The Different Types of Editing – and How to Tackle Them

It's time to edit your novel – but what does that even mean? Here's our guide to the various types of edit a manuscript needs to go through, and some tips to help you achieve them.

8 minutes read

Whether you love it or hate it, editing is an essential part of the process of writing a novel. But what do we actually mean by editing, and how best to go about it?

There are three main types of editing you should consider before sending off your manuscript:

The Structural Edit(s) (Let’s face it, this one’s usually plural)

So you have a finished draft. Maybe it’s a messy draft zero and you’re just happy you’ve got the bones down, or maybe you’ve been polishing as you go. Now it’s time to do your first edit – the big picture edit, where you take in the novel as a whole and work out how well everything is hanging together.

Structural editing is also sometimes known as developmental editing, and you might be embarking on one with notes from beta readers, your agent or your editor to incorporate as well. It’s also an incredibly daunting task, because trying to keep that big picture in mind when you have hundreds of pages to work through requires some mental gymnastics.

You may have some substantial edits to make: a POV character to remove or add, a plotline to change entirely. Or you might be happy with that overall big picture, but now there are aspects to tease out and develop fully.

Some writers find it easiest to do separate passes of the manuscript for each major element of their edit – plot, character, pace etc. So you’d do a first readthrough looking specifically at the plot – is it compelling, is it progressing logically, are there inconsistencies, does everything get resolved in a satisfying way… and so on. When you’re happy everything’s working there, you’d take another pass, this time looking at your characters – are they developing over the course of the novel, is the cast too big/small, does each character feel like a real person who’s earning their page time? Do you need more backstory? Less?

Depending on the way you work, that might feel like more or less effort than tackling it all in one edit, which lots of writers also do. Or you might find a halfway approach works best for you – one big edit trying to cover all bases, followed by a smaller one taking a second pass at e.g. the main character’s arc, if that was the aspect you felt needed the most work.

Some tricks:

– Having a print-out can make this task a lot easier when it comes to flicking back and forth, scrawling notes, underlining, highlighting etc. I know some writers even get a copy spiral-bound at their local print shop instead of working with a stack of loose pages.

– If that’s how you like to work too, then Post-Its are your friend. You can colour-code in a system that suits you: if there’s a particular plotline or character you want to change, you can use one colour for that so it’s easy to see in the manuscript where all the relevant chapters are.

– If you’re less into the analogue approach, programmes like Scrivener have functions that allow you to colour-code chapters, drag sections around etc.

– Spreadsheet fans: your hour cometh. Make a row for each chapter, with your first column as the chapter number, the second a brief summary of what happens in each. If you’ve realised the biggest issues in the draft are, say, one character’s arc and the pacing, make a column for each of those and add notes to each of the chapters that need work doing to them in that respect. You could add a ‘General’ column for miscellaneous notes about other chapters. Finally, be sure to add a column at the end with the title: ‘Done?’ so that you can have the satisfaction of ticking each one off. If you’re a bit of an Excel/Sheets pro, you could even add some conditional formatting so that the row turns a fun colour when you do…

– Prefer planning by hand but don’t have space for a whiteboard? Whiteboard paper is my gift to you. Flatten a big cardboard box and stick the whiteboard paper to it – now you have a whiteboard you can fold up and store easily.

Line Editing and the Copy-edit

These are very similar, and if you’re editing your manuscript yourself in preparation for submission, you might well combine them together. If you’re a published author, you may find your editor does a line edit with you before passing you to an in-house or freelance copy-editor for the copy-edit.

Essentially, line editing is looking at your manuscript for the quality of the prose itself, now that all the mechanics of the story have been smoothed out. This can mean various things: looking for places where the prose is clunky or unclear, identifying phrases and images that you repeat or overuse, finding dialogue that doesn’t ring true, looking for inconsistencies in voice and tone. This is a really important stage for you to undertake with your own work – be really strict with yourself about not letting those sentences that you’re not so keen on slide.

A copy-editor will look for most of those things too, but they’re also a sort of factchecker of fiction – they’ll be on the hunt for timeline issues, for anachronisms, for impossibilities and implausibilities (characters catching trains on routes that don’t exist and trees in blossom in the wrong season are two things I’ve had copy-editors pull me up on before, for example). Worldbuilding is an important consideration here, making sure that the internal logic of your novel’s world – whether it’s close to ours or entirely fantastical – is consistent, and that you don’t have characters doing something on p. 12 that contradicts something you say on p. 200.

Some tricks:

– Try working through the manuscript with a highlighter in hand, marking anything that you’re not happy with – but without trying to fix it there and then. You may find yourself being more honest about lines that aren’t as strong as they could be if you’re not also trying to immediately write a better one.

– Some writers will find it helpful to read aloud at this point. It’s a big task to do this with an entire manuscript – you’ll have a tired voice and possibly some confused neighbours by the end of it – but it’s a great way to pick up those turns of phrase or lines of dialogue that fall flat, and to catch unwanted repetition. There are various software programmes that will also read your manuscript back to you.

– Know your habits. Every writer has their fallback words and phrases, and sometimes they change with each draft (when copy-editing The July Girls, it felt like on almost every page I had referred to characters looking, gazing, meeting each other’s eye, rolling their eyes… it was a problem). Identify yours – words like ‘just’, ‘only’, and characters nodding and sighing/gasping are common ones – and weed them out ruthlessly.

– Less is more with any kind of line editing (and with proofreading, below) – if you can, aim to do a set number of pages, say ten, each session, and then go and do something else. It’s much easier to edit with a critical eye when you’re feeling fresh – the longer you work on the manuscript in a session, the more likely it is you’ll start missing things or thinking that it’s not perfect, but it’ll do…

The Proofread

This is the type of work that many people unfamiliar with the writing process think we mean when we say editing: looking for typos and grammatical errors. It’s your final pass, basically, before the manuscript goes off to agents or before it’s published.

An important thing to be aware of here is that the two previous stages will likely have introduced errors all of their own, so even if you think things were looking pretty clean before, it’s still worth doing a really thorough comb-through.

Some tricks:

– Work backwards. By now, you’ve probably read the book several times, as well as having written it in the first place, so the words are very familiar to you. Try taking a chapter at a time, starting with the last one and working backwards, so that you don’t lose yourself in the familiar rhythm of the story and can simply focus on scanning the prose for mistakes. Your first chapters will almost always be more polished than your last, so this is a good way to balance that out, too.

– If you’re working on a screen, now’s a good time to change the font as a small but effective way to shake things up for your brain and help you see the words anew.

– Even if you’re a fan of reading aloud in earlier edits, you might find it less useful here – with familiar material, your brain is pretty good at filling in gaps, correcting muddled words and skimming over homophones. The reading software mentioned earlier will be better for this, but again, it won’t catch homophones or misplaced punctuation.

Most importantly of all, enjoy it. For all the times editing can feel like an impossible mountain to climb, it’s also a deeply satisfying process. With each draft, you are making your novel better, giving it its best chance at success – plus you get to experience the greatest thing about an edit: finishing it.

Nicci Cloke is the author of seven novels, most recently The July Girls (written as Phoebe Locke). She is Faber Academy’s Communications Executive and runs our manuscript assessment and mentoring programmes. Follow her on Twitter: @phoebe_locke

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