The 4 Stages of Editing a Book [Explained!]


Guest post by professional editor Jessica De Bruyn. @true_imaginary

A note from So You Want to Write...

"Write drunk, edit sober" —Peter De Vries

Nothing sobers up a writer quite like realizing that the brilliant prose you birthed the night before is in desperate need of polishing by the morning. 

Whether you have only an idea for a book, a few chapters written, or a fully formed first, second, or nth draft, one thing is certain: that more editing is probably in your future.

But what most new (and some experienced) writers don't understand is that there are 4 diverse types of edits:

  1. Big Picture Edits
  2. Paragraph-Level Edits
  3. Word-Level Edits, and
  4. Proofreading

Knowing the difference between each and when to use them can mean the difference between smooth rewriting and getting bogged down in endless edits.

Let's turn it over now to professional editor Jessica De Bruyn to outline the 4 types of edits.


Big Picture Edits

There are a few different names for this type of editing – developmental, structural, substantive and story editing all usually refer to this first stage of evaluation.

A substantive editor looks at building blocks of your story – the plot, characters, structure, style, themes, dialogue, pacing, etc. and attempts to break down all of the issues still within your manuscript while highlighting its best features.

A good substantive editor is not only going to be able to tell you what they do and don’t like about your piece but also will hopefully help you to problem solve, breaking down each element that needs further attention and making suggestions that will help to lead you to the right solution for each.

"A substantive editor looks at building blocks of your story."

Increasingly, many publishers and agents are looking for manuscripts that have already been in the hands of a substantive editor or expert readers. Ideally, authors will have already started working with these professionals to work out the major kinks that are inevitable in the first few drafts of writing.

Investing in this service will set you apart from many of the other manuscripts that find their way into those gatekeepers’ mailboxes.

Paragraph-Level Edits

Once you have the overall story elements worked out, the next stage will be to get a line (or stylistic) editor who can help you improve your sentence structure, fine tune the language and help to clean up any issues related to consistency, clarity and flow.

This is the first edit that will actually deal with exactly what you have written on the page and will adjust to fix errors or to make improvements.

Line editing ranges from light to heavy – depending on what the client is looking for. If you know that your language use and styling is very strong and are simply looking for someone to fix a few awkward sentences and look for inconsistencies and passages that might cause confusion, you will want a light line edit.

Those who were more concentrated on the larger story elements and have some rough patches in their writing might be interested in hiring an editor with a heavier hand.

"A great line editor can be your guide to presenting a book that is both enjoyable and sellable."

Your editor should give you a sample of their work before taking on a large editing project and you should mutually decide what level of editing is best for your work.

Anyone submitting to a major contest, self-publishing or who really want to set themselves above others when seeking a publisher or agent should consider investing in line editing.

A great line editor can be your guide to presenting a book that is both enjoyable and sellable.

Word-Level Edits

The third person to look over your manuscript is the copyeditor. There is so much nuance and changing rules of grammar within the English language and this expert’s job is to make sure there are no grammatical, spelling or syntax errors within your work.

If you’re publishing your book with a publishing house, they will also have preferences laid out in a house style guide. Copyeditors will make sure that your work follows all of these guidelines correctly.

"Those self-publishing should absolutely invest in a copyedit."

Those publishing with a publishing house will have their manuscript sent to a copyeditor at the cost of the publisher.

This is not a service that I would recommend investing in when there is still the possibility of future edits – as there likely will be after signing a publishing deal.

Those self-publishing should absolutely invest in a copyedit.


With tens of thousands of words within a book, it is natural that a few issues will slip through the cracks even with the best line and copyediting working on it.

A proofreader is the last line of defence in fixing any issues before the book gets sent off to the printer.  

"It is natural that a few issues will slip through the cracks."

They are also the person who will make sure all of the proper formatting markers have been placed on the book, so that it will look its best when printed or turned into an ebook.

Proofreading is another service that is provided by publishing houses. Again, this is something worth investing in if you are self-publishing.

Jessica De Bruyn leads our [How to Edit Your Book] online workshop and is our in-house editor here at So You Want to Write?

Photo by Pineapple Supply Co. on Unsplash

1 Response

Bryan Dawe
Bryan Dawe

July 19, 2020

I’ll admit I had these wrong.
1. Open a vein
2. Decide for expediency to open an artery instead
3. Shove a pencil in your eye
4. Call a friend

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