6 Levels of Editing: How to Choose the Right One for Your Book

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As a fiction editor, one of the most frequent questions I’m asked is, Do I have to get my book proofread? Proofreading is the final stage in the publishing process before that “publish” button is hit. There’s a lot of confusion out there about what editing and proofreading are. It doesn’t help that the language used in our industry muddies rather than clarifying the differences. Did you know that there are five levels of editing before getting to the final proofreading stage? No? I’m not surprised. In this article, I’m going to show you the six levels of editing and help you to chose the right one for your book.

First, a Bit of Background Information

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Before self-publishing exploded and transformed the book industry, most titles were published using one of the traditional routes.

  • You signed on with an agent who sold your book to a publisher or
  • You worked directly with a publisher

Either way, your book was in the hands of your publisher. They took care of everything in-house—editing, design, formatting, proofreading, marketing, and distribution!

These days, the publishing process has opened and become more transparent. There are talented individuals offering freelance services that the big publishing companies do in-house. This means that as an author wanting to self-publish your book, you have access to the same processes as the big players in the marketplace.

As the owner of a fiction editing business, today, I’m going to cover the different types of services available and the levels of editing involved.


Book Editing: What Services Are Available, and Which One Would Most Help Your Book?

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Anyone who has typed in this or a similar question into a search engine, will know that there isn’t a one-fits-all answer. The definition of “edit a book” varies depending on which author or editor you’re asking!

There are three stages to getting a book ready to be published:

  1. Structural. This stage looks at the big-picture; developing your idea into a publishable story and the techniques used to tell it.
  2. Mechanical. This stage looks at the creativity and technical correctness of the writing.
  3. Proofreading. The third round will be the final check.

Therefore, one of the first questions I ask is,

Has anyone other than your family or friends read your book and given you feedback?

If the answer is no, then I’d recommend starting with a big-picture assessment before looking too closely and trying to fix any of the small technical stuff like grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

There are three of these big-picture services to choose from:

  • a beta read,
  • a manuscript critique and
  • a developmental edit.

🏆 Top Tip: Beta reading and critiques can come either before or after a developmental edit.


1) Beta Read

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A beta read, sometimes called an alpha read, is when your manuscript is carefully read, and you receive feedback in the form of an in-depth review of your story from a reader’s perspective.

Having your manuscript beta read is an effective way to gauge the potential reaction from your target audience. A beta reader will let you know if your book fits with the genre, is conveying the right message, and is an enjoyable read.

Beta reads can be carried out by sharing your manuscript with a writing group or workshop; however, it could take six months to a year to get actionable feedback. When you hire an editor, like myself, to beta read your manuscript, you’ll not only save time, but you’ll also get professional feedback from an expert who knows your genre (for example, cosy mystery or romance) and the publishing business.

I offer a quality beta reading service. Want me to beta read your novel? Get in touch!


2) Manuscript Critique

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A manuscript critique is also sometimes called a manuscript assessment. A critique or assessment is when your manuscript is read thoroughly and you receive an in-depth report on its content. In the report, you’ll find out what is and isn’t working and receive suggestions on how to fix it.

All the essential elements of your story should be coved in the report: the opening, structure, plot, voice, style, characterisation, dialogue, and ending. Therefore, a constructive report is usually between five and ten pages long.

One of the benefits of requesting a critique from an editor is the timescale factor. Depending on the word count and the editor’s availability, it could only take two to three weeks to get the critique report.

When you hire an editor, they’re going to focus their attention on your story and do their best to help you improve your book. You’ll not only save time, buy you’ll also get professional feedback from an expert who knows your genre (for example, cosy mystery or romance) and has insights in the publishing business.

One of the advantages of hiring me to critique your manuscript, is that I also include my “reader reactions” as in-line comments. You’ll know such things as when I cried and which scenes made me laugh while I was reading your story.


3) Levels of Editing: Developmental Editing

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The next level up from the manuscript critique is the developmental edit, sometimes called structural editing. It’s still a big-picture edit but much more involved. A colleague of mine

If you’re a completely novice writer, this is the first manuscript you’ve ever completed, you’ve never been published, you’ve never studied creative writing (taken a class or an online writing course, or read any books or blogs on the craft of writing) and you’ve never belonged to a writing group – don’t pay for any editorial service. You’re probably not ready for it yet.” (Sophie Payle “Where is Your Budget for Book Editing Best Spent…” Liminal Pages)

A good developmental editor, like Sophie, will work with you. Words and sentences are going to be crossed out or re-arranged, they’ll ask probing questions, make suggestions, move whole sections around, or if you’re lucky, simply say, “Great job, well done.” This level of detail is worth its weight in gold for a new writer.

Why? Because a common element of manuscript critiques and developmental edits is coaching. A good editor will include tips on revising, suggestion related to the craft of writing, and an assessment of your book’s marketability.


My Manuscript Has Had a “Big-picture” Level Edit/Assessment, What’s Next?

The next stage is to look at the mechanics of your manuscript. Which brings me to the next two types of editing, line editing and copy editing.


4) Levels of Editing: Line Editing

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As the name suggests, line editing is when an editor looks at every single sentence in your book and decides if it belongs and reads well.

During a line edit, not only will an editor find and fix any problems, but they’ll also be on the lookout for purple prose (too elaborate or ornate, flowery language) and suggest ways you can revise and improve your words, sentences, or whole paragraphs.

The purpose of a line edit is to ensure that each sentence in your book is not only crucial and keeps your reader reading but uses fresh and appropriate language for your target audience. A good editor will tweak any awkward sentences, advise you on being too long-winded, highlight overused words and phrases, and inconsistent verb tenses.


So, what is the difference between copyediting and line editing? Is proofreading the same thing?

These are excellent questions. Let me cover that next.


5) Levels of Editing: Copy Editing

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When it comes to writing, there’s an artistic aspect and a mechanical aspect. Copyediting focuses on the mechanical aspect of your writing (the nuts and bolts of spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc). Your editor will be asking questions like, Is this sentence grammatically correct? Is there a comma missing? Should this compound word be hyphenated? Are Flora’s eyes blue or green? How many islands are there in the Scottish Hebrides?

A professional copyeditor will have undertaken years of study and practice and be trained in various style manuals, such as The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), The Associated Press Stylebook (AP style), The MLA Handbook from the Modern Language Association of America (MLA style). Fiction writing is less rule bound than journalism or academia, however, fiction editors also refer to style guides such as New Hart’s Rules: The Oxford Style Guide and the Conscious Style Guide to ensure their client’s work is consistent and in line with current publishing standards.

Copy editing is a required step whether you’re self-publishing or taking the traditional publishing route. Copyediting is what transforms your book from sloppy to polished.

However, be aware that one round of copyediting is not enough to catch all the errors. In fact, The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading says:

A good copyeditor picks up 80% of errors; a good proofreader picks up 80% of what’s left.


So, how is copyediting different from proofreading? Aren’t they the same thing? Well, the answer is, not quite.


6) Levels of Editing: Proofreading

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Your book is proofread after it’s been formatted in a book design program, such as Adobe InDesign, Affinity Publisher, or QuarkXPress. Now your book has a fantastic title page, copyright page, dedication page, table of contents, a stunning book cover, and is almost ready for publication.

But book design, also called typesetting, is not a fool proof process. Errors created during the formatting process can slip in. Plus, there could be the odd remaining error that the copyeditor missed or that you accidentally added when you made last-minute changes to your book (it’s now or never, right?).

A professional proofreader will give your book a final line-by-line, word-by-word check to catch any remaining errors, formatting issues such as bad breaks (a break in a paragraph, sentence or word that looks wrong or doesn’t make sense), missing page numbers, and so on.


What I Recommend for Your Book

All the big five publishing houses utilise these six levels of editing to get a book in publishable shape. If you’ve already got a publisher, fantastic! You can sit back and work on your next book.

However, if you’re self-publishing, I strongly recommend that you hire professionals to help you. In addition to being an author, you’re now also a publisher.

🏆Top Tip: If funds are limited, make friends with writers and exchange work with them.

Don’t rush the publishing process; take time to revise and get it right. I recommend printing out your pages and read them aloud to yourself. Listen to your book being read back to you (using a PDF-to-speech app or MS Word Read Aloud function). It’s amazing what your ears can pick up that your eyes miss. After all, the more you catch the less work a professional has to do which means a smaller fee.

And finally, remember that creating a book is a collaborative process. You’re not alone. We’re all in this together because stories matter. Your story matters.

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