Professional Book Editing: Lots More than a Grammar Check

If you are an author seeking professional book editing, you need to know there are several kinds of editing to choose from. If you’re confident that your content is well-organized and beautifully written (and if your assumption is correct), all you need is a copy edit: essentially, a grammar and punctuation check. Some people call this a proofread.

Different Kinds of Book Edits

But if grammar and punctuation are not your only areas of concern–and this is the situation for most authors–then before the copy edit, you will need a substantive edit (sometimes called by authors a developmental edit). This aspect of professional book editing focuses on the “substance” or content of the book.

For nonfiction manuscripts, a substantive edit addresses such issues as:

* Is the book title the best it can be?
* Is the manuscript well-organized, with the chapters in logical order?
* Are the chapter titles effective, drawing the reader in?
* Does the content correspond to the chapter titles, or does it overlap or meander into unrelated areas?
* Do new chapters need added? Do chapters need divided?
* Is there undue repetition within chapters or between chapters?
* Are the ideas presented clearly and effectively?
* Are new terms adequately defined? Is a glossary needed?
* Is the tone consistent, and appropriate to the content? Does the writing sound pompous, obscure, rambling, or preachy?
* Is there too much use of “you” or “I”?
… and much more besides.

In the case of a novel, the issues are different:

* Are there plot holes (story inconsistencies)?
* Are there time, distance,  or space discrepancies?
* Does point of view get muddled? Does tense get confused?
* Do the characters arc? Are they interesting or stereotypes?
* Is the dialog realistic or wooden? Are there natural breaks in the speech, or do characters talk in monologues?
* Is the exposition artfully handled, or too obvious?
* Is the plot well-structured? Does the story meander or stay on course?
* Are there pacing problems? Does the tension lag in spots?
* Is there an essential dilemma? A question we must read to the end of story to answer?
* Do the subplots support the plot? Are all story threads completed and integrated by the end?
* Are there set-ups the author forgot to pay off (unclosed plot loops)?
* Does the description have a life of its own, or is it relevant (existing to support the story)?
* Are there cliches that need eliminated?
… and so on.

A substantive edit not only detects issues and flaws like the examples on these two lists; it also offers solutions, that the author can choose to incorporate (or not) into the text. The decision whether to apply a suggested edit always rests with the author.

What to Expect from a Copy Edit

If your book has been through the substantive editing phase, it’s ready for the copy edit. In most cases, the copy edit proceeds quickly (often five or ten times as fast as the substantive edit), so it usually entails a fraction of the cost of a substantive edit. The exception is when the grammar and punctuation are in really bad shape.

Native English speakers have an ear for correct grammar, at least with most word constructions, and a fairly good sense of how to punctuate. The writers who tend to have difficulty with grammar and punctuation are those for whom English is a second language. For authors not writing in their native tongue, the copy edit can be an expensive affair, since the editing often has to proceed even more slowly than it does during most substantive edits.

I advise authors who are in this position to have a native English speaker (who is not a professional editor) look over their manuscript and make grammar corrections before the author submits the manuscript for professional book editing. It will cost a lot less in the long run to pay a non-professional to fix obvious grammar mistakes before a professional editor is brought on board. I advise this only for non-native speakers who feel their English skills are weak. For everyone else, if an adequate substantive edit has been performed and all content issues have been addressed, the copy edit proceeds very quickly and is relatively inexpensive.

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Jessi Rita Hoffman … book editing by an industry professional