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By now you probably realize that publishing a book is a complex process with many moving parts. Self-publishing, traditional publishing, establishing a platform, growing an audience, and marketing are all topics of blogs, podcasts, newsletters, membership sites, Facebook groups, conferences, courses, and entire careers for experienced experts such as those listed in “My Baker’s Dozen of Free Online Resources for Learning the Writing Business.”
This piece is not about that process. Instead, it’s a summary of your book’s journey from first finished draft to readiness for independent publication—a separate path from the marketing work that begins while you’re still writing. (Repeat disclaimer: to navigate the writing business, look to those who know it well. Not me. Still learning over here in Writer-Wannabe Land.)
In this post, I provide a broad itinerary for traveling the World of Editing. As with any trip, you’ll need to do some research before you pack your bags.
Specifically, professional editing, the third step described below, requires a financial investment; you must carry enough currency to pay the fare. Trained editors who treat you, your writing, and your readers with respect and professionalism (meaning not your neighbor or cousin who earned good grades in English and loves to read) will charge a professional rate. They also tend to stay busy and may need lead time to schedule your project. Prepare yourself now.
After you’ve pounded out all your unedited words (and only then—never during the initial creation stage), your first finished draft demands good writing and rigorous self-editing. To save time and money, and to be taken seriously when you reach later milestones, start with your best work. In “Why Peculiarity Isn’t Adequate Writing Currency,” I write about the roles of both self-editing and objective editing. And I highly recommend watching Beth Dunn’s “Fix Your Writing” YouTube talk, linked in that blog.
Resources for Writing and Self-Editing
Beth Hill, The Magic of Fiction (and website)
Larry Brooks, Story Engineering and others (and website)
K.M. Weiland, Structuring Your Novel and others (and website)
William Zinsser, On Writing Well
Ann Handley, Everybody Writes (and website)
Gary Provost, 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing
Ben Yagoda, How to Not Write Bad
June Casagrande, The best punctuation book, period.
Noah Lukeman, A Dash of Style
Bill Walsh, The Elephants of Style
(Note: Despite widespread adoration, many grammarians and copyeditors are not fans of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Yes, it’s short and clear, but it also contains guidelines that are outdated, self-contradictory, and inaccurate, ignoring the most important rule: context is everything, and nothing about style is cut and dry.)
More on Self-Editing:
"The 7 Deadly Sins of Self-Editing"
"How to Edit a Book: Your Ultimate 21-Part Checklist"
Step Two (But See Developmental Editing Discussion Below)
Now you need constructive feedback from impartial peer review. It’s time to set aside all sensitivity and defensiveness, bravely focusing on nothing but improvement. Call on critique groups or beta readers. Your initial readers should be interested in your genre and your writing, and they’re often volunteers (but not always—as in everything, pros exist).
What should you expect from peers? They must read carefully, focus on the big picture, and honestly let you know what works and what doesn’t. Please note that I started this section by specifying "impartial." Writers need friends, but writers don't let friends be beta readers.
What do you do with feedback? Revise based on consensus and your good judgment.
Resources for Learning about Beta Readers
"Complete Guide to Beta Readers"
"Ask Jami: Where to Find Beta Readers"
"How to Work With a Beta Reader: 5 Tips for Success"
Your book is finally ready for professional editing. This part of the journey can seem confusing because authors, editors, publishing services, and professional organizations don’t agree on terminology for different editing levels and needs. See “Definitions of editorial skills” from the Editors’ Association of Canada and this perspective from an experienced writer and developmental editor.
Some of the confusion happens because any one type of editing covers a spectrum of tasks. Amy Einsohn’s iconic The Copyeditor’s Handbook delineates light, medium, and heavy copyediting, each with a range of tasks that sometimes duplicate one another across categories. Obviously, those terms of the trade mean nothing to authors, so editors try to find more comprehensible descriptions for fifty shades of copyediting.
To make this part of the map easy to follow, I’m going to divide professional editing into three categories (with their alternate names, when appropriate), emphasizing the frequent overlap of these different types of editing. When you look for editors, find specific service descriptions on their websites, and pay more attention to the items within listed services than to category names. Never engage an editor without written clarification of exactly what tasks you’re paying for, regardless of overall service label.
The following three categories are listed in the order they occur along the editing path. Editors and other experts disagree on the order of importance. My experience is that no book can be published, by any means and in any format, without professional copyediting to attend to the mechanics and details of consistency, clarity, and flow. Any author who cares about readers will pay for the tasks of copyediting.
If, however, your beta readers suggest major changes that you’re not sure how to implement, you might first need the big-picture services of a developmental (or structural) editor. In fact, if you have serious qualms about your first draft after you finish self-editing, you may want to work with a developmental editor before you submit anything for peer review.
At the end of the road, proofreading by a new pair of sharp and knowledgeable eyes is another must. Your proofreader doesn’t need the heavy-lifting qualifications of a copyeditor; but mistakes are inevitably introduced or missed during the previous editing and revision processes, and careful, high-quality proofreading is crucial before publication.
Categories of Editing
Developmental (or structural) editing
Copyediting (or stylistic/line/substantive editing)
Proofreading (or the absolute last step before actual publication)
Resources for Finding Editors
The American Copy Editors Society “Editors for Hire”
Interactions with editors on social media
Facebook’s “Ask a Book Editor - Help Wanted” group page
Search LinkedIn; read profiles and articles
Search Google; read websites and blogs
Recommendations from writing groups (online or in person)
These resource suggestions may differ from those on writing blogs. However, I’m a copyeditor, and they’re where I’ll look for good editors and proofreaders when I’m ready to send my book down the path of independent publication.
Best wishes for a successful journey! Let me know if I can help, and please leave a comment below to provide any of your own travel tips.