The Three Key Phases Of Book Editing

book editing

The book editing process might seem daunting, but it’s an important part of your publishing plan. By understanding what happens at each phase in the editing process, you can make the most of this time to create the best book possible.

As a writer myself, I know the editing process can be daunting. There are so many different editing-related terms thrown around: story-editing, substantive editing, structural editing, developmental editing, copy editing, line editing, proofreading…

Just looking at that list can be overwhelming. How do you know where to begin?

At the London Book Fair this year, we were going to be running a stand called “Your Editing Journey” to help writers understand the whole editing process, from first draft through to a publish-ready manuscript.

book editingBUT… As the London Book Fair was canceled at the last minute this year due to the Coronavirus, we teamed up with Kristina Stanley, an expert on story editing, and JoEllen Taylor, an expert on professional editing, to create Your Editing Journey, How To Make Your Manuscript Shine, which you can download and read all the ideas we were planning to present at the festival.

At its core, we think of the editing journey as having three key phases:

  1. Story editing
  2. Copy editing
  3. Professional editing

Each phase has its own unique objective and will develop and improve your book in its own way. Let’s explore each in more depth.

Story editing

I asked Kristina to help us understand how and why every writer should perform a vigorous story edit on their work as a first step. Here’s what she had to say.

The story edit is the most comprehensive edit you’ll do on your manuscript. During the story edit, you’ll take a comprehensive look at the structure of your manuscript and the story you’re telling.

Story editing ensures you tell a powerful story by taking a big-picture approach to your manuscript. For fiction, a story edit focuses on the cohesive development of your characters, plot, and settings within the overall story arc. It is your big-picture approach to preparing for publishing. This is when you rework your characters, plot, and settings to ensure the storyline and narrative flow smoothly while every scene contributes to the story’s purpose.

When you’re writing fiction, story editing means looking at the characters and asking why each one is in the story. It means looking for patterns, finding emotion, evaluating the structure of scenes, structuring chapters, and word count. It means testing the setting against the plot.

After a story edit, you, the author, will almost always end up rewriting scenes in your manuscript to improve content and structure. This revision is the most time-consuming step of editing. However, your effort spent on evaluating and rewriting your draft will ensure your story is powerful and ready for line editing, copy editing, formatting, proofreading, and ultimately, publishing.

An important note: while story editing mainly refers to fiction manuscripts, a similar process exists for nonfiction works. If you’re writing nonfiction, this stage is known as developmental or substantive editing. During it, you’ll review your overall presentation to make sure your argument makes sense and is cohesive.

Copy editing

This phase of the edit includes line editing and copy editing. Line editing is where you really drill down into the technical elements of writing to include grammar, word choice, and sentence structure. If story editing is about putting together your story, copy editing is about the most effective use of language to get your idea out of your head and into your readers’ heads.

A basic copy edit includes checking your grammar, spelling, and punctuation for accuracy; ensuring consistency in your writing, word choices, style, and compositional spacing; and eliminating jargon and repetitious words. It’s your last edit before formatting and proceeding to proofreading and publishing.

Line editing, on the other hand, is evaluating and correcting the tone, style, and consistency of your writing while also checking your basic spelling, grammar, and punctuation. It also includes checking your word usage for crutch words, overused words, and misused words in the story. Editing software like ProWritingAid will flag many of these issues so you can rewrite to improve strength and clarity.

Professional editing

Once you’ve performed a story edit and copy edit of your story as a final self-edit, it’s time to prepare and send your manuscript to a professional editor.

While it’s tempting to want to outsource the editing of your first draft to a third party, JoEllen explains you should resist shipping your work off until you’ve done your story edit and copy edit yourself.

Sending an unedited manuscript to an editor is like showing up to a job interview in your pajamas having just rolled out of bed. No matter how qualified and clever you are, the interviewer is going to have trouble getting past your bedhead and PJs to see your underlying brilliance.

When you send your manuscript to a professional editor, you want them to focus on going deep and making the biggest difference to your work. If they are spending their time fixing basic writing errors and story inconsistencies, you won’t be getting the best of their time or making the most of your money.

Do not send a manuscript to an editor until you feel like it’s essentially publish-ready. Even when you think it is polished and perfect, a fresh set of eyes will see all kinds of issues that have become invisible to you.

Why can’t you see the problems yourself? The human brain is always trying to be helpful by filling in missing information. Most of the time, that’s great. It’s how animation works. Animators just need to show you a succession of images, and your brain links them all together and provides the missing information that turns them into a movie.

The same thing happens when you’re reading, especially if it’s your own writing. I’m sure you have experienced the situation where you’ve carefully proofed a page of your writing and still missed an obvious typo. That’s because your brain guesses what’s supposed to be there and replaces it in your head with the correct word or spelling.

Look at this paragraph:

I cdn’uolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg: the phaonmneel pweor of the hmuan mnid. Aoccdrnig to a rseearch taem at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Scuh a cdonition is arpppoiatrely cllaed typoglycemia.

Isn’t your brain clever to understand that gobbledygook? Yes, but this same skill is what makes self-editing difficult. Your brain sees what you meant to say, rather than what you wrote. This is why the fresh perspective of a professional is so essential.

Types of professional editing

You can hire an editor for specific types of editing. For instance, a professional line editor will conduct a thorough examination of the language in your work. Your line editor will take a critical look at your manuscript’s writing flow, language usage, and character development and make suggestions that ensure you’re communicating your story effectively while maintaining your voice.

Here are some fixes a line editor might make:

  • Correction of awkward sentence constructions.
  • Suggestions to make sentences crisper and tighter.
  • Review of key aspects of your manuscript, like narrative and structure.

You could also hire a professional copy editor. A copy editor will correct continuity issues in your story and ensure your manuscript is free of technical problems or major loose ends that will confuse your readers. They’ll highlight typographical and spelling mistakes, fix grammatical and linguistic errors, and make sure you’re using the correct punctuation marks.

But wait! What about proofreading?

By the time your story is at the proofreading stage, you’re no longer editing. Proofreading checks your formatted, edited document before publication. Proofing your completed material is your final line of defense before publishing.

You can hire a professional proofreader to help you with this final aspect of preparing your manuscript for publishing. A professional proofreader will perform a final review to fix any remaining mechanical and grammar issues before your book is printed and published. Remember: proofreading is not a structural edit and instead focuses on eliminating minor mistakes and inconsistencies. Any manuscript that you send to a proofreader should be nearly perfect.

Want to know more about the editing process? Download Your Editing Journey today.

Related Posts
What Type Of Book Editing Do You Need? And When?
Story Editing: Create A Powerful Story
You’ve Finished Your Manuscript – But Your Book’s Not Ready For Publishing
Book Editing: Part 3 Of My Self-Publishing Experience
Is Your Manuscript Ready For Editing?


  1. I agree, I’ve made the mistake of self-publishing a book without proper editing. It’s embarrassing after the fact. However, having said that, I can’t get past spending $10-15,000 or more editing a manuscript that is in all probability unlikely to recoup much of that cost. Writing a best seller for most of us is like winning the lottery. Odds aren’t good.

    • Hey Tom Ohara, have you checked out Red Adept Editing? I’ve only used them for a couple short stories, but I’m definitely going to be using them for my novels! They have a price calculator so you can just punch in your word count to see price for all their different levels of editing.

    • You need to research editors. I had my book edited for less than $1,000. I’m going through my manuscript line by line through Track Changes. $10 to $15,000 is an insane amount to spend on editing.

  2. Lisa:
    Oh goodness, editing still more mistakes and miscues along my very expensive road to fame and the Pulitzer! My dedication page is actually to all editors; “past, present and I presume future!”

    Good article but I had hoped you would have dropped a name or two who could mend my broken heart and salvage what remains of my savings account for additional editing. “The Price For Glory” is an historical allegory of 420 pages that deals with the cosmic journey of one man who claims to own the rights to the mystical element of DESTINY and 13 characters he meets along the way to offer aid for that adventure.
    Hope to hear something soon,
    Mel Snitz

  3. Even for fiction, it is still called a developmental edit. And to those of you who think that this type of edit will break the bank, you are wrong. Alareon Media LCC ( prides itself on being there for beginning writers. We do not charge per word charges which can push editing up into the thousands of dollars. Instead, we offer per page, and those rates can be found on our website. We also have an ace in the hole. Me. I have been reading books, both fiction and non fiction for nearly 40 years. Not only do I understand the parts of a book that would need editing, I also understand that your voice has to show through.

    And the last word of advice, PLEASE don’t use someone that you’ve found on the internet, like through Fiverr or one of those sites. But if you do, make sure you check with their references, if they have them, and if they will reveal the contact information. My experience in the past is, they won’t tell you references because most of them are negative. Go to someone whose references show on their webpage and who will gladly give you email addresses for each of them. Yes, this is a self-pitch response. But it is also a response to this article, which although I disagree with the terminology, I DO agree with the substance.


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