The three phases of editing...explained
I have a superpower, one I picked up without noticing along my editing journey. And by golly, if you want to be a writer, and especially if you want to get published, you certainly need this superpower, too!
So what's this superpower then? Well, it's simply knowing what happens during the editing process - what each stage actually does, in what sequence they happen, and why you need them to start with. Knowing this can supercharge your writing into a formula one race car, or a model S Tesla for the more environmentally minded. It will demystify the entire process, and hopefully prepare you for the onslaught.
And, as Great Aunt Peggy always said, knowledge is power.
Okay, so broadly speaking, a manuscript will undergo three distinct phases during the editing process. Remember these are broad strokes. Some publishers have more, but every single manuscript will go through each of these, especially if you're traditionally published. And if you're not, then it's time you implemented a similar process with your own manuscripts, too.
[Big breath, drum roll, expectant anticipation.]
Those phases are: a structural edit; a line or copy edit; and a proof read.
So, let's look at each of these to see what happens and why.
Phase One: A Structural Edit
This is all about the story.
It's where an editor (like me) will read your story and very helpfully pick up all the inconsistencies. They'll ask questions, comment, and usually make suggestions for improvement. Think of them as a "super reader"; someone who will see through all those plot holes and unanswered questions you've been trying to hide. Because that's their job.
In other words, what can happen is your story gets pulled apart, bit by bit, and will come back to you full of comments, questions, and lots of red marks all over it. [See my other article for a practical example of structural editing in a nutshell.]
Most authors hate this part of editing. They hate, hate, hate it. They view the whole thing as an assassination of their story. They cry. They weep. They become extremely angry and highly protective of their precious words. Author/Editor relationships have crashed and burned as a result. But being prepared for what will actually happen, and being open to allowing another view on your story might help mitigate all of the above.
So, has this ever happened to me? Has my story been returned with comments and corrections all over it? Of course it has.
I was ecstatic when my short story gained a place into the Spicy Bites: Masks anthology. However, I was off the coast of Iceland, heading towards the artic circle, when I received an email from the anthology's structural editor. And what I read brought me to my knees. You see, I had this lengthy scene where my heroine and hero danced (rather sexily) to the words of a Blondie song. It was important to the overall story. It was full of innuendo and emotion and made your heart sing with anticipation (or so I thought). So, when I was told the whole scene had to be rewritten because I didn't have permission to use the words of Blondie's song, I wanted to cry. There I was, in the middle of nowhere, completely gutted, wondering what I could do. How on earth I was going to get this fixed and returned by the deadline?
So, what did I do? I rewrote the scene, something the entire boat encouraged and were fascinated by I'm telling you! :) Anyway, I used all the emotion, all the feel-goods I managed to incorporate into the original scene and removed any mention of the song. It took me longer to rewrite this one scene than to write the story in the first place. (And that had nothing to do with all the questions and queries I got from my fellow passengers. Honest.) Nevertheless, I do believe the story is much better for that change.
So, let me assure you, a structural edit is a vital step towards getting your story ready for publication. It's important. It takes your story from being good and makes it excellent. It changes it from being an unpublished manuscript into a fully-fledged publishable-standard one. It makes it logical, believable, and should enhance and improve your story completely.
But it's probably the hardest, most frustrating part of the entire editing process. And it's my jam; my most favourite part of being an editor - because I'm helping your story become the best it can be.
Phase Two: A Line or Copy Edit
This is about the detail - minute, nitty gritty detail.
It's where an editor goes line by line, making sure all your t's are crossed and all your i's are dotted. Well, actually, what they do is ensure your story is grammatically correct, has commas where they should be and none where they're not. That missing full stops or words are corrected. It's where every little thing is picked up and changed.
It'll most likely to be a different person who does this; it uses slightly different skills than a structural edit does, and this editor is usually picked because they are much more detailed minded. This is especially the case if you're traditionally published. But seeing as I'm a super editor, I usually do both a structural and line edit all at the same time. Can't seem to help myself. (Perhaps I should offer a two-for-one deal when negotiating my editing fee?)
Surprisingly, most authors like this part of the process. They're usually happy with whatever the line or copy editor suggests. Sometimes, it's because they're already over the whole editing process - they've just been through the potentially mind-blowingly awful structural edit stage after all. But quality always trumps quantity in my book. Every. Single. Time. So, a line edit is essential. Because you don't want to put out a book with errors, do you?
Phase Three: A Proof Read
This is about producing a quality product. It's always done last.
It's a final check to ensure everything is looking good. It's a final read through, usually by someone very detailed minded; someone who can pick up small, hardly noticeable errors. It's the last thing you do (or your publisher does) before they hit that big red button that says 'submit', or 'publish', or whatever. It's vital. Important. And not to be taken lightly.
A proof read comes from the days when publishing was a long and intricate process. Where specialist technicians set up the font and type manually for each and every print run. They always ran one "proof" sheet off the presses and gave it to an annoyingly picky, detailed editor, who would then go through every word, every sentence, looking for faults. This was always done before the go ahead to print thousands of copies was given. And, if any errors were found, those poor technicians had to redo the print set up, again manually, so a comma could be inserted or deleted. Aren't you glad we've moved on from those times?
Now I know every author strives to achieve a quality product, regardless of who's doing the actual book publication. Consistently producing a ripping yarn, a must-finish-this-chapter story (something that's entirely in your hands), and without errors (something you work with editors to achieve) is what will bring readers back to you. It's how you grow your audience, and make your name as an author.
So, why would you ever skimp, or even ignore, this last step? You wouldn't.