The Three Rounds of Book Editing (What They Do and How They Are Different)

copy editing and proofreading

The Three Rounds of Book Editing (What They Do and How They Are Different)

As a book editor for several decades, I’d like to explain the three main rounds of book editing.

As an aside, my focus has always been on the first two rounds, preferring to leave the third round to others whenever possible. I’ll explain why below!

Round 1: Developmental Editing

This is the stage where an editor helps an author shape a book.

As an editor, in this initial major round I consider ways to improve:

  • the choice of beginning sentences, paragraphs, pages: have we picked the right beginning to engage readers immediately?
  • characters: are they well-rounded and appealing to get to know?
  • the tightness, shape, and impact of scenes
  • issues of flow
  • the clarity of the story or information being communicated: is it clear, accurate, appealing?
  • questions of omission: are there elements that a reader would want or need that are missing?
  • repetition: is there the right balance of emphasis, without annoying repetition?
  • themes: are they strong and presented well?

There are many issues to address in the developmental round, and they are different for each author and each manuscript.

For a work as long as a book, an author often and easily loses perspective on major issues. Why? First, each author is not equally skilled and balanced in all aspects of writing a book; we all have our strengths and weaknesses.

Second, given the length and significance of a book, most authors work on it over a long period of time, doing many revisions. Let’s face it. An author suffers some degree of fatigue over the months or years of writing. He/she may no longer be able to recognize weak elements.

As often, an author loses track of which elements of the work are most appealing. As a developmental editor, I look for ways to identify the best stuff and to find ways to pull it forward, to make those elements more apparent and attractive to the reader. This can be done by adding a few words or lines to draw attention to something, to help anchor it in the reader’s mind. Other times, the opposite is needed: material needs to be cut away that is obscuring a major point.

In short, this round deals with issues of substance. How well do all the elements of the manuscript work? How will problems be fixed, strengths pulled forward, and the work improved in its totality?

Round 2: Copy Editing (aka Line Editing)

This is the middle round. It deals with issues at the paragraph, line, or word-choice level.

Here, I generally look for clarity, impact, and appeal of the writing, line-by-line. I tend to look for every opportunity to tighten; much of what I do is to cut and trim. Scenes can be constructed with fewer sentences and words in most manuscripts I encounter. Many phrases can be replaced by tighter versions that mean exactly the same thing.

While I prefer tight writing, I also look for variety, and encourage writers in select places to expand and elaborate. There is a place for outright celebration of glorious language, what Ursula K. Le Guin called “being gorgeous.”

A good manuscript has to do many things well in a balanced, artistic, fluid, varied way. As Joyce Carol Oates wrote, “Storytelling is shaped by two contrary, yet complementary, impulses – one toward brevity, compactness, artful omission; the other toward expansion, amplification, enrichment.”

I love the middle round of copy editing. I’m a hands-on, active editor, with a lot of attention to the nitty-gritty of good language use. The authors I work with appreciate my attention to this level of detail, rather than seeing it as overly intrusive.

I’ll note that I’ve edited passages by some very good writers, including Frank McCourt (author of Angela’s Ashes) and U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser; I suggested editorial changes (in short essays, in those specific cases) that they accepted quite willingly. This was part of my work for four years as Acquisitions Editor for The Writer Books, managing a line of books for writers connected with The Writer magazine. This is not just to brag (well, a little) but to point out that even the best authors can benefit from a good editor, someone able to read their work as an experienced professional, trained to look for possible improvements.

Round 3: Proofreading

This is the final stage of the editing rounds, and importantly must happen at the end. This is the final pass in which every element of proper grammar, spelling, word choice, and punctuation is reviewed, and any necessary correction is marked and fixed.

Proofreaders also check for consistency, documenting optional choices made in a manuscript, and insist on being consistent throughout.

A good proofreader might make a few suggestions of things that might technically be copy editing, areas where it’s not a matter of violating a rule but suggesting a possible improvement. But mostly, a proofreader is a meticulous, no-nonsense reader who knows the rules of grammar, punctuation, and spelling, and is vigilant in enforcing the act of correction. Perfection is the goal.

Proofreaders are a fussy clan. They swear by their style bibles of rules; for books this is typically the Chicago Manual of Style, a 1,000-page hardcover tome. This is the gold standard for books, while the Associated Press Stylebook is the standard for journalists.

Book professionals genuinely treasure CMS. As Booklist wrote: “Chicago’s granite-solid strength abides in the familiar guidance generations of editors and scholars have depended upon—how to treat punctuation, names, numbers, tables, quotations, dialogue, abbreviations, etc.”

Proofreading is the final round for a key reason: only after all revisions are finished can this detailed work be done comprehensively. If proofreading happens earlier, there is a strong danger that rewrites might introduce typos that are not caught or fixed.

This round is time-consuming and requires the ability to maintain a laser-focus on the proofreading issues. Many new writers may not know that it is very hard to proofread your own work. Why? For one thing, a writer can be distracted by ideas for revisions, and drift into rewriting. But more problematic is that there is something about the human brain that causes someone very familiar with a work to find it hard to notice a slight misspelling or a missing word. The brain seems to be able to fill in the missing part or ignore small errors without really drawing conscious attention to it.

For that reason, it is also hard for someone who has done extensive copy editing to proofread the same work.

It is possible, if difficult, to self-edit. One helpful trick is to let time elapse, to refresh the brain’s ability to see the words with fresh eyes. Or print out the work in hard copy and proof from that. Professionals know the change from electronic screen to paper allows a better proofreading.

As it is a technical job, proofreading can be done by someone not at all familiar with the work.

About Beta Readers

I sometimes get questions about beta readers. What are they and how can they help?

I’ll quote Wikipedia’s definition of a beta reader: “A beta reader is a test reader of an unreleased work, giving feedback with the angle of an average reader to the author about remaining issues. A beta reader is a non-professional reader, so that an uncolored opinion of an average reader can be obtained. Usually, a beta reader will be unpaid. The feedback is used by the writer to iron out remaining overall issues with plot, pacing and consistency. The beta read also serves as a target audience test to see whether the book has the intended emotional impact and feel.”

Wikipedia goes on to note that a beta reader may be able to offer some proofreading help. I’ll just note that beta readers may not provide a thorough reading at any of the three levels (developmental, copy editing, proofreading). It depends on their skills and the amount of time they are willing to offer. They may notice some things and miss others. So while you can certainly use them to give you ideas, just be aware that they may not be the best way to get complete or competent editing. But they can offer plenty of useful feedback!

Final Thoughts

Does every author need an outside professional editor? I would simply say that every author would benefit from one. How important that is depends on the gap between the quality of your final manuscript and the ultimate expectations of your readers.

If you are looking to hire professional services, you’ll want to find a provider with solid experience dealing with similar works and with evidence of success, whether in awards, sales, or happy clients. You might check a provider’s website for testimonials from clients, or ask for suggestions from writer friends.

I personally don’t do a sample edit; some providers offer that. I prefer to work with writers who recognize the quality and range of my long professional experience or who know my work through existing networks or referrals.

For more on my approach to fiction, I’ve written a couple of books, mostly recently How To Write Your Best Story (2nd Ed.). That’s a good way to get a sense of things I consider important to a well-written novel. I also edit nonfiction, with a preference for general-interest projects; I’m less interested in working on highly technical or specialized works (though I have, and can help pull those difficult manuscripts into a state of better readability).

My rates are on the low side, by the way, but I’m also very particular about clients, preferring to work with projects I like for one reason or another, often because of their positive nature, storytelling aspects, and potential to make the world a better place.

To find other professionals, I’d recommend starting with:

Editorial Freelancers Association

EFA members are “editors, writers, indexers, proofreaders, researchers, desktop publishers, translators, and others who offer a broad range of skills and specialties.” The Editorial Freelancers Association website provides great resources, including a chart of typical rates, a directory of members, and a free job-listing service.

I hope this long post was helpful in framing your thoughts about how to get your manuscript into great shape. To discuss engaging me for actual editorial services, just check out my About Me page, Testimonials and Awards, and Work Samples–Books. And then get in touch through the Contact page.

Best wishes for your literary success!


  1. Great article
    Philip is an excellent editor. And story teller! I am always excited to get his edits on my manuscript returned.

    I might add a lesson I learned which helps with cadence and rhythm of the story. It is a pain to do, and takes much time, but yields much. Read your manuscript outloud, to an empty room. Sure find errors and awkward sentences, etc.,

    1. Author

      You hit the nail on the head with the advice to read pages aloud! I always mention at writers’ workshops this is the one thing that is most likely to yield the best results. Guaranteed.

  2. Thanks for the great information. I, too, find benefit in reading stories aloud. Even better is to have an audience and watch when they get bored.

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