What is Editing Actually Like?

Editing is an important part of the publishing process but what exactly does it involve? Editing actually involves three different stages—developmental, copy, and proofreading—though some of these are repeated depending on the needs of the manuscript. Editors work with everyone from authors to publishers. But what can an author expect when working with an editor? If you’re a first-time author or just wanting to learn more about what an editor does, this post will briefly run through the three basic editing stages for a manuscript.

The first stage of editing is developmental editing, which is sometimes called structural editing. Developmental editing is where an editor focuses on the big picture. The character development, story progression, narrative pace, and overall structure are just a few of the categories a developmental editor examines. The developmental editor (often referred to as a DE) looks at the work as a whole, and often suggests cutting, reorganizing, or adding content. The DE looks at a work critically and with the intended audience in mind. Authors can expect lots of queries or notes from the DE throughout the manuscript. DEs will often include a seperate, longer note discussing global issues and offering solutions. This is the stage where most additions or cuts take place. Sometimes a manuscript goes through multiple developmental edits, but this depends on the project and how far along it is.

In the next stage, the copy editor (referred to as a CE) mainly works on the line level. Of course, CEs might notice global issues here, but their focus is directed mostly towards the language the author uses. The CE checks to make sure the writing is clear and conveys what the author intends. The CE will query the author, but how often depends on the level of the edit. There are three levels of copyediting: light, medium, and heavy. For light copyedits, the CE will triage what needs to be changed, focusing largely on typos, comma splices, and other edits that don’t change the meaning. A medium copyedit is often the default, with the editor balancing queries with fixing obvious errors. If a CE is doing a heavy copyedit, they will query less often and rewrite more. The copyediting stage is also usually when facts and formulas are checked. Fact checking frequently involves verifying tables, numbers, or facts in nonfiction books, although sometimes fiction books will also have settings or smaller details that need to be confirmed. The CE also ensures the manuscript follows the house and industry style guides. This mostly applies to nonfiction works, and in book publishing, the standard is the Chicago Manual of Style. Like the DE, the CE will often include a longer note to the author discussing their edits, questions, and global issues, but this is generally more focused on line level edits.

Proofreading is the last stage of editing. By now, all global and line level issues have been resolved. Proofreading is usually the final check before a work is published electronically or sent to the printers. The DE and CE will generally fix any typos they come across, but there are often errors that have been missed. The proofreader is not looking for global issues or asking the author questions—they are simply fixing any unnoticed errors.

Then the manuscript is released into the world! It can sometimes seem like editors are there to tear apart your manuscript, but they’re actually making sure it is the best it can be. No one can write a perfect draft on the first try. Editors are like cheerleaders: they see the parts of the manuscript that need a little extra attention, and cheer on the writer so they can put out their best work.

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