If you do any kind of writing, you are familiar with the need to edit. You will have done self-editing in the course of your writing, even if it’s just correcting a typo or adding a capital letter, but at some point, you need to get external feedback if you want your writing to be enjoyed by someone other than yourself. Writing groups are great for this too, although usually your group will critique only sections of your writing. It’s important that your entire book is reviewed in one go. This will enable reviewers to reflect on the three main elements of your story: plot, characters and setting.

The descriptions and names for types and stages of editing can seem confusing, but in reality there are only two major groups of edits. While in theory you can complete all of the reviews through self-editing, in practice ensuring your book is appealing to others is the reason most of us are writing! Writing your book entirely alone and hoping for it to be a success is simply unrealistic. You can give yourself a much better chance of writing a readable, enjoyable book by following some simple editing stages with other people providing input.

We’ve gathered up a summary of the different terms and how they can help you with your writing project.

1. Structural Editing

Structural edits are a group of edits which can include beta reading and manuscript assessments. The purpose of structural edits is to make sure your story has the appropriate pace, that it makes sense, that your characters are compelling, and that the plot is logical (or at least, true to itself).

Have you ever watched a movie or read a book where you got to the end and scratched your head over something inexplicable someone did? Think about Titanic and all of the times our heroes made it to the lifeboats, only to run inside again (while viewers are shouting ‘nooooooo’ at them). While making for an entertaining movie, it’s simply not believable.

In the world of fiction, you need a compelling reason for every action, or your reader will smell a rat. Bernard Cornwell wrote a series of books around the hero Sharpe, a soldier during the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Sharpe’s Trafalgar is based around Sharpe becoming involved in the naval battle of Trafalgar, but why would a (land-based) soldier be fighting at sea? As Bernard Cornwell says on his website, the greatest difficulty in writing the book was engineering the plot to get Sharpe on board a naval vessel. It’s this kind of plot point that a structural edit will pick up and resolve if the author hasn’t.

Let’s take a look at two different methods of structural editing and how you can use them to your advantage. Feedback will be given to you either verbally, or in the form of a short memo or email.

A. Beta Reading

Beta reading is the stage in the process where you get some macro-level feedback. Best done when you have a complete and readable draft. Beta readers will advise you whether your story held their attention, and alert you whether they have noticed any of those giant plot holes we were talking about. They may comment on your characters, whether they are believable or not, provide feedback on the end, and whether the story fits the genre. Ultimately, you can (and should) ask a beta reader to give you feedback on whatever points you would like feedback on.

B. Manuscript Assessments

Manuscript assessments are a formalised feedback process. You will receive written feedback on key areas including plot points, character traits and arcs, pacing and setting. You could expect feedback to include recommendations to cut entire scenes, or write new ones, remove or change entire characters, perhaps to reorder the events in your book or start the action at a different point. Once you have your feedback, it’s over to you to discuss with your editor and ultimately go back and redraft your book.

Now, let’s turn our attention to the second group of editing types, which I’ll collectively call Text-Editing.

2. Text Editing

Text edits are completed when your story is in solid shape. There’s absolutely no point correcting pronouns if there is no clear motivation for your hero! So don’t start text editing until your story has already held up to scrutiny, and plot, characters and setting are all firm. Otherwise you’ll just be redoing work.

This is the wordsmithing stage – where we make sure that the text is as clear as your vision. These days we have word processing software to help us, and the ability to edit on screen as we go. Before computers the amount of time required to edit would have been staggering. For example, Tolstoy’s wife Sophia famously copied out War and Peace by candlelight seven times, and Jane Austen used to edit her own text by literally pinning insertions into the paper manuscript! Today, we’re lucky to be able to tidy up our work without wasting paper – but this doesn’t mean editing is no longer needed. Far from it. Textual corrections can make a world of difference to the enjoyability of a book, and needless to say, nothing says amateur like typos.

There are two main groups of text edits: copy-editing, and proofreading.

A. Copy-Editing

Copy-editing is sometimes broken down into two stages (line editing, and copy-editing), but these are often addressed together as they can and often do overlap. Feedback will be in the form of an annotated manuscript. There may be a combination of tracked corrections and comments for the author to address. You may also get some stylistic feedback around your writing which could be applied to your next piece, if an editor notices a specific trend which could be improved.

Let’s address the two different stages separately as in theory they tackle different points.

i. Line Editing

Line editing is when you might focus on how good the writing is. This is where an editor would address things like excessive description, scenes not logically following, poor choice of words, repetition, passive voice, unnecessary dialogue, or not enough dialogue. An example might be the sentence:

“John was reaching tentatively for the supple yellow branch when there was a sudden sharp crack and the broad branch he was carefully standing on snapped and he tumbled hand over foot to the ground.”

Although there are technically no errors in this sentence, there is some repetition, unnecessary adverbs, passive voice and a very long sentence. This is how it might be edited:

“John was reaching reached tentatively for the supple yellow branch. when there was He heard a sudden sharp crack and the broad branch bough he was carefully standing on snapped. and hHe tumbled hand over foot to the ground.”

ii. Copy-Editing

If done as a separate stage, copy-editing follows line editing. By this stage, a manuscript should be well written with clearly constructed sentences. A copy edit is tackling points of detail in the writing, for example, consistent capitalisation, punctuation, line formatting, ensuring subject and object are clear and finessing word choice. At this point you would also check out any points of fact, such as whether a particular song mentioned in the text was actually written at the date the book was set, or whether a journey can plausibly be accomplished in the amount of time it is meant to.

B. Proofreading

Proofreading is the final, and vital step in the editing process. It simply can’t be skipped, as the copy edit stages are focussing on different problems, and are also likely to result in textual changes which may cause new errors to slip into the text through the rewrite. At this stage, a proofreader is simply looking for errors.

Traditionally, printers would ‘set the type’, i.e. arrange the blocks of letters onto printing presses, and proofreaders would check that the type had been set correctly before the printed paper rolled. These days, we have the luxury of checking on screen, and spellchecks, which has made the proofreader’s job simpler. But spellchecks won’t pick up missing commas or incorrect use of pronouns. If you type plant instead of planet it won’t be picked up as an error. There’s nothing more distracting than an error that hasn’t been corrected. So, proofreaders comb through and make these final corrections. You’ll receive a marked up manuscript with corrections for you to review.

Do I really need to do all of these edits?

If it sounds like there are a lot of stages, that’s because there are. The drafting process of a book is just as, if not more important than its writing. The diagram below explains how these stages fit in sequence.

Whether or not you need to do some or all of the editing stages depends on where you are in your writing career. Every writer, from the most incipient youngster to Stephen King, would naturally do self-editing and should get someone else to do proofreading at an absolute minimum. But even an experienced author is likely to benefit from outside advice. Sometimes you just can’t see the wood for the trees and an outside perspective can be invaluable.

Overall, it’s important to remember why you are writing. If your aim is for others to read and enjoy your work, getting some help and advice from others is highly recommended.

If you want some advice about what stage of editing you need, feel free to contact us.