Stages of Editing

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Aug 07 2008

Once the publishing contract is finalized, one of the first questions debut authors ask is what’s next. A very valid question and one I’m afraid I often forget to explain. After all, editing and publishing has been my life for 15 years; it’s sometimes hard to remember what others might not know.

This explanation of the editing process comes from my own experience as an editor at Berkley Publishing and can obviously differ from house to house or even editor to editor. However, these are the basics of what you should expect your book to go through once you turn in that completed manuscript.

Step One, Revisions: Once you’ve turned in your manuscript you should expect to hear back from your editor in about 6 to 8 weeks. I know that seems like a long time and, frankly, it is, but editors are busy and we need to be realistic about how long it can be. Unfortunately, I’ve had some editors take upwards of six months and others never give revisions at all. Again, every editor has her own technique. When you do hear back from your editor it’s going to, hopefully, be with revisions. And these can be all over the place. I’ve had editors ask that the book be completely rewritten, while others simply requested some touch-up work. My hint to you: the longer the revision letter the fewer the changes. Short revision letters tend to include things like “the protagonist is too mean and I don’t like her” or “there’s just not enough suspense here.” While long revisions letters can say things like “on page three the color of her eyes change from blue to brown” or “the dialogue on page 25 feels forced, not like the characters I was reading earlier.” Letters can be one short paragraph (the scary ones) or twenty-some pages. I think my longest was 15 pages.

Revisions are the most critical piece of the editing process. These are the changes that will make your book as strong as you can possibly make it.

Step Two, Line Edits: Once the revisions are complete and the editor is happy with what you’ve done (and by the way, some revisions can go multiple rounds), it’s time for line edits. These are the little inconsistencies the editor wants to make sure aren’t missed. Things like eye color changing, poor word choices, stiff dialogue, or awkward writing, etc. Minor things that can usually be fixed with a word change or two. Often and usually the editor does line edits on the manuscript itself and sends the entire package off to the copy editor without you seeing them. That’s fine, line edits and copy edits really go hand-in-hand.

Step Three, Copy Edits: Copy edits are typically done by hand (although that is beginning to change) on the original manuscript pages. Most copy editing is done by a freelance copy editor outside of the publishing house, although managed by someone in the copy editing department. The copy editor is someone I greatly admire because it’s certainly not a job I could ever do. The copy editor looks for things like typos, grammar errors, punctuation errors. The copy editor makes us all look good. That’s her job.

After copy edits are completed the entire manuscript is sent back to you for review. Here you can stet changes (maintain your original wording rather than the editors’), answer any questions or concerns and make any necessary changes. This is really it. Your last big chance to fix the book and add or subtract anything you might have missed.

Step Four, Page Proofs: Once you have reviewed, fixed or corrected the errors from the copy edits the book typically goes to the typesetter, and again, this is still amazingly done by hand. The typesetter takes the design given to them by the publisher’s design team and makes sample book pages. These are often call page proofs. They are printed on regular 8.5 x 11 paper, but designed to give you an idea of what the book will look like. If the book is a trade paperback you will usually get one book page per printed page. If it’s a mass market paperback you’ll get side-by-side pages on each printout.

These page proofs are then sent to you for one final review. These are not meant for major edits, but primarily to make sure all of the changes from the copy edited manuscript got into the final edition and to correct any new or missed typos. The page proofs are what are referred to in your contract when you are not allowed to make changes that affect more than 10% of the manuscript, otherwise you are charged for the changes. This of course does not refer to any errors that were caused by the typesetter.

Note: the page proof stage is also when copies are sent out for review. The publisher and reviewers know that some mistakes might be found, but the essence of the book is there and ready for review.

And once you send those page proofs back you have officially signed off on the book. The next thing you’ll see is a beautiful finished product with a shiny new cover and your name on top.


29 responses to “Stages of Editing”

  1. Avatar Anonymous says:

    This is very interesting and informative, Jessica. I think the thing that surprises me is that a book would be accepted by an editor when so much revision is required. Does this happen often? Can you go into a little more detail regarding why an editor would provide a deal/accept a manuscript that needs such major overhaul? I assume the deal is contingent upon these changes?


  2. Avatar Writer Dad says:

    Thank you Jessica,

    I’ve never seen it all laid out like that before. It was helpful and informative.

  3. Avatar Kristin says:

    Can I just skip to the part at the end? “A beautiful finished project with a shiny new cover and your name on top”? Sigh….

  4. Avatar Ithaca says:

    Would an agent let an editor acquire a book without a clear idea first of how much further work was going to be wanted? I’m surprised that a short letter asking for major changes could come as a nasty surprise – wouldn’t one insist on knowing what the editor had in mind before signing the contract?

  5. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    Since I’d been published with epubs, I thought I knew more about the publishing world than I did, but months went by after I sold my first book to NY w/o a revision letter and I began to panic, wondering how much I’d need to change and how much time I’d have to do it in–then one day, copy edits showed up with only a few minor corrections. I still feel there were things I would love to have fixed in that first book, but since I missed the revision stage altogether, I wasn’t able to, and I was too uninformed to realize I actually could have during the copy edit phase. However, once you get page proofs, you’re essentially stuck–it was at that point in Wolf Tales where I discovered a character’s name had been changed in a succeeding book I’d already written–with a title based on the new name! I was allowed to change the name in the first story to match the later book.

    One note–“stet” is your friend. It means to return the correction made by the copy editor to what you originally wrote. I keep saying I’m going to get a stamp made up with that word on it, as copy editors will go through and change stuff that makes absolutely no sense and totally changes the intent of your work. I’ve had CEs change my slang in dialogue to perfect grammar, and even change body positions during some scenes to things that are anatomically impossible. Sometimes I think the copy edits are like a test to make sure we’re paying attention, though I will admit, they’ve also caught me in some stupid mistakes. The main thing to remember is that it’s your name going on the cover, not the copy editors, and it’s important to read carefully and make changes clearly.

  6. One thing a NY author informed me about that I didn’t know is that edits from NY publishers need a key which explains all the squiggles.
    This is invaluable information.

  7. Avatar Elyssa Papa says:

    This was such a great blog. I’ve often wondered what the process is and how each step works, so thank you.

  8. I echo Jennifer about the key to copyediting squiggles. The first time I saw a copyedited manuscript, I almost panicked–I had no idea what all those symbols were! Chicago Manual of Style to the rescue…

    I loved my copyeditors…the way I see it, they’ve kept me from making an idiot of myself in public.

  9. Avatar Mark Terry says:

    “The next thing you’ll see is a beautiful finished product with a shiny new cover and your name on top.”

    And a typo on page one that everybody missed.

    If you want an example, read the first page of the hardcover of John Sandford’s “Winter Prey.” It involves 360 degrees, and apparently he kept trying to get it fixed and the copyeditors kept getting it wrong, right through various printings.

    It happens, unfortunately.

  10. Avatar Anonymous says:

    “and others never give revisions at all.”

    Boy you said a mouthful there. Based on a lot of the fiction I see these editors are in the majority. Of course, in their defense, many of the books I see are by multi-published authors. I imagine them having “STET” made into a rubber stamp. When they get the revisions, they simply pound the stamp down on the title page, and return it.

  11. Avatar Chumplet says:

    Having worked for a newspaper for twenty years, I remember those squiggles well. I haven’t seen it in e-publishing, possibly because a lot of editing goes back and forth electronically.

    I’ve had copy editors take out all my italics and I had to manually put them back in, since the electronic version would be the final version. No typesetters in e-pubs, as far as I know.

  12. Avatar Jolie says:

    I have a summer job (sort of an informal paid internship) at a small press, so this is all familiar. I just have one question:

    Are page proofs and galleys the same thing? Where I work we only ever call them page proofs, but I’ve seen other bloggers say “galleys” in what seems to be the same context.

  13. Avatar Dave F. says:

    When I was still working (before retirement), I had to handle all of the printing materials that the agency wanted printed. I was the only one allowed to talk to the printer. So my position was that of a clerk shepherding galleys and films back and forth.

    All Authors should understand the best times to make changes.

    Once the agent sends your manuscript to the editor, you will have limited access to it. And you will have limited opportunities to change it.

    Proof Pages and Galleys (as they are sometimes called) are not the time for major changes. By that time, you should only be reading for those pesky little mistakes that creep into the process — the forgotten line edit, the bad word, the missed punctuation.

    One of the reasons for that is that the Proof Pages or Galleys are the work product of a graphic illustrator or typesetter. (All of my publications had graphics and required illustrators rather than straight text typesetters.) Those people are expensive and charge by the hour, or fractional hour. They are worth the money for what they do. You do not want to use their time with changes unless it is necessary. They typeset your pages one by one and they do it by hand.

    Most of what they do to make the pages look professional requires them to read your entire novel as black letters on a white page. They balance paragraphs on facing pages, they make sure that paragraphs don’t end with a single word, they “break” paragraphs across pages. They align text with pictures. The make TOC and footnotes work. All sorts of things like that.
    If you change the pagination, they have to start all over and repeat the original work. That’s expensive.

    Take the time and effort to do your edits with the agent, the editor and pay attention to copy and line edits. But once you get proofs or galleys, fix the errors and be done with it.

  14. I’m exhausted!

  15. Avatar julcree says:

    Thanks for the run down!

    When do dedications and acknowledgements go in?

  16. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    julcree asked about acknowledgments and dedications–I generally try to include mine with the original manuscript, but if not, definitely with the returned copy edits. It’s really too late by the time you get page proofs–the one time I did that, my dedication got squeezed into a space where it looked squeezed in. Not good!

    Dave F.– great rundown on typesetters! I’ve had to make some corrections in my page proofs and always felt really guilty about it. Now I’ll REALLY feel guilty!

  17. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Very nice description. And thank you for that. You are by far and away the best blogger I’ve read when it comes to giving insight into the agent/publishing business.

  18. Avatar Dave F. says:

    Kate you should never feel guilt about fixing a mistake.

    I once got a panic call that a 50 page, very expensive report had a MINOR PROBLEM. THE MINOR PROBLEM was that the company it was written about never approved the text and the text had FACTUAL ERRORS.

    I caught the printer less than an hour before they pushed the button to print the report. That was close. We paid a small fortune for that mistake.

    You couldn’t possibly reach that level of “minor” (roll both eyes two or three times, please) mistake.

  19. By what magic, or how much alcohol, does an agent use to sell an editor a manuscript that requires a page one rewrite?

    What did the editor like… the Title?

    Haste yee back 😉

  20. By what magic, or how much alcohol, does an agent use to sell an editor a manuscript that requires a page one rewrite?

    What did the editor like… the Title?

    Haste yee back 😉

  21. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    dave, the guilt comes from not finding it during the copy edit phase or before, when those mistakes should be caught. I do my own read through and then send the ms. to my beta readers, up to six different sets of eyes, who look for mistakes. Then I make corrections from their read and send it to my editor. Then the CE gets it after my editor reads it, and I get it back to go over edits. Months later, the page proofs show up–and in my most recent ms. I realized I had a character in a scene when he wasn’t even in the same state. ALL of us, at least eight sets of eyes in this case, had missed it. Stuff like that scares the crap out of me, wondering what I DIDN’T catch!

  22. Avatar AstonWest says:

    Good information to know!!

  23. Avatar Santa says:

    I used to think all those steps happened BEFORE you sold. The more I learn about this business, the more I realize I’m not so much a writer as a revisionist.

    Strangely, this only serves to encourage me in my writing. Thanks for the insights.

  24. Avatar Paul Hollister says:

    Wow! What an incredibly good post. The information in this post and comments by published authors are priceless!

  25. Great post. I can’t wait for the day that I can obsess over this. LOL.

  26. Avatar m-stiefvater says:

    My eyes are bulging (as I’m in the process of two separate revision letters) at the idea that some manuscripts go out without any edits at all. My editors have helped my manuscripts tremendously, and the majority of the work goes in AFTER the contract is signed.

    Thanks for another great post!

  27. Avatar Nick - Supaproofread says:

    A great write-up there which was very informative. A really helpful post for future and current authors who are a little confused about what their editor will be doing for them.

  28. Avatar Denise says:

    Reading posts like this is what keeps me, an unpublished, unrepresented writer sitting in front of my computer each day!
    Thank you

  29. Avatar Anonymous says:

    You always give such great information! What I'm curious about is this – my AGENT and I have just gone through this process up through lines – revisions early on and now just finished line edits. I know that a publisher's editor will edit too, but I'm wondering if my agent only did this because SHE was an editor too? I guess that like many here, I figured a publisher wouldn't buy a book first and then say that major things had to be changed. I didn't pose that as a question, but it is one!