The editorial cycle: proofreading, copyediting, and understanding the different kinds of editing steps

In my first installment for How to Edit A Book I covered what proofreading is and how it works. I also mentioned how proofreading is often confused with copyediting.

Copyediting (also called copy editing or copy-editing, or ce for short) is the second last editing step in the process of book production. The editor who handles copyediting is called a copyeditor. After copyedits are complete, a book will be formatted for publication (the Advanced Review Copy), then it is sent to the proofreader for proofreading.

I will talk specifically about copyediting, what it is, and how it works, much like I did in for proofreading, however, before I can do that I should talk about where copyediting fits in the larger editorial cycle so that its objectives make sense.

The editorial cycle is the series of steps that occur from the time a manuscript first arrives (either to publisher or, for self-publishing authors, their editing team), to the time the final book is published and available to readers. It can be broken down as follows:

Stage 1

  • Editor 1 receives the manuscript and reads it, a process called an editorial assessment
  • Editor 1 delivers an editorial letter to the author, outlining all editorial issues (this is sometimes called a structural edit)
  • The author performs rewrites based on the editorial letter, usually on the level of adding/deleting/changing scenes, character, plot, sometimes even voice
  • The author delivers the manuscript back to editor 1
  • Editor 1 then goes over the manuscript again, this time marking the actual manuscript. Because we live in the digital age, this will usually consist of comment bubbles in Word, instructing on further rewrites (this is sometimes called a developmental edit)
  • Editor 1 sends the manuscript back to the author and the author performs rewrites based on the specific comments, usually on the level of adding/deleting/changing specific parts of scenes, finer nuances of character or dialogue or description or narration
  • The author delivers the manuscript back to editor 1 and then the editor may go through a second, third, fourth, etc. pass on outstanding areas where the rewrites still are not sufficient (but each pass / rewrite becomes quicker since it only addresses outstanding issues)

Stage 2

  • Editor 1 ensures all markings or comments left behind in track changes are removed and delivers the cleaned manuscript to a second editor (called the copyeditor)
  • The copyeditor performs a line-by-line copyedit. A copyedit involves fewer comment bubbles and more direct markings to the manuscript (achieved by keeping track changes on in Word), and is focused on grammar, punctuation, spelling, formatting, clarity, and logic
  • The copyeditor sends the manuscript back to the author and the author approves the corrections and/or supplies rewrites to sentences as needed. Sometimes they will have to rewrite sections to address outstanding logical errors
  • The author delivers the manuscript back to the copyeditor and, as with the end of stage 1, the copyeditor may follow up on the author’s rewrites, and the author address outstanding issues, until both parties are satisfied

Stage 3

  • The publisher (or author, if self-publishing) formats the manuscript into final ebook form (the ARC, or Advanced Review Copy). If an author / publisher is publishing in print format through a printing house (not the same as CreateSpace or other print on demand services) then the manuscript will also be typeset to format it for publishing. Both formatting for ebook and typesetting can introduce new errors; note that formatting for print book even on CreateSpace, IngramSpark or other POD services involves file manipulation and copy and paste maneuvers that can also introduce errors to the print book that were not in the eboook format
  • The publisher (or author) delivers the ARC to a third editor (distinct from the first two) for a proofread
  • The proofreader goes over the manuscript and checks for outstanding errors and makes note of them, then passes it back to the author/publisher for correction
  • Depending on the exact publication formats and launch steps (i.e. some author/publishers opt for a soft launch of ebook first, followed by a print book sometime later), the same proofreader, or a separate one, might go over the ARC of the final print copy before it is published. The point here: it’s never safe to assume because an ebook file has been proofread that there will be no errors in the printed book since they are created by different processes!

Some distinctions: line editing, substantive editing, content editing, and more

You might have heard the term line edit or content edit, or substantive edit. Depending on the publishing house, or the editor / editing team that’s using these terms, they can mean different things, so I’m going to clarify them because they don’t quite fit on the list above.

Line edit

One common misconception about copyediting is that it’s about cutting word count down. This is not true. This is the function of line editing, which is not the same as copyediting.

Line editing is all about cutting down words, simplifying, and laying it on heavy. Line by line (where its name comes from), the line editor goes over a manuscript and cuts and suggests alternatives. Usually, an author does their own line edit as a step before sending it to their publisher, or before starting the editing cycle. (Commonly, this is part of the industry formula second draft equals first draft minus 10%.)

Line editing has often become synonymous with copyediting because many smaller publishing houses refer to the “second step”, which covers copyediting and proofreading together as “line editing”. Usually, for smaller publishers, or authors who are working on a budget, if the process is reduced from three editors to two, the first editor will handle stage 1, but a second one, sometimes called the line editor, will handle stages 2 and 3. (That said, usually these publishers and/or authors will cover the proofreading step by having someone else go over the ARC before publication.)

Content or substantive editing

Content and substantive editing can refer to a broad spectrum of editing, and, like line editing, have been popularized to substitute as the structural / developmental steps of editing for smaller publishers, especially when both steps are combined into one revision.

Simply put, content and substance imply story and storytelling beyond simply grammar, spelling, etc. If an author asks for a content edit or a substantive, they are asking you to consider plot, character, scene and the writing itself and make suggestions, whereas if they ask for a line edit or copyedit, they are wanting the story to be left alone but to fine-tune the words.

However, I always recommend you clarify and use the correct terms since it’s important author expectations will be met in the work you do for them. Find out where in the editorial process you fit, what work has been done before you, what work will be done after, to make sure the work you’re doing is going to contribute to the production of a final book that is editorially sound.

The downward progression of the editorial cycle: avoiding circular revision

The crucial principle to understand in the progression of the editorial cycle is that it progresses downward from global to specific. Both editors and authors must follow this or else they will run into the problem of circular revision.

Circular revision is exactly what it sounds like, and if you’re a writer you will no doubt relate to this in your own revision process sans editor:

You make changes, then you have to change something later, but you then get to that spot and make more changes to make it even better, but that means changing something else, and guess what? Now that you’re there you have a BIG epiphany and it’s time to write a new beginning. But that means a new ending now, because that new beginning is great. Okay wait a minute, third person past tense? No, that just doesn’t work. Let’s go for first person, that will make it better. And on and on your go, and every time your friends ask if your book is done yet, you tell them to $&#@ off.

That’s frustrating to any writer personally, but it’s twice as frustrating to a publisher / editing team, and hence why we use the downward progression principle. The editorial letter deals with the broadest issues, and during the revision that follows, the author has the most freedom. Scenes can go. New ones can crop up. Characters can get the axe, and darlings will be slaughtered. Next, the developmental edit will zero in a bit more. At this point, unless instructed (or given approval in discussion during revision) the author will not be writing new scenes or changing plot or character. Now is the time to tighten the scenes up, fine-tune dialogue, etc., etc. Next, the copyedit will put everything through the laundry press. The author will labor over every sentence and word where it’s called into question. At this point, unless there is a logical problem, there is no rewriting scenes and changing the manuscript. Why? Because then the copyeditor has to copyedit that, and the process is going to become circular. Last, the proofread is the final polish. When the author is going over that, even deciding they don’t like a phrase or want to reword a sentence is a bad idea, and in fact most publishers forbid it, only allowing “erratum that are strictly errors”.

Many authors cringe at this and for an editor it can be difficult to deal with. It’s important before the editing cycle begins that authors are sure they are ready to go, following the axiom of Leonardo da Vinci in trusting that they have chosen the correct time to abandon that particular work of art and declare it finished. The author then enters a trusting relationship with the editors who will move their manuscript through the editing cycle, and, though they will go above and beyond and knock their revisions out of the park, it will always be according to instruction, or, where the path may deviate, discussion and collaboration.

The editing cycle is very much a team partnership, and the author is the hub on that wheel that turns manuscript into polished book.

Stay tuned for the next installment! I’ll be covering each of the editing steps, some in more than one article, and other fallout topics as they arise. If you have any questions of suggestion, please let me know!


About John Robin

John Robin is an epic fantasy writer, professional editor, and lover of imaginary worlds. He write stories about magic and myth, human suffering and the power to rise above it. He loves world building, coffee shops, mathematics, chess, and is an avid author community builder.
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