The Editing Process: A Guide for Self-Publishing Fiction Authors

I love editing, there’s no doubt about it. I also love educating, especially on topics I’m passionate about, so if I get to educate others on editing, it’s an added bonus. With this in mind, I’ve created a guide for self-publishing fiction authors that explains the ins and outs of the editing process. Covered topics include types of editing, costs, and finding an editor. If you’d like to download this guide in the format of a free PDF booklet, just click on the icon at the end of this post. Otherwise, let’s learn about editing, shall we?

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For some authors, the idea of having their story edited by someone else can lead to anxiety or fear. After all, who wants to have something so personal and meaningful torn apart by a stranger? When done correctly, the editing process is done collaboratively between author and editor, not with the editor looming over the author with the dreaded red pen.

Whether you’re a seasoned author or are thinking of self-publishing your first book, this guide will walk you through the editing process.

Types of editing

You may have heard the terms editing, copy editing, content editing, or proofreading used to describe the process of “fixing” a manuscript. Day to day, these terms are often used interchangeably, when in fact there are distinct differences between the various types of editing. The following list is not exhaustive of every type of editing that exists, but it covers the three most common types you’ll want to consider as a self-publishing author.

Developmental editing, also called content editing or substantive editing, looks at the writing as a whole to make sure your story is up to snuff (or better than snuff, if that’s a thing). Are there major plot holes? Poorly developed characters? Inconsistencies in timeline? The goal is to bring attention to what’s working and what needs further adjustments to make the story sing. This process usually comes first so that you can work on the broader elements and nail down the story before moving on to the next type of editing.

Copy editing elevates writing by polishing it and making it the best it can be. A copy editor will make corrections to issues with:

  • Grammar

  • Spelling

  • Punctuation

  • Dialogue

  • Repetitive or misused words

  • Verb tense

  • Point of view

They will also suggest sentence rewrites if something is confusing. Copy editors dig deep into the writing to make it more readable. Even though a reader is there for the story, they may put down an otherwise compelling book if it’s riddled with grammatical mistakes and misspelled words they just aren’t able to see past.

Proofreading comes last in the editing process. Once a manuscript has been through developmental and copy editing, the proofreader performs a final eagle-eyed sweep to catch those last-minute typos, grammar errors, or layout inconsistencies that would have otherwise made it through to the published product.

Do I have to have every type of editing? Any at all?

The short answer is no. Some authors choose to have every type of editing, some choose not to have any, and others find a middle ground. As an author choosing to self-publish, your story can go directly from your hand to a reader’s with no editing whatsoever. The question is whether you’re confident in the quality of the work you’ve produced.

A note on self-editing:

Authors may choose to self-edit their writing. For the majority of us, there’s a reason why it’s so difficult to self-edit. We see what we expect to see when we read our own writing. We may overlook things like typos, incorrect word usage (writing “their” instead of “there”), or a missing word, to name few. (See what I did there? I left out the “a” in “to name a few.” If I’d done it accidentally, I could’ve easily missed it if I’d just skimmed through it quickly.)

There are editing tools out there, such as Grammarly and ProWritingAid, which are software programs designed to help writers edit their own work. These can be great ways to catch errors, but they are not substitutes for trained professionals.

Even though editing is not required, I definitely recommend going through each step in the editing process, especially if you’re a first-time author. Not only will each type of editing improve your current manuscript, it will also provide you with valuable insight into your writing strengths and areas of growth. This will inevitably help with your future writing.  

How do I know what type of editing I need?

The types of editing listed above can guide you in determining which type of editing your manuscript needs. If you’re still working through the story, a developmental edit would be best. If you’ve gone through the developmental edit or feel confident that your story is the best it can be, copy editing would likely be the next step. If you know your writing skills are impeccable and would like a professional to ensure nothing’s been missed, hire a proofreader. Your manuscript should improve after undergoing each type of editing. If you’re unsure of what type you need, just ask! We’re people, too.

How do I find the best editor?

As with many things, how you define “best” is subjective. In the case of editing, it’s not always about finding the person with the most impressive experience, education, or test-taking skills. It’s about finding the person who will best fit your needs. The following factors will play a part in deciding who to choose:

  • Type of editing – Some editors specialize in a specific type of editing. Others do all of them. For example, I’m a copy editor and proofreader. If you were in need of a developmental editor, I’d kindly point you in a different direction so you can get what you’re looking for.

  • Genre of fiction – As with the different types of editing, editors may specialize in specific genres of fiction (romance, mystery, fantasy, etc.) or may edit any genre. If you have a story that’s highly technical, it may be best to seek out a specialist in your particular genre.

  • Availability – If you need your manuscript edited next week, and the editor you approach is booked for the next six months, it doesn’t matter how good they are if they’re unavailable.

  • Cost and value – Cost should be a consideration when looking for an editor, but it shouldn’t be the only one. Sure, if the editor is going to charge you five times the amount you have budgeted, you probably have to move on. What should be considered along with cost is the value the editor brings. See below for more details about the costs of editing.

  • Approach – Send your manuscript to five different editors, and all of them will approach it differently. Some changes would (hopefully) be universal, such as inserting a missing apostrophe, but editing can be very subjective. All five may rewrite the same sentence in different ways. Some might ask questions for clarification before making changes, while others might assume the answers and go for it. Asking for a sample edit is a great way to see an editor’s approach before hiring them. Some may offer this for free or for a small fee.

  • Personality – At the end of the day, you’re paying for an editor to improve your manuscript, so you may not care how the editor interacts with you as long as they get the job done. Others weigh the working relationship as importantly as the edits themselves. You may not care for an editor’s communication style, or maybe you feel they’re too harsh in their critique. Whatever the reason, personality may play a role in finding the best fit.

There are no universal qualifications to become an editor. Some editors have professional experience working for traditional publishing houses. Some have a degree in English, writing, or a related field, while others have little professional experience or education but are self-taught and continue to learn. Editors can also choose to join a professional organization, such as the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) in the US or the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) in the UK.

If you do a Google search for “fiction editing services,” there are 57,300,000 results, at the time of this post. Needless to say, there’s an overwhelming amount of editors to choose from. Again, it’s not about finding the best editor out there but deciding what’s important to you and using those criteria to narrow your search.

How much does editing cost?

There are no set rates for editing, and they are usually calculated per hour of editing time or per word.

The EFA’s Editorial Rates chart estimates the following hourly rates:

Type of Editing / Range of Fees Per Hour

Developmental editing / $45 to $55

Basic copy editing / $30 to $40

Heavy copy editing / $40 to $50

Proofreading / $30 to $35

 Reedsy’s article on self-publishing costs estimates the following rates based on word count:

Type of Editing / Cost per word (Total for an 80,000-word manuscript)

Developmental editing / .024 ($1,920)

Copy editing / .017 ($1,360)

Proofreading / .01 ($800)

You’ll find that some editors charge significantly more, significantly less, or right in the middle. Each editor determines their own rates. In addition to word count and type of editing, other considerations include the amount of work involved (manuscripts are often at different stages of readiness for publishing), turnaround time, number of rounds the editor will do, and whether the work is highly technical or involves extensive fact-checking. All of these may increase the cost of the edit. This is why an editor often asks to see the manuscript in its entirety, or at least a representative sample, prior to quoting the cost.

The most expensive editor may not be the best one, and the least expensive may not be the worst. It may be tempting to go with the cheapest option to save money, but it may end up costing more in the long run. You might have heard stories where an author chose the cheapest editor, only to have their manuscript returned with very little modification or feedback (not because it wasn’t warranted though). Now, they have to spend more money on someone who can do the job properly, so the decision to go off of price alone ends up costing them more than they would’ve spent on hiring the best fit. Consider editing as an investment into the success of your novel and the quality of your writing.

What methods would an editor use to edit my manuscript?

The most common method in which an editor will edit your manuscript, if submitted electronically, is to use the Track Changes feature in Microsoft Word. If you’re unfamiliar with how this feature works, here’s a guide by Blake Atwood. The beauty of Track Changes is that you have the final say on accepting or deleting the changes. Keep in mind that an editor makes a change or comment for a reason, though, so if you don’t understand why they did, ask them.

Summing up

The editing process may seem complicated, but it doesn’t have to be scary. Hiring a professional to edit your manuscript can increase the quality of the story and writing. There are many factors to consider, such as the type of editing needed, what’s important to you as the author, and the value for the price. While a well-edited book doesn’t guarantee a commercial success, it does mean that the reader will focus on your story rather than on the errors they may find along the way.

Click to download the free PDF booklet!

Click to download the free PDF booklet!