5 Steps for Editing a Novel from the Inside Out

by | Apr 4, 2014

By Marc Baldwin

Today we’ve got a great post from Marc Baldwin who explains what exactly he does when he reviews a novel. I think you’ll have a much better understanding of what editors do for fiction writers and why it can be so important to have your novel edited after you read what he has to say.

Having helped to usher more than 1000 novels into print over the last seven years, we’ve learned quite a few things about the editing that aspiring authors need to do to bring their novels up to publish-worthy speed.

Alas, most writers and even so-called, self-titled “editors” act essentially as a “clean-up crew”—that is to say, a hygienically-minded proofreader—whereas a more rigorous process produces a more rigorous novel.

Over the years we have notched an enviable record in securing authors’ contracts for publication, many of whom were first-time petitioners for acceptance of their work. I’ll briefly outline the process we go through while editing a novel, suggesting some points for fiction writers to keep in mind as they prepare drafts of their manuscripts.

  1. Be true to the narrative voice
  2. The first thing an editor—whether you’re editing your own book or you’re a professional editor—should try to detect and respect is the text’s latent voice. This involves more than the technicality of identifying narrational point of view. It also is not easy to describe.

    What we initially try to do is to hear the author’s cadences as they percolate through characters’ dialogical speech patterns, which of course should be distinctive to each. Through them we listen for the echo, register, or stylistic tonality of a writer’s ventriloquism, the kind of nuanced effect found, for example, in John le Carré’s Our Kind of Traitor (2010). Attunement to this idiom guides us in making or proposing editorial changes.

  3. Assure the characters’ credibility
    Editors should next concern themselves with the credibility of those characters. Do they speak in a manner consistent with their individual depiction and the text’s setting? “Spiffy,” for example, is an inapt description of male attire in 1920s New Hampshire.

    We also pay close attention to how characters are originally introduced, since such profiling will have a significant bearing on their subsequent roles.

    • Are they plausible, again as gauged in terms of the work’s fictional context?
    • Are their actions congruent with both the story’s events and human psychology?

    You must persuade your reader that your invented personae are real and that we should care about what happens to them.

  4. Attend to the plot
    Then comes the matter of plot. While verifying that developments jive with previously indicated circumstances, an editor should check for minor lapses. Sometimes this can be a minefield. As in a 5,000-piece puzzle, one wrong detail can derail the entire project.

    Editors should be fanatically adept at questioning these occasional miscues. Thus, if you do not find some such issues to address as you edit your work for plot consistency, you’ve likely missed them or you are, indeed, a consummately skilled writer. Even Homer nodded. Almost all of us find that another pair of eyes can see things in our writing that we can’t.

  5. What does it all add up to?
    What an editor should look for, finally, in a fictional manuscript is an answer to the question, “So what?”

    By the narrative’s climax and resolution there should be some indication, however obliquely framed, of its conceptual import. This is another way of saying that the text ought to limn by its end what has been at stake throughout the entire plot.

    Formulaic or pat closures, of course, should be avoided. The dénouement instead must arise credibly from earlier plot complications and project some larger insight into what has informed them all along.

    The pay-off for the reader, in other words, should be worth his or her investment of time and attention.

  6. Is it a satisfying, organic story?
    These major points encompass what an editor should look for while editing a novel.

    The best approach is to work from the inside out, letting a fictional manuscript’s flow guide the editor in monitoring its unfolding design.

    Alas, many editors do not adhere to this method, or something like it; rather, they come at the task from the outside in.

    An editor absolutely must be sensitive to a novel’s organic shape. Their editing—or yours if you do it yourself—should mesh with the text’s objectives. If it doesn’t, the editing is not “editing”—it’s just housekeeping.

Have you reviewed your book from the inside out? Tell us in the comments.

Marc Baldwin Marc D. Baldwin, PhD, is the Founder & CEO of Edit911 Editing Service. He is also a published author and professor. You can find more of his writing and editing advice on his company’s blog.

Photo: bigstockphoto.com

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  1. marc baldwin


    I can only reference our own rates and philosophy.

    I decided a long time ago that charging by word count for full-service editing makes the most sense. I explain on our website why I feel that way.

    Others charge different rates for different services. Many also charge by the hour or by the page.

    So trying to say what’s average or the norm is impossible.

    I do know from having worked with more than 19,000 clients that most of them say we’re fair and our rates are about average. Some say we’re expensive and some say we’re cheap.

    Again, as for what we charge vs. what others charge, I cannot compare apples and oranges.

    The best i can say is that clients themselves will tell you, if you ask, if your rates are fair or not–at least according to them.

    I wish you the best!


  2. Paula Cappa

    Marc, would you be able to give us some insight about competitive editing rates in today’s market? There is quite a range out there among editors and their editing skill levels, especially in fiction. I always look for a copy editor who has lots of experience using CMS and has good skills for grammar and word usage. What do you consider to be a reasonable range of rates for copy editing in fiction? I’m not asking for your to post your Edit911 fees, just asking what you see as the standard these days. Thanks!

  3. marc baldwin

    I just want to apologize for being a day late with all of my replies. I was absolutely swamped with work yesterday. I was also sick with a stomach virus. So I wasn’t up to speed.

    It’s been fun reading everyone’s comments. I wish everyone in Joel’s audience the very best!


  4. Debbie

    One of the best pieces on editing I’ve read in a long time. Spot on. I’ve seen editors who edit according to how they would write, with no respect for the author’s voice or style at all. And I’ve seen editors who do no more than proof-read – which is fine if that’s all you’re paying for. The editor I’m using at the moment has a knack of getting what I’m trying to say and helping me to find a better was of saying it myself.

    • marc baldwin

      I’m glad you like the article! Thanks! Good luck with your writing!

  5. Paula Cappa

    No offense intended, David. I’m sure your Phd is quite valuable to many writers. Do you edit a lot of fiction?

    • David Colin Carr

      No offense, just clarification because I’ve suspect the opinion you expressed. Yes, Paula, my very busy work life is equally fiction and non-fiction, with occasional memoirs which are a distinct category. I only do one or two dissertations a year now – they have to make an important contribution to society to grab my interest (seeds of domestic violence planted in Vietnam-era US military training; impact of Haitian Revolution on gender and racial issues in France, and thereby the Europe-based culture of US), and the doctoral candidates need to be people I really enjoy working with (most don’t ask for help until they feel hopeless, which is not fun). Also, students are already in debt and can’t afford to hire professional help, and I can’t afford to carry their writing debt.

  6. Paula Cappa

    Interesting discussion here. For the sake of clarity, it might be helpful for readers to remember that there are 3 levels of editing in fiction: developmental/content editing which deals with story, plot, theme, characterizations, structure, execution, voice; line or copy editing (substantive) which is for grammar, style, word usage, consistency, clarity, and fact checking; proofreading which is final check for typos, punctuation, spelling, page numbers, TOC, style, etc. Not all editors do all three of these. I often hire a content editor for story and structure, a line editor to get all the grammar, consistency, and style, and then a proofreader to polish and catch what everybody else may have missed. All these editing skills are different. I happen to like having 3 sets of eyes on my work because it’s the only way to achieve a high degree of accuracy, especially for a novel. I expect that an editor who has a PhD would be very valuable for medical, law, or academic writing, but for fiction, it’s best to have an experience “fiction editor.” I do mostly copy editing (substantive) and sometimes content editing.

    • David Colin Carr

      What my PhD degree means is that I can speak Academica, have persistence (which many of my dissertation clients lack), know how to do research and analyze it, and have critical intelligence. It does NOT obstruct the fact that I’m heartful, responsive as both a reader and editor/writing coach, and imaginative with both story development and enrichment of language. I don’t mention my PhD on my website because of opinions like Paula’s which would restrict the projects people might bring to me. That said, I wouldn’t charge for my proofreading capacity – I farm that out to people who have detailed attention. If I had that, I’d have become an accountant and likely live a much more secure life. Paula is right that editors may have only one of the skills any well written book needs – fiction, non-fiction, memoir, or dissertation – so it is important for a writer to discriminate what help they are looking for. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a manuscript that doesn’t have structural problems (primarily because almost no one develops a sufficiently detailed outline), so that’s always where I begin – a quick read-through commenting on structure, characters, voice, audience-interest, etc. I return my comments to the writer with a specific assignment (or I do it myself, if they feel incapable) to rework certain aspects. When they are done, I set about the fun part of making the writing vibrant. Despite my PhD, I think language appropriate to the context is much more important than grammar. The function of grammar is, academically, to test a student’s hoop-jumping skill. The function of grammar in the marketplace is to make sure the reader understands the writer’s intention. Every book needs its own “style sheet.” When in doubt I use Chicago Manual if I think the market for the book requires that grammar be correct in order to respect the content.

    • marc baldwin

      I agree that no one needs a PhD to be a good editor. I also contend that many of the editors on my staff who teach and write fiction themselves–and happen to be PhDs–are great editors. So, we all just need to decide what’s best for each of us.

  7. Spike Pedersen

    Wow, I like the way you think, or um…edit.
    I belong on the farm of; self editing has a fool on the farm. I love my prose so much I can’t smell the stink, so I take it to church and everybody knows I’m that guy who smells like the pigs. So off to edit my work must go!

  8. Karl

    Interesting article with some very good points.

    However, the intertubes tells me that “spiffy” has its origins in the mid-19th century. I’m not sure why it would be “inapt” in 1920s New Hampshire.

  9. Mary DeEditor

    Ha! That should be “hokum” of course. Or “hook ’em.” (Proving that everyone needs to proofread before hitting send.)

  10. Mary DeEditor

    Discerning readers, please notice: This is an infomercial for Mr. Baldwin’s own business. With all respect to Marc, he’s misstating the case. There are many, many fine developmental editors who work with fiction (I’m one of them; I can point you to many more for comparison). Many of us have years of experience with publishers. His assertion that “most editors” don’t know these aspect of editing, or can’t do it, is nonsense. ALL developmental editors look for these details, and many more besides. Shop around, folks, look at the listings at BAEF, CE-L, and EFA, for starters. If you like Dr. Marc’s crew of academic editors, that’s great. But to say that Edit911 is the only game around is hard-sell hookum.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Hi Mary, and thanks for your input. Over the years many editors have generously contributed guest articles for the blog. Each of these articles

      • provides useful content for readers,
      • expresses the editor’s prejudices and/or preferences,
      • serves as an advertisement of sorts for the editor’s work.

      Marc’s article does all these things, too. I think my readers are smart enough to understand the proposition behind these articles, and I’m happy to be able to provide content that will help them reach their goals.

      And I welcome submissions from editors who have something to say that’s helpful, so if you ever want to weigh in with your own take on an editorial subject, I hope you’ll let me know.

      • marc baldwin

        Thanks, Joel. It’s been a pleasure and I appreciate your having honored us with a publication on your site. I admire your business and will always speak highly of you and your services to my clients.


    • marc baldwin

      I’m sorry if I offended you. I’m sure that you are an excellent editor. I have, alas, come across quite a few “editors” who are not good editors. I appreciate Joel allowing me to publish the article, which he obviously feels is worthy of publication. Clearly, I hope to gain some business from it. That’s pretty obvious in this blogging world, right? But the content must be good to be published. Furthermore, even if I don’t attract one single client, I enjoyed sharing our take on editing and am honored that Joel enjoyed it too.


  11. David Colin Carr

    Thanks for the straight-forward exposition, Marc. The very first concern I have as an editor is who is the real audience (real = willing to buy and actually invest the time to read)? It may not be those the writers intend to reach, which often engenders a long conversation with clients about their intention – what do they want the reader to experience? what action would they hope the reader takes in the world? I have them write the back cover copy before I start reading. It helps me focus my reading to see if they are accomplishing their intention.

  12. Chaz DeSimone

    This is fascinating, as it is a similar process to my profession: creating corporate identity. I need to get a feel for the personality of a company, not just what it does or makes. Even the CEO’s favorite color plays into the logo design, for he must own that mark with familiarity and pride. (Of course it must appeal to his market, too.) As far as “getting inside” sometimes I even interview the secretaries and maintenance staff to perceive the sensibilities within.
    Interesting how different industries excel by following the same rules of expertise. I’ll stick to designing logos — editing a fiction book sounds like a job for the absolute professional in that field.

    • marc baldwin

      Thanks, Chaz. It always comes down to simply trying to do the best you can by using the best methods and practices, no matter what the industry. Styles and techniques vary; execution remains the variable. We try to execute as professionally as possible. Integrity matters.


  13. Jason Matthews

    Nice to hear these insights. Thank you, Marc.

  14. Debra L. Butterfield

    As a freelance editor, sometimes major problems with a manuscript can cause me to miss smaller, but no less important, problems. I’m going to use this as a guide as I edit. As a writer, I am in the process of writing my first novel and can keep all these things in mind as I write. Then I hope there will be less to fix as I edit and revise! Thanks, Marc.

    • Paula Cappa

      Hi Debra: I do both as well, write and edit. I find it very difficult to edit my own fiction. Beta readers help out to see if my communication is effective but when it comes down to it, I hire an editor because I just can’t get it all when I edit my own work. You’re right about missing the smaller details. The other day I had the word village for villa and I never saw it or heard it as I read it over and over. Beta reader caught it for me! Good luck with your novel.

  15. paula cappa

    Hi Marc: I like your five points. Your “so what” gave me a chuckle. It’s so true! I line edit mostly but do content editing sometimes as well. I use Freytag’s pyramid as a guide for structure on stories or the more contemporary Three-Act Structure: Exposition, Rising Action, Climax/Resolution. I do think that it’s highly important to respect the natural structures that the characters create, otherwise, you could compromise the heart of the story.



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