What Does Editing Look Like? Behind the (Crime) Scene at the Editor’s Screen

Crime Scene
Image by Carlos Martinez


by Corina Koch MacLeod and Carla Douglas
@CKmacleodwriter @CarlaJDouglas

In a previous post we described the four levels of editing, emphasizing the order in which they should most often take place: attend to the developmental issues first—a clear story and structure if it’s fiction, a logical and meaningful sequence of chapters if it’s nonfiction—before addressing clarity and flow, word choice, grammar and punctuation.

Editing, in Practice

This order makes sense for the purposes of explanation, but the truth is, when an editor sits down to work on your manuscript, the picture might be slightly different. Developmental editing, for instance, is most often suited to nonfiction works. Sure, if you’re a novelist and ask for guidance from a developmental editor early in the process, he can certainly help you with the big-picture elements. In cases like these, advice would probably come in the form of a chat or an editorial letter.

Most editors who work with self-pubs, though, will tell you that by the time they see a fiction manuscript, the author has either worked out the developmental issues or is married to the book as it is, and no major changes will be considered. Much of the time, a manuscript comes to an editor with a request for copyediting. In practice, however, the editor could be doing a bit of everything.

What Editing Looks Like

With three and possibly four levels of editing taking place at the same time, what does editing look like? The truth? As Corina has pointed out, sometimes it looks like a crime scene. And indeed, if it’s your work that’s been bound and gagged and has perhaps even disappeared—without a trace—you’ll swear it’s been murdered.

Don’t panic. In the following sections, we’ll show you examples of each kind of editing—to ease your mind and to help you see that behind the scene, your editor is working away, methodically and nonviolently, towards your mutual goal of a better book.

Big-Picture Editing (Developmental Edit)

Beginning with an Outline

When writing a nonfiction book, structure matters. Your editor may ask you, “What is your book about?” Think this over carefully and hone your answer until you can express it in one sentence. Practise that sentence on friends and family or try it out on social media. Next, your editor will help you hammer out a table of contents that includes topics related to that sentence, and finally, you’ll arrange those topics in a logical order.

Below is a screenshot from Idea to Ebook: How to Write a Quality Book Fast. This book is about how to publish a book, from beginning to end, in the most efficient manner possible. The screenshot below lists the main topics (in Scrivener’s Binder) that were sketched out based on that sentence, before the book was written:

Image 1

The second screenshot (in Word’s Navigation Pane) is the final list of chapters in their final order. You’ll noticed a few minor changes in the final version. That’s fine—outlines evolve. Even if an outline changes slightly, it’ll help you to stick to what your book is about.

Image 2

Tip: Many authors write in Scrivener. You can use Scrivener’s Binder to create a chapter outline, which then allows you to move chapters around easily. If you write in Word, you can get Word to Behave like Scrivener. Don’t have Word? Try WPS Writer (free). You can get it to behave like Scrivener, too.

Creating an Outline From a Finished Manuscript

But what if you’ve submitted a finished book and your editor identifies issues with structure that have yet to be addressed? These can be handled in a couple of ways. If the reshuffling is minor, your editor will use comments in the margins (see comments in the Sentence-Level section, below) to suggest which sections should go where, or she’ll move the section with track changes turned on (see the screenshot in the Paragraph-Level section below).

If large sections of text have to be moved around, the appearance in track changes can be overwhelming for the author. In cases like these, editors will sometimes make the changes and ask the author to compare the new version to the old. Or, if the author and editor are working in Word, the editor may show the author how to use the Final view in the Review pane.

Image 3

The Final view hides track changes, so the author can see what the document will look like if the changes are accepted.

If a lot of reshuffling is required, your editor may ask you to create a post-mortem outline from your existing content. Your editor will then help you sort the contents of that outline into an order that makes sense. The final step involves moving around sections of your book to match the outline.

What About Fiction?

Fiction writers, particularly of genre fiction, are not off the hook when it comes to big-picture edits. Some big-picture editing can happen later in the process. It might become clear, for example, that an important scene needs to appear sooner in the novel, or that a sub-plot needs to wind itself more consistently through the book.

Tip: Editors often use Word to edit manuscripts. This article explains why.

Paragraph-Level Edit (Stylistic/Structural Edit)

Paragraph-level edits involve reordering sentences within paragraphs. Editors will use track changes to show that something has been moved.The green text and strikeouts in the screenshot below (in Word) indicate that a sentence has been moved from one location to another. A bit of a mess, isn’t it?

Image 4

Tip: If you’re overwhelmed by the changes you see, switching to the Final view in Word’s Review pane helps reduce the visual noise.

Image 5

Sentence-Level Edit (Copyedit)

Sentence-level edits address grammar, punctuation, clarity, and style issues. Can you see some of these issues addressed in the screenshot below?

Image 6

An editor will mark any issues using track changes. Often something is marked because it’s incorrect, or it doesn’t follow style rules or accepted publishing conventions. Keep in mind that an editor won’t make changes he can’t defend, so don’t be afraid to ask about anything you’re unsure of. Also remember that your editor is often your first reader, so if a sentence or section is unclear, you’ll want to know about it.

It’s wise to heed any changes your editor has made with track changes. Comments are generally reserved for explanations and suggestions.

Tip: Pay attention to the comments your editor makes, too. These comments often present opportunities for learning something new that you can apply to your next book.

  • Opinion or Fact?Sometimes an editor will suggest a change that’s in line with good writing practice. Paying attention to these suggestions can help you become a better writer. Often, though, it’s easy to dismiss an editor’s suggestions as opinion rather than fact, which means you might miss an opportunity to improve your craft.An editor can tell you what your writing quirks are (we all have them), but sometimes it’s more helpful to show you. At Beyond Paper, we like to usewriting macros to help writers see their writing quirks (show, don’t tell). These writing macros are easy enough for writers to use on their own, too. The screenshot below highlights● needless words (blue)
    ● ly words, or adverbs, which may indicate telling instead of showing (green)
    ● additional telling words, which may suggest that you need to do more showing (pink)Image 7Tip: Macros are easy to use! This 20-minute macro course will show you how to use the kind of macros that can help you to improve your writing.

Word-Level Edit (Proofread)

Proofreading is the last stage of editing, meant to catch anything that has slipped past copyediting. It’s a last look at your book in its final environment, after it’s typeset for print or formatted for e-reading. Keep in mind that proofreading addresses more than just typos—it also addresses formatting issues.

Here is what proofreading looks like on a manuscript that has been formatted for print:

Image 8

Proofreaders proofread books headed for print in software like Adobe XI. They use proofreading stamps—a kind of shorthand—to indicate changes that need to be made. A proofreading glossary can help you interpret some of the symbols.

You can proofread an ebook file, too, but that’s a topic for another time.

Tip: Consider some of the tools that editors use for proofreading. Writers and beta readers can use them, too.

Closing the Case

As you can see, there’s a lot going on in the background during an edit, and communicating corrections, changes, and suggestions to authors involves a dizzying array of mark-ups and comments. While proofreading tends to happen on its own at the end of the process, the remaining three editing levels can occur simultaneously.

If your manuscript comes back from your editor looking like a crime scene, don’t despair. Take a deep breath, carefully consider your editor’s comments and suggested changes, and you’ll be taking down that yellow tape in no time.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *