What Does Editing Look Like? Behind the (Crime) Scene at the Editor’s Screen

by | Sep 10, 2014

By Corina Koch MacLeod and Carla Douglas

In a previous post we described the four levels of editing, emphasizing the order in which they should most often take place: attend to the developmental issues first—a clear story and structure if it’s fiction, a logical and meaningful sequence of chapters if it’s nonfiction—before addressing clarity and flow, word choice, grammar and punctuation.

Editing, in Practice

This order makes sense for the purposes of explanation, but the truth is, when an editor sits down to work on your manuscript, the picture might be slightly different. Developmental editing, for instance, is most often suited to nonfiction works. Sure, if you’re a novelist and ask for guidance from a developmental editor early in the process, he can certainly help you with the big-picture elements. In cases like these, advice would probably come in the form of a chat or an editorial letter.

Most editors who work with self-pubs, though, will tell you that by the time they see a fiction manuscript, the author has either worked out the developmental issues or is married to the book as it is, and no major changes will be considered. Much of the time, a manuscript comes to an editor with a request for copyediting. In practice, however, the editor could be doing a bit of everything.

What Editing Looks Like

With three and possibly four levels of editing taking place at the same time, what does editing look like? The truth? As Corina has pointed out, sometimes it looks like a crime scene. And indeed, if it’s your work that’s been bound and gagged and has perhaps even disappeared—without a trace—you’ll swear it’s been murdered.

Don’t panic. In the following sections, we’ll show you examples of each kind of editing—to ease your mind and to help you see that behind the scene, your editor is working away, methodically and nonviolently, towards your mutual goal of a better book.

Big-Picture Editing (Developmental Edit)

    • Beginning with an OutlineWhen writing a nonfiction book, structure matters. Your editor may ask you, “What is your book about?” Think this over carefully and hone your answer until you can express it in one sentence. Practise that sentence on friends and family or try it out on social media. Next, your editor will help you hammer out a table of contents that includes topics related to that sentence, and finally, you’ll arrange those topics in a logical order.

      Below is a screenshot from Idea to Ebook: How to Write a Quality Book Fast. This book is about how to publish a book, from beginning to end, in the most efficient manner possible. The screenshot below lists the main topics (in Scrivener’s Binder) that were sketched out based on that sentence, before the book was written:

      Image 1

      The second screenshot (in Word’s Navigation Pane) is the final list of chapters in their final order. You’ll noticed a few minor changes in the final version. That’s fine—outlines evolve. Even if an outline changes slightly, it’ll help you to stick to what your book is about.

      Image 2

      Tip: Many authors write in Scrivener. You can use Scrivener’s Binder to create a chapter outline, which then allows you to move chapters around easily. If you write in Word, you can get Word to Behave like Scrivener. Don’t have Word? Try WPS Writer (free). You can get it to behave like Scrivener, too.

  • Creating an Outline From a Finished ManuscriptBut what if you’ve submitted a finished book and your editor identifies issues with structure that have yet to be addressed? These can be handled in a couple of ways. If the reshuffling is minor, your editor will use comments in the margins (see comments in the Sentence-Level section, below) to suggest which sections should go where, or she’ll move the section with track changes turned on (see the screenshot in the Paragraph-Level section below).

    If large sections of text have to be moved around, the appearance in track changes can be overwhelming for the author. In cases like these, editors will sometimes make the changes and ask the author to compare the new version to the old. Or, if the author and editor are working in Word, the editor may show the author how to use the Final view in the Review pane.

    Image 3

    The Final view hides track changes, so the author can see what the document will look like if the changes are accepted.

    If a lot of reshuffling is required, your editor may ask you to create a post-mortem outline from your existing content. Your editor will then help you sort the contents of that outline into an order that makes sense. The final step involves moving around sections of your book to match the outline.

  • What About Fiction?Fiction writers, particularly of genre fiction, are not off the hook when it comes to big-picture edits. Some big-picture editing can happen later in the process. It might become clear, for example, that an important scene needs to appear sooner in the novel, or that a sub-plot needs to wind itself more consistently through the book.

    Tip: Editors often use Word to edit manuscripts. This article explains why.

Paragraph-Level Edit (Stylistic/Structural Edit)

Paragraph-level edits involve reordering sentences within paragraphs. Editors will use track changes to show that something has been moved.The green text and strikeouts in the screenshot below (in Word) indicate that a sentence has been moved from one location to another. A bit of a mess, isn’t it?

Image 4

Tip: If you’re overwhelmed by the changes you see, switching to the Final view in Word’s Review pane helps reduce the visual noise.

Image 5

Sentence-Level Edit (Copyedit)

Sentence-level edits address grammar, punctuation, clarity, and style issues. Can you see some of these issues addressed in the screenshot below?

Image 6

An editor will mark any issues using track changes. Often something is marked because it’s incorrect, or it doesn’t follow style rules or accepted publishing conventions. Keep in mind that an editor won’t make changes he can’t defend, so don’t be afraid to ask about anything you’re unsure of. Also remember that your editor is often your first reader, so if a sentence or section is unclear, you’ll want to know about it.

It’s wise to heed any changes your editor has made with track changes. Comments are generally reserved for explanations and suggestions.

Tip: Pay attention to the comments your editor makes, too. These comments often present opportunities for learning something new that you can apply to your next book.

  • Opinion or Fact?Sometimes an editor will suggest a change that’s in line with good writing practice. Paying attention to these suggestions can help you become a better writer. Often, though, it’s easy to dismiss an editor’s suggestions as opinion rather than fact, which means you might miss an opportunity to improve your craft.

    An editor can tell you what your writing quirks are (we all have them), but sometimes it’s more helpful to show you. At Beyond Paper, we like to use writing macros to help writers see their writing quirks (show, don’t tell). These writing macros are easy enough for writers to use on their own, too. The screenshot below highlights

    ● needless words (blue)
    ● ly words, or adverbs, which may indicate telling instead of showing (green)
    ● additional telling words, which may suggest that you need to do more showing (pink)

    Image 7

    Tip: Macros are easy to use! This 20-minute macro course will show you how to use the kind of macros that can help you to improve your writing.

Word-Level Edit (Proofread)

Proofreading is the last stage of editing, meant to catch anything that has slipped past copyediting. It’s a last look at your book in its final environment, after it’s typeset for print or formatted for e-reading. Keep in mind that proofreading addresses more than just typos—it also addresses formatting issues.

Here is what proofreading looks like on a manuscript that has been formatted for print:

Image 8

Proofreaders proofread books headed for print in software like Adobe XI. They use proofreading stamps—a kind of shorthand—to indicate changes that need to be made. A proofreading glossary can help you interpret some of the symbols.

You can proofread an ebook file, too, but that’s a topic for another time.

Tip: Consider some of the tools that editors use for proofreading. Writers and beta readers can use them, too.

Closing the Case

As you can see, there’s a lot going on in the background during an edit, and communicating corrections, changes, and suggestions to authors involves a dizzying array of mark-ups and comments. While proofreading tends to happen on its own at the end of the process, the remaining three editing levels can occur simultaneously.

If your manuscript comes back from your editor looking like a crime scene, don’t despair. Take a deep breath, carefully consider your editor’s comments and suggested changes, and you’ll be taking down that yellow tape in no time.

Photo: bigstockphoto.com. Amazon links contain my affiliate code.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Kristen Steele

    I like the crime scene analogy! Editing is an extremely important part of the writing process. It can be upsetting for an author to see their work crossed out and essentially ripped apart, but it’s all towards the greater good!

  2. Teagan Kearney

    An informative post with a clear explanation of the various stages of the editing process. Thanks for the tips about WPS Word, and I’ll do my best to find those twenty minutes for the macro course!

    • Corina Koch MacLeod

      Thanks, Teagan.

      I just re-discovered WPS Writer (part of the WPS office suite)—software that has the same powerful features as Microsoft Word. Most editors prefer Word for editing, for many reasons, macros being one of them.

      Macros can help you to see things you’d otherwise miss in your writing, and they are surprisingly easy to use. If you can cut and paste, you can use a macro.

      • David Colin Carr

        There are limitations to MS Word, but the reality is that if a writer is intending to work within the commercial publishing industry, Word is the standard. For self-publishers it may not be so important. I am still grieving the passing of Word Perfect – keyboarding is more efficient than mousing for me, and I love being able to choose the color of font and background on the screen so that my eyes don’t tire (black on white tires the “visual purple” cycle really quickly). Scrivener allows both, but the learning curve keeps foiling me – when I want to WRITE I don’t want options floating around the screen or trying to figure out what an English tech firm has named the familiar functions.

        In fact, a good outline – whether visual mindmap or standard format, which are created simultaneously in a few programs (I recommend Xmind.net, now that Novamind pricing has gone into orbit) – is a flexible and very simple map. (OK, I was shocked that I was invited to lecture to the Bay Area EDITORS Forum about outlining – and that so many people found my talk valuable for them.)

        If you plan to ever have an editor – even Joel takes every opportunity to encourage indie publishers to invest in a good editor (this is not self-promotion because I hire them for my own writing) – present your material in a format they can work with: generally that’s MS Word

        • Corina Koch MacLeod

          That’s true, David. Most editors use Word.

          Again, if the cost of MS Word is prohibitive, WPS Writer is an alternative worth considering (the lite version is free). It can read Word files, and there’s also a tablet app.

          In terms of outlining software, are there some free, easy-to-learn options that you’d recommend, David?

          • David Colin Carr

            Sorry to be out of the conversation for a while – been busy. I have used NovaMind for outlining with clients, but they’ve just gone to an expensive subscription model. Almost as good is Xmind.net – I’ve never needed more than the free version. What I love about these two programs is that while you build the mindmap (a visual outline which is great for writers who are not linear thinkers), it creates a standard outline automatically in the sidebar. The benefit is that while it’s easy to create the mindmap, it’s harder to write from it than from the standard outline format. Another benefit: if you make a change in one, the other automatically is changed.
            I can’t remember if two people can work remotely on one mindmap with Xmind (it was not available in NovaMind, though when I queried they said it was a good suggestion), but mind42.com is free and can be worked simultaneously from different locations. This is a great gift when I’m helping a client in South Africa or Beijing build an outline (I really encourage a well-articulated outline to make writing go much more smoothly – and with any of these programs the outline is flexible/alterable). The downside of mind42 is that it is only a mindmap and does not generate the standard outline format.

  3. David Colin Carr

    I am primarily a developmental editor of fiction – no matter how beautifully written a story is, if it lacks continuity and consistency, it won’t fly. Novel writers can start with a consultation with a developmental editor about the intended structure. K M Weiland has written a lot that supports this process. Doing this in advnace saves a lot of wear and tear on your editor (and your bank account) who won’t have to try to comb out the spaghetti of the storyline from a first draft.

    I work on hard copy with pencil, whether structural review or text editing. When I’m done with a manuscript, I scan it and email to my client. When they’ve looked over the remarks – which are usually about general structure, character development, voice, and ignorance of the technical aspects of publishing – we sit down for a collaboration on what will work for the reader and how to point the writer’s intention toward that ultimate goal.

    There is a place between structural/developmental editing and copy editing: it is about voice. Finding the tone and choosing words that thrill the reader. Barbara Kingsolver is great at this, though not always great at keeping a story line intact. Dan Brown is the opposite – great story telling using mundane language.

    A great book needs both. And not every editor has the skill to support writers through both processes. And not every editor can sit in the seat of every reader of every genre. I don’t understand thrillers or romance or sci fi. I’m great at literary novels, non-fiction, and memoir. It’s important to make sure your editor knows their limits (yes, “their” in the singular, which dates back to Shakespeare in common usage).

    • Corina Koch MacLeod


      Thank you for your comments. I couldn’t agree with you more. I believe structure is enormously important, and because my brain works that way, I like to address structure first—though not all self-publishing authors are open to altering the structure of a book once it has been written. But you’re right: addressing big-picture items first can definitely save on editing costs.

      As for voice… I think that’s a topic for another post (thank you!).

      You’ve rightly pointed out that editors have specialties. When looking for an editor, authors should keep this in mind. Ask an editor what he or she likes to read. Chances are that your editor will be most comfortable editing in those genres, too.

      • David Colin Carr

        Great advice, Corina. It took me a while in my editing career to discern that I was not doing my clients a service by tackling thriller or scifi or noire – I’m not generally drawn into those genres – which tells me I can’t understand the mind of the target audience. So I’m not worth the investment to those writers.

        On the other hand, having an editor who is NOT familiar with your content can be very productive because they will catch any lapses in continuity that the writer assumes the reader is assuming. Other than engineering books, I tackle all sorts of technical subjects for writers who are interested in good writing for a broad audience.

    • Carla Douglas

      Thanks for your comments, David. I appreciate this window into your process.

      And I agree wholeheartedly — if you are a fiction writer and have a novel in mind, seek advice from a developmental editor even before you begin! You will save yourself a lot of grief and money. What we’ve observed, though, is that many authors wait until their manuscript is finished before consulting an editor. At that stage, they’re reluctant to make anything but minor changes.

      As for genre specialties, you’re right. For editing work other than copyediting or proofreading, you need to have a deep understanding of the conventions of a genre. And chances are, you’ll only have that kind of understanding in genres you read a lot of — for work and for pleasure.

      Thanks again for your thoughts,


  4. George Beinhorn

    Fine article. The thought occurs: I NEVER regret it when I do two difficult, annoying, pestiferous, aggravating things before I publish anything on the Web:

    Let it sit for a week. That’s right – if I don’t let a feature article-length blog post sit for at least seven days, I invariably regret it – end up editing and editing embarrassing style and typo faux pas after it’s published – “Oh well, it’ll look good in the archive.” Bleh.
    PRINT IT. A study at MIT Media Lab found that people make 40 percent more proofreading errors onscreen than in hardcopy. Printing your article after it’s “done” will save you a ton of time and embarrassment, and magically improve the quality of your writing.

    • Carla Douglas

      Thanks for your comments, George.

      I’m with you on letting what you’ve written sit for a while. Even if it’s just a for a day, it will make a difference for shorter pieces like blog posts. And the longer you can let a novel “rest” before revising, the better.

      Printing a hard copy for proofreading is something many proofreaders recommend. We seem to see differently on paper. Many proofreaders, though, have moved to electronic proofreading exclusively. They have a variety of tools and tricks that they use — but still, it’s impossible to catch every last error. That doesn’t keep us from trying, though!



    • Corina Koch MacLeod


      Yup. It’s true. Editors are probably not the most popular characters in the self-publishing story (see our last post on this blog where we compare editors to dentists).

      And, as in every profession, there are those who do a good job, and those who don’t. So, do choose your editor carefully. How do you know if you have a good editor? This post will give you some tips for what to look for.

      It doesn’t help that much of what an editor does is invisible. Hopefully today’s post will bring some of that to light.

  5. Michael N. Marcus

    No editor knows everything about anything, and certainly not everything about everything.

    Be a careful writer and choose your editors carefully.

    Sometimes an editor will assume that the author must know what’s right and does not correct the author’s error. Sometimes an editor assumes the author was wrong, and then changes right into wrong. The author may not notice, or might assume the editor was right.


    • Carla Douglas

      Hi Michael,

      Thanks for your comments.

      You’re so right! No one — editor or otherwise — knows everything about anything. And anyone making that claim is suspect.

      Most editors (Beyond Paper included) will flag all errors and irregularities in a manuscript, whether they think the author knows it’s an error or not. Then it’s the author’s decision whether to accept the change or not. But as we’ve mentioned in the post, we recommend that authors heed these suggestions — editors won’t suggest changes that they can’t defend.

      But your advice is sound: be a careful writer and choose your editors carefully. We wouldn’t have it any other way! :)




  1. Starting Out as a Freelance Editor – Elizabeth Spann Craig - […] about your services (are you a developmental editor? A line editor? Proofreader? More on the different types of editing in…
  2. Do I Need Copyediting or Proofreading? - Rising Action Editing - […] If you want a behind-the-scenes peek on what copyediting looks like, check out What Does Editing Look Like? Behind the…
  3. What Does Editing Look Like? Behind the Crime Scene at the Editor’s Screen by Corina Koch MacLeod and Carla Douglas — The Book Designer | - […] Another great post from The Book Designer: […]
  4. What Does Editing Look Like? Behind the (Crime)... - […] What Does Editing Look Like? Behind the (Crime) Scene at the Editor’s Screen by Corina Koch MacLeod and Carla…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *