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What Are the Different
Types of Fiction Editing?

First of all … congratulations!

If you’re reading this the chances are you’ve finished the first draft of your novel and are looking at ways to polish and refine it to the point where you have the confidence to send it to an agent or take the self-publishing route.

This article will provide all the help and advice you need on the different levels of editing to make the right decisions for you and your book.

Before reading on, though, just take a moment to give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back.

Many people say they have a novel in them, far fewer actually make a start on writing one and even fewer have the stamina and perseverance to finish the first draft.

To have created a unique world populated by your characters doing things you have thought of is a hugely impressive and satisfying achievement.

Having put so much time and effort into producing your manuscript it makes sense to give your book the best possible chance of success.

And that’s where editing comes in…

You’ll notice that I said editing and not editors. There are a number of stages to the editing process; each one is key to the overall success of your novel and needs to be focussed on in isolation and in the correct order. While many writers turn to professional editors for help, it may be that you feel confident to tackle some – or all – of the processes yourself.

I’ll give you an insight into what each stage of the editing process involves to help you decide which areas you need help with, so that you’re only spending money when it’s necessary.

It’s also important to be aware that some editors may just specialise in one or two areas.

By fully understanding how the process works, you’ll be able to ensure you approach the editor who best meets your requirements.


Just like Homes Under The Hammer...

If you’ve ever taken a coffee break in the company of Martin Roberts and the team on BBC1, you’ll know it’s vital to get everything in the right order when it comes to renovating a home.

Major structural work like building an extension or knocking down walls comes first, followed by rewiring, plastering, decorating, carpets and curtains.

Getting any of the order wrong is likely to be very expensive in terms of wasted time and money – your beautiful new carpets might not look too great once the plasterer has finished…

So it is with editing your novel. Essentially the further you go in the process, the more the emphasis shifts from large structural changes to more polishing and refining. While the early stages might seem more dramatic than the later ones, all are vital when it comes to producing something that will engross your readers.

What are macro- and micro-editing?

A good way to look at the editing process is to regard it as two distinct levels – macro and micro.

The macro level looks at your novel as a whole – at the big decisions you’ve taken on plot, theme, characterisation, viewpoint, pace and so on.

Once you’re clear about the story you’re telling and the characters you’re telling it about, micro editing ensures that the world you’ve created in your imagination transfers seamlessly to the page.

Any problems with the timeline, factual errors, inconsistent character descriptions as well as those old favourites of spelling, grammar and punctuation can distract readers and wrench them out of the world you’ve spent so long crafting.

Let's first take a look at the different types of editing that go on at the macro level:


What is development editing?

Development editing (also known as structural editing, content editing or substantive editing) is where you sort out the nuts and bolts of your novel.

You’re aiming for a reader to be counting down the hours to when they can get back to your novel - and getting the big-picture issues right is crucial in this regard.

Issues that will be addressed by a development edit include:


  • Have you created a compelling plot that complements your main theme?

  • Have you produced powerful, well-rounded characters that readers will care about?

  • Is it best to tell the story in a straightforward linear way or by flashing backwards and forwards in time?

  • Whose viewpoint(s) are you going to tell the story from?


As you can see, the development editor focusses on the major issues. It doesn’t matter at this stage if Jim is going to attack Steve with a sledgehammer or a crowbar. What matters is why Jim wants to attack Steve in the first place.

Development editors will usually go through your manuscript in a Word document using comment boxes to highlight particular issues and suggest how they could be resolved.

What is a manuscript critique?

Some writers may find this a more affordable method of macro editing. Unlike a development edit, the manuscript critique will not involve any comments in the manuscript file. Instead, the editor provides you with a report outlining the issues that need attention, highlighting them with examples from your book.

While this does not provide the level of detail of a development edit, it can be a cost-effective way of getting to grips with the big issues.

We'll now take a look at editing at the micro level:

To return to our Homes Under The Hammer analogy, imagine the frustration of having built a fabulous kitchen extension, only to find the flooring doesn’t quite make it to the walls. And the doors leading out to the patio stick a little. And the light in the fridge doesn’t come until you’re nearly ready to close the door again.

The micro level looks at small-scale issues that have the potential to cause big problems.

  • Does someone with blue eyes on page 17 suddenly find that they’ve turned brown on page 242?

  • Does Katherine mysteriously become Kathryn on a couple of occasions?

  • Does your hero appear in central London at 12 noon and then pop up in a Manchester suburb at 1pm?

To the author who has lived and breathed their book for months and years, these discrepancies are easy to miss – and that’s why the micro level is crucial to ensuring readers can enjoy your work without distractions.

Anything that puts a barrier between your world and your reader needs to be sent packing – and this is where it happens.


What is copy-editing?

Copy-editing complements the following stage, line-editing; like many editors, I offer a combined service to cover both.

While each sentence and paragraph you write might appear fine in isolation, problems may become apparent when they are viewed in the context of the entire book. These could include:

  • Most sentences are of a similar length and structure.

  • Certain descriptive phrases are overused.

  • There are too many unnecessary words that slow the pace and dilute the tension.

  • Some of the dialogue feels samey and fails to distinguish between the different characters.

  • Punctuation is overused and risks distracting the reader.


Important as all this is, there’s another crucial role that copyediting performs: it brings consistency to your novel.

Most editors use stylesheets to keep track of various aspects of your novel, including -ise or -ize ending, spelling of proper nouns (the Katherine/Kathryn issue from before), hyphenation, capitalisation, character descriptions and so on.


What is line-editing?

Compared with the huge challenge of writing an enthralling novel that will leave readers unable to turn out the bedside lamp until they have finished it, a few missing commas here and there might seem quite trivial.

It’s vital, though, never to underestimate the power of a comma – as Nigel would confirm in the examples below:

‘Are you ready to eat Nigel?’

‘Are you ready to eat, Nigel?’


Issues such as punctuation, grammar and spelling aren’t just things that pedants use to give themselves a feeling of superiority. They can be vital in getting across the author’s meaning clearly and concisely.

Even if readers are able to tell what’s going on despite errors in these areas, they may soon find themselves thinking as much about the mistakes as the story you’re telling.

On the other hand, too much punctuation can slow a piece of text down and reduce the tension at just the wrong moment. A crucial part of line editing is to achieve a level of punctuation of which Goldilocks would approve – just right.


What is proofreading?

Moving away from our earlier dalliance with Homes Under The Hammer, we now find ourselves watching Match of the Day. Even if the manager of your team has picked the right players and tactics, there’ll be times, human nature being what it is, when things go wrong; the opposition break clear and the only thing in their way is your goalkeeper – the last line of defence.

And so it is with proofreading. Perfection is an elusive quality and authors and editors are only human. No matter how well the previous editing stages have gone, some errors are likely to have crept through.

These could again include problems with spelling, grammar and punctuation, typos, inconsistency with capitalisation, or issues with the layout.

More than a final polish, the proofreading stage is your last chance to ensure that your readers see your fictional world as you want them to.


Levels of editing: conclusion

In one of British television’s classic comedy moments, Eric Morecambe told the renowned conductor Andre Previn that: “I’m playing all the right notes … but not necessarily in the right order.”

And getting the order right is as important in the world of editing as in that of classical music.

There’s no point carrying out a thorough proofread before the development edit as many of the amends you’ve made could disappear in any subsequent restructuring of the novel.

Likewise, trying to carry out all the stages simultaneously is also likely to end badly.


Resolving problems with the protagonist’s character arc can be challenging enough when fully focussed on it.

Attempting to do so while simultaneously looking out for missing indicative commas is definitely not recommended.

As is often the case in life, trying to do two jobs at once is likely to mean that neither gets done properly.

Working your way steadily through the editing process and giving each stage your full, undivided attention may take a little extra time – but the results will be worth it and make it more likely that your readers will be waiting impatiently for you to write the sequel

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