Janey Burton


Editor & Contracts Negotiator

Before a book is ready to submit to a literary agent or publisher, or to be self-published, it is usually edited to a high standard. Unedited or poorly edited books won’t get book deals. Readers avoid low-quality self-published books.

Increasingly, editors at traditional publishers are stretched thin and may not be able to devote a lot of time to editing the books they acquire, so they acquire books that are ready or nearly ready to publish. Self-published books are published to the standard the author chooses, and if that standard is at all a high one, their book must be professionally edited.

Therefore, canny writers hire a freelance editor to work on making their book the best it can be.

This guide will outline the different stages of editing, which will help you select the right sort of editing for you.

Different editors will often mean slightly different things by a category of editing they provide – because they are individuals with different skills and experience – but they will agree in broad terms what each variety means.

There are three main stages of editing. They are, in the order they should be performed:

– Structural editing (also known as substantive, developmental, or content editing)

– Line editing and copy editing (two different types of editing, which may be done together)

– Proofreading (a final check of the book before publication)

Big to small

The stages of editing should move from the biggest area to the smallest. Initial passes at the manuscript should assess the book as a whole, while later passes close in on the chapter, page, paragraph, line, sentence, and then word.

Going in this direction – from big to small – is the most efficient way to improve the manuscript and prevents you wasting time and money.

When people ask for ‘editing’ they may not be aware of the different kinds and when in the process they should occur. As a result, an author may ask for a type of editing for which the book is not yet ready or pay for fresh rounds of editing in random order with no clear sense of when the editing process will be finished.

Getting a structural edit on a book that has already been copy edited means the time and cost of the copy edit was wasted. The results of the earlier edit will not survive a structural edit, so another round of copy editing will still need to be done once the structural edit is complete.

Proofreading a book that still has several issues at the chapter level and would benefit from a heavy line edit or even a structural edit is merely tinkering at the edges. The book will still have bigger difficulties that should be addressed; it just won’t have spelling and grammar mistakes as well.

If an author disagrees with an editor’s assessment of what work needs to be carried out, the editor may or may not agree to do the editing the author has asked for, anyway. It’s a dilemma: on one hand it’s the author’s book and their decision and they are paying for a service, on the other it can feel unethical to agree to doing tasks we believe not to be in service of the book.

Editing is, and should be, the largest expense for a writer when preparing their book for publication. Great marketing, or the sexiest cover in the world, won’t save a book that wasn’t ready to be shown to the buying public, whereas a really polished book will delight readers even if the cover is merely adequate.

The benefits of editing by far outweigh the costs. And it is possible to reduce some of those costs.

Before hiring an editor

Always leave time – preferably a few weeks rather than a few days – between periods of writing and periods of editing. This allows you to come to the material with fresh eyes, and you need to be as objective as possible when you return to the manuscript to edit it.

You can and should save yourself time and money by self-editing as much as possible before hiring a professional editor.

If you follow the advice of editors and authors who write about self-editing, and you edit further in response to thoughtful feedback from your early readers, you will ideally reduce the amount and kind of changes an editor will need to make to the manuscript, which will reduce your costs.

By the time you’re ready to hire a professional editor, you should have gone as far as you can towards a book that is ready to publish. A professional editor will then be able to focus on the points you cannot see because of your familiarity with the text.

Structural editing

This level of editing looks at the entire book, its strengths and weaknesses, and how it could be upgraded. It seeks to help the author get closer to their overall vision for the book. My most popular service, the manuscript assessment, is a kind of structural editing.

I will look at the story, plot, and characters (for fiction) or the central argument or thesis (in non-fiction) and consider questions such as whether the book will appeal to its intended market, if the narrative is coherent and compelling, whether the characters are engaging, and if not, what can be done to build these things up.

At this stage, I will also consider the pace, voice, and style of the book, and make suggestions to address things like a slow middle section, or overly complicated explanations, or insufficient world-building.

After a structural edit or manuscript assessment, some re-writes will usually be needed, so the next stage of editing will not take place immediately.

Line editing and copy editing

These types of editing look from the paragraph down to the word level and are well-suited to being performed together.

If the text is in good shape or the author is confident in their style, a light edit might be all that’s required. If the writing is a bit rough or sentences often get tangled, a heavier edit might be needed.

Line editing is about making the text flow smoothly and fixing all the little bumps that can take a reader out of the book. Here, I’m making unclear sentences plain and removing repetition, as well as highlighting meaningless metaphors and tired clichés and suggesting improved versions.

Copy editing will also fix mistakes in grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

Both sorts of editing deal with consistency: line editing corrects minor inconsistencies in the text such as a change in hair colour, while copy editing looks at formatting and ensures hyphens or capitals are used consistently.


Editors often learn copy editing and proofreading together, as they deal with almost all the same topics.

Proofreading is a final check of the text before it is sent for printing and publication. A book is thousands of words long, and even when careful editing has been carried out at every stage, some errors may still slip through. Proofreading is the last opportunity to catch them and is, by its nature, light.

Final thoughts

Before booking an edit, we need to arrive at a clear idea of the brief you’re giving me, to avoid ‘scope creep’ during the project. If the scope does creep, remember that the price will also go up, and the project will take longer.

So, tell me the relevant information, such as what work has already been completed, and about your previous writing experience. Remember to send me a sample of your manuscript with your first enquiry: I will need to have a look at the complete manuscript before booking the job, but a sample will give me information about the required level of editing right off the bat.

It’s great when an author is aware of their book’s strengths and weaknesses, and so comes to me with a good idea of where they are in the process and any particular issues they want me to address in the edit.

However, some authors just aren’t sure what to do next, and may have been given conflicting advice, so they want my guidance. This is fine, although you should still try to give me a clear idea of how you envision the final version of your book, so I can help you achieve that vision.

Having your book edited can be an exciting as well as an anxious time – you’ll get the most out of it by approaching it thoughtfully and professionally.

This article was first published on 22nd November 2020 and has been updated.