Editing Options for Novels
Whenever authors get together, we talk emphatically about reading and the beauty of words. We empathise over a shared inclination to tell stories and commiserate over the troubles of marketing a book. We understand how excited a writer-friend can get when they secure a major promotional opportunity and how low a bad review can sink their mood. Even with so much connecting us, however, we do differ on certain subjects, not least editing. Indeed, every novelist ends with a fully-formed story, but we don’t all take the same path to reach that point.
Everyone has a different approach that works for them. Some authors, for example, write into the dark without a plan. This approach can lead to a quick but messy first draft that needs serious reworking, but that’s okay because the unbridled creativity of the first draft is what drives them to write. Others, meanwhile, take comfort in creating systems and outlines that produce clean first drafts that requires less editing. Meticulous authors like to involve a different editor per pass while others prefer multiple rounds of feedback from the same person. Then there are the mavericks who write quick first drafts and bypass editors altogether yet still delight their fans.
Figuring out which editorial process works best for you can be tricky when you’re new to writing, particularly if you self-publish and aren’t being guided by an editor from the world of traditional publishing. So, if you’re confused, don’t worry. There is no wrong way to do it. As a result, today’s blog post won’t recommend one specific system. Instead, it will showcase a range of common strategies authors use at different stages of the editing process to produce bestselling and award-winning novels so that you can try them and work out your ideal method.
Working without a plan is what many authors like about writing novels. They thrive on not knowing what is going to happen next and love writing characters out of corners they create. Many other authors, though, prefer to plan ahead using an outline. It doesn’t have to be long – a few paragraphs or a series of bullet points will do. To them, the form doesn’t matter as long as it gives them a fixed destination so that they don’t waste time writing too many words that they’ll later delete.
If you do outline, you can opt to have your plot critiqued by a professional editor before you’ve even written a chapter. Critiques typically cost less than $100 and feedback covers sweeping themes like whether the outline is coherent, whether character motivations align with their actions and whether the plot follows typical genre tropes favoured by bestsellers. Stephen King famously disapproves of having an outside opinion weigh in on a project before it’s fully formed. Having said that, he probably doesn’t need the help. This idea can save you time if you’re a new writer who needs guidance and doesn’t want to learn those same valuable lessons over 100,000 words.
You need to write first-draft material to conduct a self-edit. Whether you finish your first draft in its entirety and then do a full second pass or you write and then edit one chapter at a time is your choice. Either way, it pays to self-edit your first draft because ironing out the blatant mistakes will reduce the workload for a professional editor and will save you a considerable sum of money in editing fees. Not only that, by polishing your story before you send it off, you avoid having to sift through a list of irrelevant comments that you would have already addressed if you’d taken a second look.
If you aren’t a formally educated writer then you’ll probably miss a lot of obvious flaws in your early self-edits. However, sticking with this phase makes it easier to improve your craft over time. In doing the research and analysing your own rough work with fresh eyes, you will uncover your frequent flaws and will learn not to make similar mistakes in the future. Self-editing can be frustrating and time-consuming, but it’s worth it if only because it makes you a better writer.
Newer authors typically hire an editor to give plot-based feedback after they’ve performed a thorough self-edit, but many experienced authors maintain this process for their entire career. This first professional edit is usually called a content edit, developmental edit or, sometimes, a story edit. During their pass, developmental editors don’t correct typos or point out grammar mistakes. Instead, at this stage, they break down a book’s macro problems – plot holes, world-building weaknesses, pacing issues, flawed character motivations, narrative believability, missed genre tropes. Typo hunting comes later.
These editors don’t make any changes themselves. They simply identify issues and make suggestions to help the author fix them. Typically, getting a developmental edit is expensive because of the task’s complexity. Developmental editors must hold a lot of information in their head at once to ensure continuity and that all of their recommendations tie up more loose ends than they create. You’ll understand the challenges they face if you’ve ever shuffled your chapters and accidentally produced a book that contains three sunsets in one day.
A line edit is simpler than a developmental one. Even accomplished authors usually get one, though, because it’s difficult to see the flaws in your own project – you see what you think should be on the page rather than what’s actually there. Unlike a developmental editor, however, copyeditors largely ignore broad problems concerning your characters, plot and world-building. Instead, they focus on tweaking individual sentences to help with readability, as well as tackling spelling, grammar, punctuation and word choice issues.
Ultimately, their job is not to enhance the plot but to polish the words, so you shouldn’t expect macro story suggestions from a copy editor if you haven’t paid for a developmental edit. If you’re struggling to afford both then paying the same editor who did your developmental edit for two passes, so that they also handle the copy edit, can work out cheaper than hiring a separate editor for each pass. Plus, that person will sometimes point out minor developmental issues during the copy edit that you missed or didn’t fully address, which can work to your advantage.
You can pay for beta readers but most are authors’ fans who work on a volunteer basis. Normally, they get free early versions of their favourite authors’ upcoming releases in ebook format in exchange for feedback which the author uses to fix issues before they launch the final version. When you involve beta readers in your process, and what you ask of them, should depend entirely on your preferences.
Some authors request beta comments before they get a professional copy edit in place of a developmental editor. Others employ beta readers purely to check sensitive passages to ensure they don’t release a book that’s destined to annoy or offend their wider audience. And some give beta readers access later in the production process and just ask them to point out typos. If and when you involve beta readers is up to you. Just remember that these people often work for free, so you need to strike the right balance between getting great feedback at the right time and making your book fun for them to read.
Proofreading is an essential part of the professional book launch process. Lots of readers don’t care about the odd typo as long as they enjoy the story, but others are trigger happy when leaving one-star reviews and hate any book that isn’t totally error-free. You can never please everyone, but quality checking your text and formatting at the final gate is an easy way to sidestep most criticism.
As an author you can proofread your work yourself, but you will almost definitely be too close to do a good job. Hiring a professional is recommended and, even then, it’s wise to do two passes because even proofreading teams don’t catch every error. Why two passes? Put simply, one for the ebook file on your computer and a second for your physical paperback proof, which you can order from KDP or Ingram Spark before making it live for readers. Doing this job twice might sound like overkill, but you will often find different errors in each format because the brain processes information differently on a screen and on paper.
Even extremely thorough authors find missed errors in their books the moment they make them available to the public. Catching every mistake, even with help, is a massive challenge. If you have a contract with a traditional publisher and find a mistake after approving a 2,000-book print run, then there’s not a lot you can do at that stage. Most publishers would outright refuse to pulp five pallets of books for the sake of a typo, which is reasonable. After all, many readers would never notice and, at some point, you have to accept that there will be small flaws and move onto the next project.
As an indie author, though, the process is more flexible. Most indies use print-on-demand services to produce paperbacks so updates don’t come with a significant cost. If you spot a misspelled character name or missing punctuation, you can correct your files and reupload them, usually within 24 hours. In an ideal world, you would never have to do a post-launch edit, but nobody is perfect. It’s just comforting to know that this is an option if you need it.
Overall, the editing process can be as comprehensive or simple as you want. What you choose should depend on what’s best for your goals. Whether that’s one perfect masterpiece or a series of near-perfect novels is up to you. Just remember that editing forever isn’t healthy or productive. At some point, you need to release your current book into the world and move onto another project. Not many authors are able to build a career on one book so, in order to succeed, you need to strike a balance.
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