The Editing Timeline: A Step-by-Step Approach to A Perfect Manuscript

When you think about decorating a new living space, you probably imagine stripping the old wall paper, applying a fresh coat of paint, putting in a new carpet, adding furniture and window treatments, and investing in accents to bring it all to life. All these steps are distinct, equally crucial, and must happen in a certain order, before the space is ready for entertaining.

The same concept is true of editing a manuscript: there are many distinct and important steps to take, and — much in the same way you wouldn’t hang art before painting the walls — these steps need to happen in a particular order. If you are hiring someone to edit your manuscript, you’ll need to be aware of this order and be willing to follow it (something every good editor will suggest you do).

Also, it’s important to understand that not all editors do all the steps. Some might be great developmental editors, but don’t offer proofreading services. Others might be perfect for that in-depth line edit, but wouldn’t give you global feedback on structure.

So what are these different editing steps, in what order should they be implemented, and how do you know if your chosen editor can offer you what you need?

Developmental or Structural Editing

This is the first step in the editing process. Going back to the decorating metaphor, this is the part where the old decor is stripped away, accents are highlighted, and the initial blueprints are drawn. Nothing else is going to make sense until this foundation is laid.

What is a developmental edit?

Developmental (or structural) editing is concerned with big picture stuff: plot, character, pacing, tone, setting, etc. The editor will flag plot points that stretch credibility, highlight areas where pacing could be picked up or slowed down, ask questions about characters’ motivations, and/or request more solid place setting.

Who needs a developmental edit?

Everyone does. This kind of edit is imperative to every manuscript, no matter how many drafts have been written. You don’t need to have gaping holes in your plot to benefit from a developmental edit; every story can be made stronger and more compelling, no matter the starting point.

Why is the developmental edit the first step?

The developmental edit deals with the structure of the piece, the bones of the story, the heart of the narrative. To skip the developmental edit and move straight to line edits would be like putting brand new furniture in an old, unfinished room. Perhaps it’ll still look better than it did before, but it’s not going to be as good as it could be.

How to ask for a developmental edit?

Any good freelance editor is going to suggest starting with a developmental edit. Even if this is your fifth draft and you’ve had plenty of friends read over it, a developmental edit from a professional story builder is always good. If your editor offers a developmental or structural edit, definitely ask for one before you delve into line editing. Make sure to ask for a sample developmental note to make sure their tone and style of communication is compatible with yours.

Line or Copy Editing

Line editing (or copy editing) comprises the whole middle portion of the editing process. This is buying the furniture, curtains, artwork, matching color swatches and paint, choosing a carpet, the bulk of the cosmetic work. Because it’s so intense and covers so much, there might be a few rounds of line editing called for.

What is a line edit?

A line edit is exactly what it sounds like: it critiques the story line by line, looking for things like word choice, confusing or overly complex sentence structure, voice continuity, etc. The goal is to keep the reader immersed in the world, not getting distracted by awkward phrasing, confusing descriptions, or inconsistency. This is where the narrative comes to life.

Who needs a line edit?

Again, the answer is everyone. If you’ve been looking at a manuscript for a long time, you’re going to miss stuff. That’s just what happens, even to the most brilliant authors. But while some people might need a few pretty heavy rounds of line editing to smooth out the narrative, others might only require a single medium-to-light edit to polish it up.

Why is the line edit the next step?

Comprehensive edits move from the biggest issues like plot and character to smaller (but no less important) issues like narrative and word choice. Once an editor knows that the story structure is sound, they can focus on making sure that story is presented in the most effective and easily digestible way possible.

How to ask for a line edit?

Line editing (or copy editing) is probably the most prevalent form of freelance editing offered. You shouldn’t have any trouble finding a line editor to work with. While each line edit is unique to the individual narrative, it can be helpful to ask for a sample line edit to see what kind of work they do. Or, request they edit a few pages from your work in progress as a sample.

Proofreading or Light Copy Editing

Proofreading (sometimes called light copy editing) is the last step on the editing journey. This is the equivalent to adjusting throw pillows, vacuuming up any debris, turning on the lamps, and lighting the candles: those last finishing touches that make it look professional, polished, and inviting.

What is proofreading?

This is where the editor checks your grammar and punctuation, makes sure you are following a specific style guide. Factual accuracy, consistent spellings, and formatting can also be a part of this step. This is where editors get out the red pen and circle all those misplaced commas.

Who needs a proofread?

You can probably guess what I’m going to say. Everyone needs a proofread. This is nonnegotiable, no matter if it’s an email to a coworker or a 700-page novel. If you are hoping to get traditionally published, a good proofread can save your manuscript from the slush pile. If you are hoping to self-publish, it might be even more important: lack of proofreading is one of the hallmark issues with self-published work, and can separate the OK books from the great books.

Why is the proofread the final step?

Once we have addressed the structural and line edits, the only thing left is the small, technical stuff that proofreading covers. Trying to proofread a book with massive structural or narrative flaws is a useless endeavor and a waste of money, and foregoing a proofread will render even the most well-conceived story unimpressive and even frustrating to read.

How to ask for a proofread?

If your goal is to just get a proofread, you’re better off looking for freelancers who advertise as “proofreaders” as opposed to “editors.” Many editors who deal with developmental and narrative issues don’t offer proofreading services, just because it requires a different skill set. However, it doesn’t hurt to ask your chosen editor if they offer this!

What Does A Typical Step-By-Step Editing Process Look Like?

Let’s go over the ideal editing timeline for a freshly compiled manuscript in it’s second or third writer draft. How many steps are there really, and how long would each take?

Step 1: Initial Developmental Edit

Your editor gives you a global edit of your manuscript’s structure. Typical length of time for a freelance editor ranges from 1–3 months, and you get both a manuscript with comments and edits embedded and a 5–10 page overview note.

Step 2: Combination Developmental & Heavy Line Edit

After the developmental edits have been made, your editor will give you second edit that combines a light developmental edit (for anything that was missed or introduced in the redrafting process) and a heavy line edit. This will be the longest and most expensive step, ranging 2–4 months. You may or may not get an overview note for this, but your manuscript will be very heavily edited in line.

Step 3: Medium to Light Line Edit

Now most editors will enter the polishing stages, making sure it all reads smoothly after all other edits have been implemented. This step will probably not take more than a month or two, and you won’t get a note. Instead, it will be in-text edits only.

Step 4: Proofread

The proofreading step gives your manuscript that final, professional gloss. Cheaper than line or developmental edits on average, and finished in under a month, this will be the shortest and easiest step in the process. Once this step has been completed, line edits should stop being implemented.

As you can see, getting your book from unedited draft to final product can take quite a few months, even up to a year, depending on editing and revision speed. So make sure to budget your time accordingly, and get started sooner than you think you need to!

It can also be beneficial to find an editor who offers all or most steps in the process; working with someone who has been with your manuscript from the beginning and is familiar with previous drafts will be able to provide you with a more collaborative experience and a more cohesive final draft.


Are you interested in seeing what kind of edits your manuscript will need? Do you have a question about any of the steps in the editing process? Let’s chat! Contact me via my website or leave a comment below!

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