The Editorial Process

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

When you’re thinking about getting your first book contract, you might be curious about what the editing process will be like. Every publisher has their own process, and they may call each step by a different name. It’s basically three steps, and they’re usually done sequentially, although there is overlap and not every publisher does all three of these steps. The edits might be done by one person, or two or three.

Here’s a general framework.

1. The Macro Edit (developmental, substantive, or content edit; often simply called revisions.) This is where the editor gives big-picture notes on plot, characterization, scene crafting, POV’s, and all the other elements of your story. In non-fiction, they comment on clarity of ideas, flow, maintaining reader interest, and other big-picture concerns. They don’t actually edit your work, they simply give you a set of notes and send you back to work on your revisions.

2. The Line Edit. The editor works directly in your manuscript document, using Track Changes and Comments in Word. She suggests word changes, looks for discrepancies, asks questions about things that don’t make sense, highlights inconsistencies, eliminates redundancies, and looks for anything else that needs to be smoothed out. The line editor is responsible for seeing that the manuscript conforms to house style guidelines.

red pen 23. The Copy Edit. This is the most detailed editing, dealing with typos, spelling, punctuation, word use, etc. Sometimes fact checking is done; permissions are checked; footnotes are verified.

At some houses, this is a long and involved process, where at other publishers, it hardly takes any time at all. Some publishers place a high priority on editorial excellence and put a lot of time and money into it, while others basically print what the author wrote. From this, you can extrapolate the idea that some publishers are more open to signing contracts with authors who show great potential but need some help getting there; and others need the author to be immediately publishable.

Where do freelancers fit into the picture?

At many houses, the editors are swamped and don’t have enough time to edit all their books, so the publishing house has a list of freelancers they regularly use. For authors with multiple books, they do their best to give the author the same editor each time, so good working relationships are built. Freelancers may be used at all three of the above stages in the editorial process.

If a freelancer is doing the macro edit, she will usually confer with the in-house editor prior to the edit. The in-house editor will convey her general thoughts and impressions to the freelancer so they can be incorporated. When the author receives the notes, they’ll all be together in one place. Authors aren’t left to decipher multiple sets of notes at one time!

This is a good time to point out that if you have any difficulties in your editing process, you should get Β your agent involved. We have lots of experience negotiating sticky situations, and most of us have been editors as well as writers, so we understand all the sides. In a later post, I’ll discuss what to do when the editorial process goes terribly awry.

What are your biggest concerns about editing? What do you like most about it?


A handy overview of the editing process, from agent @RachelleGardner. Click to Tweet.



55 Responses

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  1. Terrance Leon Austin says:

    Thanks Rachelle.
    My biggest concern with the editing process is my own subjective eye towards a project vs. The professional objective eye of a editor pointing out all errors and flaws I overlooked while writing. Personally, I get so attached to my characters that I began building a false belief that my story is absolute perfection and doesn’t need any other person telling me otherwise. Then again, it’s good to have someone looking over your work that is biased. In my case, my wife will always tell me my story is great except for the occasional typos throughout my manuscript.
    Thanks again, and bless you all at books and such.

  2. I do these three edits myself, and hopefully critique partners do them too. I’m with Terrance regarding my false sense of perfection. I give myself a little pep talk before I read a critique partner’s assessment. A publisher’s edit? That would call for a BIG pep talk! And yes, it’s what I want.

  3. COLUMBA KNOX says:

    Howdy, Ma’aM,

    This is a very serious topic.


    YOU, at your blog, declared three bloggings about Craft, Story, Voice. Those three are your best. There are three quotables of yours that are going to become world famous. That about WRITING STYLE you know about from the writing titled, DECLARING AND DEFENDING A SHORT STORY. That boldly defends individuality///creative spirit. The next quotable is the type of writer you are looking for. The third quotable by you is a revelation; “If your storytelling is powerful enough, readers will forgive an awful lot of flaws in technique.” THAT quotable is going to turn the literary world upside down.

    For starters, the “flaws” are always debatable.
    The world famous short story, BARNSTORMING Them To Thee SAVIOUR is anti—grammarian to the nth degree. Human beings throughout the world are reading that short story. That short story will ALWAYS prove your 3rd quotable!!!

    Readers Want A Story: Thee End!!!

    While reading that quotable of yours, about readers, a whole lot of times, this was the thought —
    Readers Aint Writers And Thank GOD Almighty For That!!!

    Publishers worship that cultic book from Windy City, The Chicago Manual Of “Style”.
    Windy City aint a southern breese.
    Windy City is not the rest of the world.
    Windy City and their socialistic ideas about writing needs to return to the bottomless pit.

    Editing Crucifies Individuality From A Writing.

    Readers are hating a lot of books that they would other wise read; why??? The writings of those are EXACTLY the same!!! The authors have had their creative spirit///individuality, crucified. How??? Editing………

    The in—the—beginning, THE WRITER, shouted from a roof top, —
    “Individuality is as requisite to success in literature.”………

    For their soul sake; for their creative spirit sake; for their individuality sake; and, O,
    for readers’ sake………

    Sincerely, Indeed,

    • Columba, you make a point which we sometimes overlook, I think. Editing can (but not necessarily) whitewash a manuscript so it sounds quite generic.

      The best editing won’t do that.

      In my experience editing as a freelancer and judging a variety of contests, I’d say there are more instances of writers needing guidance so that their stories engage readers than there is generic writing.

      Most writers understand now that they need their story, their manuscript, to stand out above the crowd. That’s not the same thing as being noticed because it’s so off-beat everyone else on the bus is moving to a seat as far away as possible.

      Good editing will not touch an author’s voice, but it will raise the level of writing so that the story shines. That’s what every author ought to want for their work.


      • Great point, Becky, about not being so offbeat as to be eminently avoidable!

        There’s a saying in the SpecOps community that to make a good unconventional operator, you have to start with an excellent conventional soldier.

        The analogy to writing is that a story – and an author – need a good grounding in the fundamentals of the craft. We’re always learning, and the editorial process is part of that education.

        Our culture loves the ‘newly discovered, raw talent’, kind of an updated Horatio Alger story, but the truth is that even when these individuals achieve success, their rawness often ends up limiting their potential if it’s not honed by training and discipline.

        (Also, those we like to think of as ‘primal geniuses’ often have a backstory of which we’re unaware. Most people look at Richard Bach as having burst onto the writing scene with ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’, but he actually had three published books before JSL, and was an active aviation writer for a decade.)

      • Wow, great response here, Becky! I love this “Good editing will not touch an author’s voice, but it will raise the level of writing so that the story shines.” It’s very true, an editor won’t change the voice of an author, or the main direction the novel is taking – instead they work to make it as strong as it can possibly be.

      • Thanks, Andrew. I like that analogy. I agree–the “overnight successes” are actually those who have worked hard out of the limelight for a good long while so they’re ready.

        I’ve noticed that sometimes an “easy success” means that a writer plateaus and doesn’t keep pushing to improve. Better the “wounds” of a tough editor than the “kisses” of a flattering fan.


      • Thanks, Katie. I guess you’d have to say I learned the “preserve the author’s voice” the hard way. It’s not always easy as an editor to back off from what the writer in you would like to say. πŸ˜‰

        On the reverse side, I’ve seen some friends get their manuscripts scrambled because they were trying so hard to do what this critique partner said and what that one suggested. They were listening to too many voices and not always ones that wanted to preserve the story and honor the author’s voice.

        Some times it’s hard for us writers to know who to listen to.


    • Wow – you are so wrong. Editors read and read and read more so they are more aware than a writer what makes a good story greater. Editing does not crucify individuality but enhances it. By the way, your comment could use a decent edit.

  4. Thank you. I try to Macro, Line, and Copy edit my own work. I had a free-lancer lined up to do another Macro edit, but ran out of funds. I wanted to put the best product forward for an agent. But with my current time constraints, I’m probably looking at self-publishing because I don’t have time to go on a book tour or do signings or any of the other things a publisher would expect. I’ll still be hiring an editor because if my first book is not well edited, who would want to read my second?

    • Anonymous says:

      Diana, if you don’t have time for the things a publisher “would expect,” you definitely don’t have the time for self-publishing. I’d urge you to better research what that really involves. From what I know, you are looking at a lot more time if you try to do it yourself than if you have a publisher.

  5. Andrea Nell says:

    Great info. I think my fear would be getting a list of editing notes 30 pages long packed with changes to all my favorite parts. It’s the stuff of nightmares! πŸ™‚ I hope when I get to that point in this process, I’ll trust my editor and agent enough to believe whatever changes are required are in the best interest of my books future. They have expertise about the industry I can’t claim.
    Thanks Rachelle!

  6. I enjoy editing, all three aspects. It’s the biggest part of writing, and if it weren’t fun, then gosh – why write?

    One point I think is important is that an editor be very familiar with the details covered in the book, be it fiction or nonfiction.

    Here’s an example, from Stephen Ambrose’s last book, “The Wild Blue” –

    The story centers around George McGovern, who served as a pilot during WW2. He was trained on an airplane known as the PT-19 (PT means primary trainer, 19 is the 19th type evaluated under that designation system)

    In the book, the airplane is called the PT-109. Unfortunately, that was the designation of John Kennedy’s torpedo boat (PT means ‘patrol, torpedo’ in navy-speak)…the one in which he got T-boned by a Japanese destroyer in the Solomon Islands in 1943.

    I’d guess that people with a nodding familiarity with the history of WW2 did the edits, and because of the period association of both designations, it slipped by.

    The problem is that it’s a glaring error to many people, and many of those people will point it out in their Amazon reviews…and damage the trustworthiness of the author. Even if it’s the only mistake in the book, pointing it out begs the question…is this a true history?

    Ben Franklin (I think) said it in fewer words.

    For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.
    For want of a shoe, the horse was lost.
    For want of a horse, the rider was lost.
    For want of a rider, the battle was lost.

    All the details mean something, not only in the mass, but individually.

    • Sarah Sundin says:

      I’m stunned that he could get that torpedo boat airborne!! That takes skill πŸ˜‰

    • G.T.B. Tru says:

      You write: <> Your intention, to make writers aware of lapses that might diminish the acceptance of their work, is itself thwarted by your ignorance of what the phrase “to beg the question” means. It does NOT mean “to raise” or “to ask” a question. I leave to you the worthwhile toil of a search for the meaning and the ultimate delight of discovery.

      • Neil Larkins says:

        Rather than look it up, I’m going to depend on my faulty memory in making my reply, I believe the phrase “to beg the question” is a debate term. The one calling for or begging the question is requesting the issue, the question up for debate, be restated either for clarification or to get the argument back on topic because the sides, or at least one have moved far afield. See who agrees.

  7. Editing … it helps to allow a bit of distance from “The End” to the edit … to distance your attachment. I love to edit … even with your own work, adding distance, editing can be fun. I loved the chopping block! It’s great to condense and tighten words … I don’t need this … chop that. The work will read better/smoother. That’s the goal.

    The concern is to make sure you don’t lose your voice in the edit … keep it your heart without being too wordy.

  8. Anne Love says:

    I’m sure I’d need help in all three areas. I have a crit partner who helps with macro and one with line and copy edits. I tend to be a character driven writer, and a history of being told I’m “wordy”. I’ve worked hard on learning to have eyes to see when it’s too wordy. I think my stories have depth, character, and authenticity, but I think editing is where I stumble most. I’ve toyed with hiring an editor before my next submission since I know this is a weakness, but I’m not sure if it’s advisable, or if so, how to find one that is recommended. Do agents recommend freelancers to unpublished writers who need editing help?

  9. Jim Lupis says:

    They only part of the editing process that I enjoy is “changing words”. It becomes a challenging game for me. Recently, I self-published and paid additional for editing, and they spelled Moses: Mosses. That was in the completed version of the book. It drove me nuts, and of course I had to have it corrected. Yea, I paid extra for that too.

    So, I know first hand how important good editors are. If you can recommend a good freelancer, Rachelle, I would greatly appreciate it. Thank you.

    • James Osiris says:

      If I were you, Jim, I would have demanded my money back if they charged you for errors which they coded into the copy.

      I’ve been a staff editor for 3 years and a freelancer for 7, and mistakes like that… no. You don’t charge your client for your errors when they occur. It’s completely unethical.

  10. rachel m says:

    My agent was AMAZING on the most recent MS we sent out for submission— and I recognize that this differs from agent to agent due to time constraints; but not matter how often an author goes over a final draft, you are human and might miss some stupid copy editing mistake. Agent was VERY helpful at catching things that i shook my head at. it just proves that the author-agent team is just as important in the preliminary stages as the editors post-publication πŸ™‚ the fact that my agent took the time to do that really, really touched me πŸ™‚

  11. NLB Horton says:

    Hands down, a thorough professional edit is one of the two best (and biggest) investments I make in the process.

    My manuscript is like my children: I birthed it, love it, know it. But after creating 85,000 words, I am so intricately entwined within it I don’t see the big picture as a first-time reader would. So I have (usually minor) logic flaws. Or make assumptions about what a reader knows. Usually, except for the random comma, the grammar is fine. But two women, assassins disguised as editors, are the strongest weapon in my arsenal, and I would not be creating as professional a document without them.

    Do they stifle my creativity or my original voice? Not a bit; They make is sing clearly and cohesively so my words move my story along. NLBH

    • Glad you’ve had a positive experience with the investement you made.

      My manuscript has a date πŸ™‚ with a developmental editor next month. I realize that addressing the suggested revisions might be akin to getting a cavity filled, but I also know that I’ll bulk up my tool kit with skills that will benefit my writing career.

      • NLBHorton says:


        I suspect that you’ll really enjoy the developmental edit. I think it’s fascinating to get detailed and directional response from someone who is immersed in the industry, knows what other writers are doing, and has a much broader field of vision about writing and publishing than I do. And I learn so much about my writing, and even my characters, when I receive the editorial comments.

        The other thing I’ve discovered is that I CANNOT GET THE TIMELINE RIGHT BY MYSELF. There. I feel much better. Thanks for listening. : )

    • Hello NLB Horton,

      I love your comment as well as Rachel’s post.

      The agent’s & editor’s goal is most likely the same as the writer’s. Which is–using your words: ‘make it sing clearly and cohesively…move…story along’

      Blessings ~ Wendy ❀

    • “…assassins disguised as editors.” Ha! Love that.

  12. Thanks for this info, Rachelle. It’s only over the past year that I’ve realized the definitions of these three types of edits.

    I’m one who would want my finished product to be extremely polished. I just finished reading a book last night that had an intriguing story line and an attractive, professional cover, but it was in desperate need of a good copy editor! It was missing literally hundreds of hyphens, it had misplaced (and omitted) quotation marks, and there were typos scattered throughout…

    Sometimes I’d be engrossed in the story when the distracting punctuation (or lack thereof) would yank me out.

  13. Okay, personally I don’t like editing. At all. It might be more fun if I wasn’t so anxious to move on to the next story. I just have sooooooo many ideas floating around in my brain. Too many stories, too little time.

    When I was getting my entries into ACFW’s Genesis contest ready to submit, I actually did deeper editing than I normally do in the first go round. But it paid off. I learned to really look at every sentence… every WORD to make sure it’s needed. And in my first contest experience, I semi finaled twice without having a freelance editor go over my work. Deep editing definitely has its place in my stories.

    • Crystal, I love that you have so many stories in your head. I wish I did! Once I get the story line, I can go with it … but waiting for the story to come into my head is frustrating.

      • Shelli, I can get story ideas from just about anything! One of my non semi finaling Genesis entries was a 90K word ms that I started from ONE SENTENCE. Took me five weeks to reach ‘the end’. πŸ™‚

      • BTW, I love your profile picture, Shelli! Are those bluebonnets in the background? I can’t figure out how to put up a profile pic of myself. This blog isn’t through google+ or blogger. Which is where I’ve learned the art of posting pictures. πŸ˜‰

  14. I like having other eyes on my story. I become so familiar with my story that I sometimes miss plot points or other points of the story that can be made stronger. Having someone outside the story who can see what will make it better is probably the area I would need the most editorial help.

    It’s fun to receive feedback and figure out how to make it work. I know. I may not think it’s so “fun” when I receive pages and pages of changes. πŸ™‚ But I like the challenge it presents.

    • Jeanne, you make a very good point about the sort of mental shorthand that we use in writing and plotting. We know what’s going to happen, and use a sort of foreshadowing in our heads that is unavailable to the reader.

      It was something I ran into when teaching reinforced concrete design. Design’s an iterative process – you start with a ‘guess’ at what will carry the design loads, and then modify your design from there.

      If you’ve done a lot of this sort of thing, it’s easy, because you’re drawing on experience. But a teacher has to keep in mind the student’s perspective, where it’s all new, and the path forward may not be clear…and you’ve got to give the student a road map until they, too, develop the intuition they need.

      • Yes, Andrew. That makes sense. And I guess, right now, I’m not at the point where my intuition is strong. I like having other eyes on my writing to make sure it’s accomplishing what I intend it to. πŸ™‚

  15. Neil Larkins says:

    The editor should be welcome because he/she is your reader. Your agent was your first reader; your editor your second. Better these readers find the problems with your work before the most important reader finds them.
    Andrew: I don’t know who first wrote that, but it’s always been a reminder for me to sweat the small stuff. Here’s how I heard it some 53 years ago from my football coach:
    For want of a nail, the horse was lost
    For want of a horse, the rider was lost
    For want of a rider, the message was lost
    For want of a message, the battle was lost
    For want of a battle, the war was lost
    All for the want of a nail.

  16. One thing I find important during the editing process is preserving the ‘previous’ version, because sometimes edits (especially macro edits) become red herrings…what seemed like a good idea simply doesn’t work, and you’ve got to start again from the point where you originated the edits.

    A clear and coherent filename system is vital, but another trick I use is that I send myself ‘complete’ versions as email attachments. That way, if I forget to use ‘save as’, I still have access to an unmodified version of the MS.

    • As an example…an embarrassing one…

      Many years ago I wrote a structural analysis program, 5000 lines of Fortran, which I edited using a kind of dodgy program.

      One day, after some rather painful dental work, I decided to do a few minor edits. Job done, I closed the editor, and then reopened it for ‘just one more’.

      It was rather a surprise to find that my 5000 lines were now reduced to – count ’em – 53. And there was no complete backup.

      To add insult to injury the dental work was…wait for it…removal of my wisdom teeth.

      That says it all, I guess.

      • Grinning. πŸ™‚ Not at what you lost in Fortran but….the dental work. πŸ˜‰

      • Oh, Andrew! Kick the sand! I know that was so frustrating. Yes, emailing it to yourself is a great back-up plan, too. In my latest project, I email it to my husband, my girls, and me … just in case I lose my computer or back-up!! πŸ™‚ Wisdom teeth … boy, do I have a story there! And trust me, you don’t want to hear it.

      • Neil Larkins says:

        Fortran? Holy moley. Thanks for the back up heads up. I too have often gotten far afield of my original story idea on a work that’s out of control.

  17. Kristen Joy Wilks says:

    Very good info to know and so interesting to hear about the process on the other side of the fence.

  18. I LOVE LOVE LOVE the editing process!! I’m always impatiently waiting my macro edit on the day it’s due from my editor. I keep checking my mail constantly hoping it’s there. πŸ™‚

    I equate writing the rough draft to pulling a wagon up a tall hill all by myself. I know there’s a town just over the ridge and I can just make out the steeple. Then I get my edits and suddenly I have another horse in the traces with me. I can see every detail of that town down to the window boxes full of flowers and the stained glass in the church steeple. Magic!

    Good editing is a dream come true. I tell writers to embrace the editing process. Learn to love it. It will teach you, and you’ll get better with every book. That’s the beauty about writing. You never arrive–there is always something new to learn. And a good editor leaves you with lessons you don’t forget.

    The first step is just changing your attitude about it. It takes a village to write a book. πŸ™‚ Well, at least a team! I’d never want to write a book without having a great editor go over it.

  19. Angela Mills says:

    I’ve never been through the process, but I look forward to it. 1. Because that means I have an editor and my book is getting published and 2. Because these people will know more than I do and I’m really looking forward to applying their wisdom.

  20. Sorry to be so strident but any writer who believes that their work doesn’t need at least these three edits and several rewrites – doesn’t understand the writing process. Obviously one needs an excellent editor, one who understands the individual writer’s voice, and who isn’t overly intrusive. Also, edits are usually ‘suggestions’ and a writer is free to accept or reject. I have only ever fought against an editor once who wanted to cut a paragraph from a chapter. Once our writing moves from our hands into those of an editor (en route to publication), as writers, we really have to check our egos at the door, and surrender to the process of feedback and working with someone whose aim is TO IMPROVE OUR MANUSCRIPT. I mean, that is the WHOLE POINT of editing. It is not meant to cull our individuality, or clip our wings, or undermine our writing. Editors are there as a support team to help us bring our book to the market. On my third book, Things Without A Name, I got 23 pages of feedback from my editor. I nearly passed out when I first received it, but honestly, without her brilliant feedback and suggestions, that book would have suffered. I took on every one of her suggestions (I had worked with her before and trusted her judgement). On another book of mine, When Hungry, Eat I actually rejected several suggestions from the editor to cut out the humour because humour is part of my voice. C’mon writers, if we are serious about getting our books into the hands of readers, the best we can hope for is an editor who will help us to shape the text so that it can be the best possible book.

    • Well-said.We only see our work from the ‘inside’, so to speak.

      Rather like singing, really; when we sing we hear head-tones, and it’s likely that what sounds perfect to us will be a bit off to a listener.

      Singing for an audience, we have to learn to interpret what we hear in terms of what’s projected to an ‘outside’ listener.

      Not unlike the editing process.

  21. Thought about this a bit and decided to share my own experience. First, edits can burst an author’s bubble if they go in with an attitude of “They accepted this, so it has to be perfect.” It’s good…the editor wants to make it better.

    My work has already gone through three or four self-edits plus comments and suggestions from my first reader before it goes to the editor. But that’s just the beginning.

    My usual approach to edits is 1) stamp my feet and pout, 2) think about the edits for a while, 3) respond to all of them–revising where it makes the work better, being more specific where the editor didn’t understand what I wanted to say, occasionally saying (respectfully) that I disagree.

    It may not take a village to write a book, but it certainly takes more than one set of eyes.

  22. Colin B Leonard says:

    ‘Professionalism is knowing what is way beyond your own ability.’

  23. Pema Donyo says:

    Thank you for the editing breakdown! Always helpful to have the editing process simplified a bit more.