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The Stages of Book Editing

What are the stages of book editing?

Book editing can be broken down into multiple pieces, so what exactly are the stages of book editing?

Recently I came across this request (paraphrased): “A potential client has written a science fiction novel (350,000 words) and is asking me to proofread the manuscript, offer inline fact-checking on the scientific accuracy, and provide overall feedback about the project. How should I price a project like this?”

The first problem is that this is not one editing project, this is several. The second problem is that this editor didn’t know that. 

developmental editing package

Big-picture editing

Editing on any project happens in stages. First there is the big-picture editing: the “provide overall feedback about the project” stage. That happens first. There is no point in proofreading a chapter that will be revised to add a conversation and a fistfight.

Most novel mss run no more than 100,000 words if the author has any hope of finding a traditional publisher or (if self-publishing) finding a reader. SF has a little more elbow room to accommodate for the world-building, but even then 350K is too long. Part of this big-picture edit would be to determine whether the author has one book or three, whether the author is including a lot of unnecessary detail and backstory, and so on. 

Fact-checking

Basic fact-checking should happen at that big-picture level when it affects the viability/plausibility of the plot. (“Objects can’t travel faster than light so you will need to create a convincing scenario for how that can happen in your novel.”)

The more minute fact-checking (that is, facts that matter to the accuracy of the story world but don’t affect the plot–for ex, a reference to the birthdate of Neil Armstrong) is typically reserved for the copyedit, which is an edit that addresses sentence-level errors and concerns. 

We don’t do all this fact-checking at the big-picture level if the author is likely to add scenes that would require additional fact-checking or delete scenes that have been fact-checked (making the fact-checking a waste of time). Once the overall ms is in good shape, then the sentence-level work can begin.

Proofreading

Proofreading is done last. It occurs after everything else has been done. Again, it’s pointless to proofread material that will change as the author revises to add more detail, delete an unnecessary subplot, and so on. 

Now, it’s perfectly possible that the author doesn’t have the budget to pay for three rounds of editing, and that’s fine and understandable. They need to figure out what they can do on their own, with the help of critique partners and beta readers, and so on. 

But they can’t expect to fold all of the editing into one massive round and expect to have anything close to an effective edit. 

And an editor should know that. 

Knowing the stages of book editing will help both editors and authors work together for a great book editing experience.


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