at all unsure about whether your book’s structure is working, it’s a good idea to take it to an editor who has experience with your genre and with developmental editing.

      Thanks for pointing this out.

  5. Sarah Lentz

    Boy, did I need to read this. Thanks!
    Still so much to learn. :)

    • Corina Koch MacLeod

      There is a lot to learn, Sarah. You’re not alone! And as Joel has pointed out, there is lots of information on this blog to get you started.

      • Sarah Lentz

        Thanks, Corina! I’ll be scouring this blog to learn all I can. :)

  6. Josephine Bacon

    You only get to be an EFA or SFEP member if you have solid editing experience and this is clear from the resumé which you provide to any potential client.

    • laursieg

      Sorry, Josephine, that’s just not true. The only qualification for being an “EFA editor” is paying your dues. The monetary kind.

  7. lauren

    I don’t know that I would start searching for an editor on one of those sites. On EFA, for example, the profiles are self-written. And all one has to do in order to be listed there is pay dues. There is no vetting of members for skill and experience or even truth-telling.

    You want to be sure you hire a real editor with relevant, deep, and demonstrable experience, not just someone who has decided to be an editor because she writes, is “good with grammar and punctuation” and needs money. No matter what your “editor” tells you, no editor is good with all genres and all levels of editing.

    I’d start by getting referrals from people I trust. And then I would interview my editor-to-be and get references. I would want to know in what form I will get feedback. For a developmental edit, for example, what exactly will the output be? Will I be able to talk with the editor as well as get written feedback?

    Yes editing is a big investment. And yes, it is necessary. Just make sure you’re investing well.

    • Corina Koch MacLeod

      Good point, Lauren.

      Anyone can hang an editing shingle and declare themselves an editor. So here are few things to look for while choosing an editor:

      Relevant educational background
      Professional development (courses, study groups, self-study)
      Experience (projects they’ve worked on)
      Type of editing they do
      Type of manuscripts they work on

      You can also ask for the name of an author an editor has worked with.

      Finally, don’t be afraid to ask an editor what they’re doing to improve their editing skills. Keep in mind, though, that professional learning communities can play a big role in an editor’s continuous education.

      Editing organizations exist to give editors professional development opportunities. There’s a lot to know about editing, and the forums in these professional organizations are true learning communities. These communities are important because the “rules” of written English are constantly changing and open to debate.

      Hope this helps,

    • Mary DeEditor

      To answer Lauren’s concern, there are editorial agencies that vet their new editors so thoroughly they would put the FBI to shame. Tests, more tests, samples, references, interviews, trial periods with senior staff supervision, and so on. If you’re looking for pre-tested, highly scrutinized, and well-scrubbed editors, try Editcetera.com, ManagedEditing.com, or the like.

  8. Josephine Bacon

    As a member of both the EFA and the SFEP, I think you should specify that the SFEP is primarily a British resource, just as the EFA is primarily an American one. There is much more to editing than just correcting grammar, punctuation and style also need consideration. In the case of what is known as so-called “developmental editing” the whole structure of the book has to be considered. My own expertise lies in americanization/anglicisation, especially of cookbooks.

    • Corina Koch MacLeod

      You’re quite right, Josephine. We didn’t explicitly specify the geographical locations of these professional editing organizations. Each of these organizations are based in different countries.

      As an author, do you want to hire an editor from an organization that is based in a country in which you live? You might, particularly if you decide to go the traditional publishing route. Some traditional publishers will specify which dictionary you will use (and therefore determine how you spell some words) and what style guides, or rules to follow.

      It’s not as clear with self-publishing, though. When I self-published Idea to Ebook, How to Write a Quality Book Fast, my editor and I had to make a decision: do I retain my Canadianisms? Do I keep the “u’s” in the words colour and favour, for example, or should I use American spellings? Self-publishing authors have the freedom to make these choices.

      Josephine has raised another good point: some editors have highly specialized skills. Josephine edits cookbooks, so if you’re writing a cookbook, and you’re planning to hire an editor, it’s not a bad idea to seek out a cookbook editor. Editing a cookbook involves a different skill set than the one needed for editing fiction.

      Thanks for weighing in, Josephine!

  9. Carla Douglas

    Hi Robert.

    Wow! Have you given me a morning assignment! Thanks for your considered comments — there’s a lot to respond to here.

    First, I’ll say that I agree with much of what you’ve said, and I appreciate that this is coming from an experienced author. I do have my own take on it, of course.

    Yes, editing is expensive, and yes, most books benefit from professional editing at some stage in the writing and publishing process. These costs are largely hidden when a book is traditionally published.

    Self-publishing is a different animal entirely, although the more new authors understand about traditional publishing, the better they’ll be able to navigate the self-pub route. One thing is clear — self-publishing is not as easy as it looks, and there’s a lot to learn.

    Congratulations on your five books. I’m interested to hear that although they’re published on Amazon, you believe they still need professional editing. I’d also be interested to learn what kind of editing you think they need. I’m willing to bet, though, that your fifth book is better than your first and possibly in need of less work?

    Do you use reviews from Amazon and Goodreads as feedback for revising? This is a method many authors use to improve their books. Publish, read positive and negative feedback in reviews, make revisions, and re-publish. Certainly an unorthodox approach, but this method has even been recommended by Hugh Howey, one of the best-known and most successful self-pubs out there.

    Jane Friedman, too (https://janefriedman.com/) has also suggested that in much genre fiction (Romance in particular), authors spend their energy being prolific — they assume that each subsequent book will be better than the last, because we improve with practice. They try hard to produce at least a couple of books a year, maybe more.

    Self-publishing is a bit of a grand experiment. Many people are trying many things. So although I am an editor and I recommend that writers seek us out before hitting Publish, I also recognize that funds are limited and I want to point out that as this industry evolves, more and more options are becoming available.

    There is crowdfunding for publishing costs — Pubslush https://pubslush.com/ is a site dedicated specifically to helping authors crowdfund for publishing costs. Other services abound: Here at The Book Designer, Joel Friedlander has developed templates to help self-published authors with the tricky task of book formatting — both print and digital. And cover designers such as Derek Murphy (https://bookcovers.creativindie.com/) have created cover-design tutorials and templates to ease author costs in this area.

    Finally, many editors and authors are offering tips on their blogs to guide new authors through the process. There are also sites like Victoria Strauss’s Writer Beware (https://www.victoriastrauss.com/writer-beware/) that alert authors to unsavory book services that don’t work in the author’s best interests.

    But none of this negates a major point you make, Robert — that writing is hard work, editing is necessary and expensive, and publishing is not for the faint of heart.

    Most editors who work with independent authors (whether those authors hope to publish traditionally or to self-publish) want to work within an author’s budget, and will offer a range of options to make this possible. Most will also offer a sample edit, either free of charge or for a reasonable fee. Some also offer a sample manuscript evaluation, which can be an economical way to find out just how much work your book needs to get it ready to publish.

    I agree with you that if your book needs work beyond spelling, punctuation and grammar — help with structure, for instance — that not every editor will be able to assist you. This is where it serves the author well to do some research. Review editor profiles. Contact them — find the editor who’s right for you and talk to them. Editing fiction is a specialty, and those who do it spend a lot of time developing these skills.

    Self-publishing is not an easy road, you’re right. But the more an author can arm himself with information, the easier it is to navigate. There’s an abundance of info out there — books, blogs, websites, also online courses, seminars and conferences. And, as I’ve already mentioned, the stars of self-publishing are leading the way towards mentoring new authors. A recent piece by Porter Anderson at ThoughtCatalog.com (https://bit.ly/1tGv7zA) discusses this at length.

    Editing is a piece of it, certainly, but in this changing landscape, even what it means to be an editor has taken on new meaning.

    Thank you so much for weighing in on this, Robert. I hope I’ve been able to address at least some of your concerns.



    • Robert Anton

      First allow me to thank Corina and Carla for their warm, gracious, and informative replies to my post about some of the downsides to self-publishing and editing. They were perhaps more kind than I deserved.

      As I approach my 70th birthday, I am one of the casualties of the writing business. Or rather the business of writing. After 30 years of writing, editing, and illustrating five major works, a combination of age, fatigue, and endless hours of research and refinement have taken their toll.

      Authorship can be a brutal, often merciless taskmaster and I suspect, as I move on with the rest of my life, that I join the ranks of numberless others who have been “beaten” in one way or another, and must finally cash in my chips, so to speak, and leave the table.

      This is not meant, however, to suggest that others follow suit or be discouraged by my example. On the contrary, Corina and Carla are perfect representatives of the new and ever evolving approach to writing that, if embraced with open eyes (and wallet) can lead many if not most to a rewarding and fulfilling author experience.

      Such positive results do not necessarily require the acquisition of a publisher, an agent, or a profitable self-publishing career. A certain love for the game itself, an indefatigable enthusiasm are all that’s needed. The rest is icing on the cake. If one runs a marathon without expectation of winning, but rather participation alone is an end in itself, the struggles that writing entails, by analogy, become not only tolerable but enhance the process with minimum resentment, anger, and frustration.

      The world is filled with musicians, few of whom will ever attain stardom. Most are driven by the love of music and are not motivated solely by a need to be “discovered”. One of the prime movers in my particular case was an understanding of the power of the written (or spoken) word. If one possesses a lot of passion for life, no better outlets exist than art, music, and writing. In which case a strong argument can be made that prose is the superior expression of the human condition. And likely the most difficult — to do well.

      During the second world war, it’s notable that while the Nazis coveted great art, they burned books. This was no coincidence or quirk of fate, but rather a grim reminder of the innate power of language. And no form of it is greater than “edited” speech.

      When we watch movies or plays, we revel in the displays because we are treated to highly edited and refined strings of dialogue. Likewise, the better a book is edited and polished, the more enthralling is our reading experience. When you hear people say how the book was better than the movie, the comment is not a cliché; it’s a testament to good writing. And to good editing.

      So while I bid my fellow writers a fond adieu, don’t let my personal story detract from the critical importance of what Corina and Carla discuss in their invaluable article on editing. I needed them about 25 years ago and implore everyone who reads their sound advice and observations to take them to heart; they know of what they speak, as the saying goes. You want to win most of the battles if not the war itself? Read their words and act upon them.

      In today’s complex (and potentially exhausting) world of social networking, the tools, guidance, and assistance available (much of free) is itself inexhaustible. Corina, Carla, and others who responded to this posting cover much of what can be gleaned in the way of help for upcoming generations of new authors. And for others who are already veterans of an endless struggle for excellence.

      Were I to do things over, it’s not much of a stretch to suggest that one edit before they even write their first draft. The “science” of the craft has become so demanding, that one’s preliminary outlining needs almost to be the equivalent of a first draft.

      Editing should be viewed as a forethought and not just something that needs to be “squeezed” in at the end. Money should be set aside that will allow for obtaining the best editor a writer can afford. And if you’re really serious, get an editor you maybe can’t afford. Sell that antique vase and use the money to pay for professional editing.

      After reading Corina’s and Carla’s separate replies to my original harangue, I would strongly encourage others to not only pay attention to what they’ve said, but consider a deeper relationship if possible. Maybe I should bill them for the departing plugs I’ve voluntarily dropped here. Maybe my aim at writing fiction has been misdirected all along. I should have been writing jacket copy for other writers. Now they tell me.

  10. Robert Anton

    With all due respect to Corina Koch, Carla Douglas, and those who make a living via the editing services they provide to fledgling authors, the dark underbelly to authorship is the need for professional editing that comes as a very rude, unforeseen, and typically unaffordable surprise to most new authors.

    As the author of five fantasy novels, all of which are currently sold on Amazon, I am not without experience in the area of text editing when it comes to finalizing one’s fiction book for publication in one form or another.

    Ask any new author about the monies they’ve budgeted for their new book and I’ll tell you what they’ve not included, let alone considered as an essential part of their project. Editing. Like me, no doubt, most new authors somehow think that once they’ve reached a certain level of proficiency with respect to their writing abilities, that they are ready to seek out a publisher, an agent, or proceed with self-publishing. Unfortunately for these poor souls (like me :-) nothing could be farther from the truth.

    And it’s about time, if not way overdue, that authors learn the shocking, often untold truths awaiting them once they finish their books. Little do most know, their literary journey is not only far from concluded, but has barely just begun. I suspect that some if not many new authors, if made aware beforehand of what awaited them in the way of unexpected costs and expenditures of both time and money, would find some other (more rewarding) creative endeavor worth pursuing.

    All of my lengthy books are still in need of so-called professional editing. The main reason, though not the only one, is money, pure and simple. The second reason is that except for mechanical, grammatical structuring, content editing is largely subjective in nature. This means that it’s often the case that opinions are involved, educated or otherwise. When you allow some stranger to remake, redo, or alter any part of your book, you’re trusting that this person has a better grasp of your book than you do. This is a big leap of faith. It’s not only subjective in nature, but subject to being entirely wrong.

    What guarantee do you have that a so-called professional editor will enhance your chance of being published? Talking to an editor is a bit like talking to a surgeon about whether you need surgery or not. Surgeons don’t usually make money by turning people away. If you have the money, and that’s a big “if”, but let’s say you do, then what’s your best guideline for finding an editor who won’t make your book worse rather than better?

    The best choice is to find (and have the money to pay-for) an editor who is known and recognized in the literary world. They have a track record and a reputation that most publishers not only recognize, but more and more require as editors of choice. If you’re willing to sell your first-born, this is the way to go. In terms of getting your money’s worth, it may be the only way to go.

    If you’re feeling a bit more brave and don’t mind taking more of a risk — after all, there’s no guarantee even when the best of editors are involved — then your secondary option is to hire an editor who boasts a proven track record of published books. The third choice, which is to hire an editor based on what you can afford, typically far less expensive than the other two choices, is not much better than going to Las Vegas and trying your luck at the craps table.

    Editors whose only claim to fame are credentials in one form or another, maybe they’ve written a slew of books, and are affordable to new authors, should only be considered by authors for whom their writing is little more than a hobby. If you’re a serious writer, be prepared to spend serious money on editing — perhaps the most expensive part of your entire publishing adventure. Otherwise, good luck; you’ll need it.

    The last option, the one most authors are forced to utilize, is self-editing. Ideally this might take the form of a writers critique group, where other new writers can give you some objective opinions. Even then, such opinions are also subjective and run the risk of ruining what you already had.

    Keep in mind that I’m not referring to grammatical construction, punctuation, or basic structuring with regard to paragraphs and sentence lengths. If you’re not on top of your game when it comes to such things — without an editor — you frankly have no business being in the writing game. Writers worth editing are authors whose books are almost in no need of it. By the time an editor gets your book, it doesn’t need to be polished, but if it doesn’t already shine, then you’re not only wasting everyone’s time, but your money as well. If you’re rich, however, have at it.

    So you still want to write that book? Courage is half the battle –Congratulations. Assuming you’re not rich, then learn to self-edit and give it your best shot. Instead of paying an editor who’s not any more known than you are, put that same money into marketing and promotion. Some of the more poorly written books, if the story is good, stand as much chance of gaining readership as any mediocre tale, perfectly edited. And there’s a lot of those around. A lot. Write a good story, do a decent job of telling it, and edit it the best you can. Unless you’re wealthy.

    I advise anyone to peruse the many offerings found on Amazon, by example. Especially the fiction works. And especially the novels by lesser known authors. When I’ve done this, on many occasions, my most immediate and striking reaction has been with respect to the obvious lack of the most rudimentary of editing basics. The sheer number of such authors for whom even the fundamentals have been overlooked, misunderstood, or remain unknown altogether, staggers the most casual of observers.

    This huge collection of downright awful books represents an ever-growing group of well-meaning, would-be writers and authors who know nothing about editing, let alone the need for it — be that self-editing or otherwise. Others like me, have done the best they can, but whose books would still exist as little more than cannon fodder for expensive, professional-quality editors. Still others have paid for professional editing services that may or may not have produced a book that is either better or more publishable than it was beforehand. Lastly are those books that shine from the moment the first sentence is read, to the last. Volumes which have likely been edited by the real pros in the business. You get what you pay for.

    In closing, it should be understood that this post is in no way a refutation of the otherwise important information provided by Corina Koch and Carla Douglas, whose article, “The Four Levels of Editing Explained” offers its own unique and educated insight into the subject of editing. Corina’s and Carla’s perspectives reflect opinions and observations based on their own experiences, as do my own, and are no less valuable or credible than my personal take on the topic.

    My statements and commentary are totally subjective, express personal opinions only, and are not meant to impugn the knowledge or reputation of any persons or professions either mentioned by name or discussed in general.

    • paula

      The self-editing thing is good but, honestly, I cannot get all the errors in my own work. I can create pretty clean copy in a MS but I still need an editor’s eye on the page for the things that I miss. Renni Browne and Dave King have “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers” which is wonderful and every writer should study that book. I’m a copy editor and I would never send out my work without an editor or proofreader giving it a read.

      • Corina Koch MacLeod

        I can relate, Paula.

        I simply stop seeing what I need to see in my own writing. I’m a less effective editor of my own writing than I am of someone else’s!

        Don’t get me wrong: self-editing, is a great first step. A book that’s been carefully revised by the author may require less editing, which can save on editing costs.

    • Corina Koch MacLeod

      Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with us. You make some excellent points. Here are a few points (paraphrased) that you’ve raised:

      Many self-pubs don’t realize what’s coming in the publishing process when they first sit down to write a book.
      Editing can be an enormous time investment.
      Editing can be expensive.
      How do you know if an editor will make your book better (and is it possible that an editor can make your book worse?)
      Can a self-pub manage with self-editing?

      These are all valid questions. I’m glad you raised them.

      I’m a traditionally published author as well as a self-pub. I’m also an editor, so I had an inkling of what I was in for when I self-published my first book.

      But even so, you’re never quite prepared for everything you need to know in order to make decisions throughout the publishing process. The self-publishing learning curve is astounding. Every self-pub who embarks on this journey is showing a great deal of courage.

      Editing is only one decision in a series of many decisions you’ll have to make as a self-pub. And what’s most exciting is that at any point in the self-publishing process, authors have options from DIY to hire.

      There are options for editing as well. You can certainly revise your own writing, particularly if you decide to put it aside for good while (about a month, perhaps) and then look at it again with fresh eyes.

      You can get feedback from others (see our last post on this site about working with beta readers).

      You can learn as much as you can about editing (tip: learn it from those who do it for a living) and apply what you’ve learned to your own writing (Carla and I are currently working on a book — You’ve Got Style: A Self-Publishing Author’s Guide to Ebook Style — to help authors who are interested in learning more about editing).

      Finally, you can hire an editor to help you with your manuscript. And you can be strategic about this. It’ll cost you less if you handle some parts of the process yourself (see this article for tips).

      Will any of these approaches to editing guarantee that your book will sell? Nope. Why? Because there is a lot more to self-publishing than editing. There is a lot more to consider: author platforms, book discoverability, marketing and so forth (see the posts on this blog by Jason Kong, Nina Amir, Frances Caballo and Jason Matthews for ideas on how to begin to get your head around this).

      Editing can, however, create a polished and friction-free reading experience for time-pressed readers. Readers are discerning, and they do have expectations about the reading experience.

      In this series of posts, we’re hoping to help authors to see what editing entails so they can decide what they’d like to do themselves and whether they’d like to pay an editor to help them. We think choice is important in self-publishing.

      Our goal is to remove the mysterious veil from editing so authors can see their choices for this part of the publishing process.


    • Joel Friedlander

      Hi Robert, and thanks for your contribution to the discussion. There are many posts by professional editors on this site, and each has something to offer to authors contemplating self-publishing. Most can be found under the Editorial category.

      I’ve also tried to address the “sticker shock” authors encounter when entering self-publishing by providing extensive cost projections for different kinds of writers in a multi-part series that starts here: What is the Cost of Self-Publishing?

  11. Carla Douglas

    Hi Paula,

    Thank you! And thanks for your question, too.

    Neither Corina nor I do an “ask an expert” Q & A about grammar. I can only speak for myself, and I’m no expert! I went to school at a time when formal grammar instruction was falling out of fashion, so I rely on a few favourite resources.

    I find the Grammar Girl website and podcasts to be especially helpful and informative. I also like the Grammarist.com website as well as Daily Writing Tips.

    Patricia T. O’Conner’s Woe Is I is a great print resource for quick look-ups — she’s very funny, too. And Anne Stilman’s Grammatically Correct is both comprehensive and highly regarded among editors.

    These are just a few of my go-to guides. Sometimes if I can’t find what I’m looking for I’ll search the Chicago Manual of Style for an explanation — and then let an hour go by while I get lost in it. I’m sure you know what I mean!

    Hope that helps,


    • Joel Friedlander

      Hi Paula. Another resource that I use is my friend and fellow author Arlene Miller, also known as the Grammar Diva. She is an endless source of answers to my grammar-related questions. You can check her out (and her very amusing grammar books) here: The Grammar Diva

      • Paula Cappa

        This is wonderful. Thank you Carla and Joel.

      • Corina Koch MacLeod

        I think the finer points of grammar are always more memorable when they’re explained in a humorous way. I appreciate it when an author hits my grammar funny bone, as Patricia O’Conner does in Woe is I. Looks like I have another source to check out. Thanks!

    • Corina Koch MacLeod

      Not surprisingly, Carla’s recommended grammar sources are my favourites, too, with the exception of one, and I’m going to track that one down right now!

      But sometimes, the answer I’m looking for isn’t in a grammar guide. That’s when I head over to the Editor’s Association of Earth group on Facebook. The Editorial Freelancers Association has a lively discussion group as well. The editors in both of these groups are only too happy to weigh in on grammar questions. And, as I’ve discovered on many occasions, sometimes there isn’t a clear-cut answer.

  12. Paula Cappa

    Great article, Corina and Carla. I’m a writer and a copy editor. I do pride myself on being proficient in grammar and style books, but sometimes (in my own work or in others) I’m in need of a grammar “expert” on how to handle something beyond the norm. Do either of you do “Ask the Editor” for grammar issues? When you get stumped, who do you ask or what do you rely on as a reference? Thanks!

  13. Jason Matthews

    Corina and Carla, thank you for this. It’s especially timely as I’m getting beta reader feedback now.

    • Carla Douglas

      Thanks for your comment, Jason.

      Right! You’re perfectly positioned to use your feedback from beta readers to decide your next move, especially where editing might be most helpful.

      Good luck with your book!




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