Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Edit Like A Pro!

by Dina Sleiman

For the last two years I’ve had the wonderful pleasure of working as an acquisitions and content editor for WhiteFire publishing. So I thought I’d pass on a little of what I’ve learned to the aspiring authors in our audience. Publishing companies take manuscripts through a series of edits in a strategic fashion from macro editing to fussing over every last comma and period. By following the roadmap that publishers use, you too can learn to edit like a pro, producing a quality manuscript while saving time and effort along the way.

I know in my case, I wrote my first novel, and then spent countless hours proofreading. Then I changed the whole book, and spent weeks line editing and proofreading again. And I followed that cycle through at least five rounds of edits. Goodness only knows how much time I wasted. Don’t make my mistake. Instead, follow this outline to edit in the proper order.

* Strategy - Purpose, Audience, Genre

At the publishing level, this first step in editing takes place even before we acquire a novel. And ideally for an author, this step should take place first as well. Of course newbie authors are still getting their feet wet. They often just follow the story or characters where they lead. Even experienced authors might do some pre-writing of this sort to get in touch with their idea. However, it is advisable to know where you’re going before you get too far into the process. You need to know why you’re writing the book, who you are writing it for, and what genre you are writing in.

These three factors will guide many important decisions along the way including things like point of view choices and length. Don’t make the newbie mistake of thinking, “This is a cross-genre book that everyone will love.” Translation: “No one in particular is going to want to read this book unless they are related to me.” Publishers need to know your purpose, audience, and genre before they even consider your book, so you should consider those factors first as well.

* Macro Editing

This level of editing can also be called content or substantive editing. Publishers generally content edit after they’ve purchased a book, but if an editor really likes an idea but sees too many problems, they might send content suggestions at this level and ask for a resubmission. Similarly, content editing by the author could take place at different points in the process—but it must take place! Some authors like to write “organically” or “by the seat of their pants” as opposed to planning and outlining in advance. That’s fine. But at some point you must go back and take control of your story.

Major content editing generally looks at issues like plot structure (proper introduction to the story, turning points, mounting tensions, climax, and resolution), characterization (consistency, goals, motives, and conflicts), proper pacing, themes, and point of view choices. All of these need to be working well before a publisher can consider your manuscript. And there’s no use fussing over scenes, paragraphs, or sentences until all of these major elements are solid and in place.

* Scene by Scene

Once a publisher has acquired a book and made certain the big elements are all in order, they move to editing on a scene by scene basis. This could also be considered part of the content editing, but for the writer, this level needs to be addressed separately.

After those big elements are in order, each scene should be carefully examined. First, decide if the scene even earns a right to be in the book. Something significant should happen in every scene that drives the story forward or adds to character development, preferably both.

When you’ve decided that the scene stays, make sure that it’s strong and active. Check if you have entered the scene properly. To enter a scene you should quickly establish the time, place, and point of view character. These elements are necessary to pull your reader into the fictional world. This can be best done with some sensory details about the setting from the point of view character’s perspective. While you might choose to start with a few lines of dialogue, within the first few paragraphs, you need give us this information.

Once the scene is going, make sure that there is conflict (or tension) in the scene and something happens that shifts the dynamic in the scene. You don’t want a static scene. Examine the scene to make sure that there is a nice mixture of dialogue, action, description, and internal monologue from your point of view character. The best scenes weave these all together. Also check that the five senses and adequate emotion are used throughout. Finally, exit the scene with a strong closing hook that will drive the reader to keep going into the next scene.

 *Line Editing, Copy Editing, and Proofreading

After the content of a book is all finalized, the next level of editing is line editing. At this level the editor examines sentences and paragraphs to make sure the writing is effective, tight, and properly communicates the author’s intent. Often sentences can be combined or restructured to better express the meaning. Sometimes connectors or further description are required. Sometimes redundant words or lines are cut. Another main goal of the line editor is to make certain that the prose is fluid and pleasurable for the reader. When line editing your own work, it is very helpful to read the text out loud to yourself. Your ears will catch many problems that your eyes are not likely to see.

Next comes copy editing. Copy editors study all the words, looking primarily at grammar and punctuation. They know the publishers style guidelines and apply then to the manuscript.

Finally, the publisher will take the manuscript through the proofreading stage, in other words, looking at every single letter and punctuation mark for typos. Often this is done by a number of people after the book is available in the “Advanced Reader” format. You might want to ask friends, family, or your beta readers to help you with this stage. When looking for last minute errors, it is helpful to read the manuscript on a printed page, read out loud, and if possible, have a text to speech program read it to you. These last three stages are sometimes compressed into only one or two stages by publishing companies, but be sure that you treat each one separately.

So that’s the road map. Notice how it starts big and works it’s way in. Remember, by using these techniques in proper order, you too can learn to edit like a pro.

Writers, what are some of your editing secrets? Readers, what are you pet peeve problems that you find in books and wish authors would do a better job at editing out? 

Also writers, if you ever need content editing help, you can check out my services on my website: And by the way, my Love in Three-Quarter Time is on sale for $0.99 right now. Just sayin' :)


Dina Sleiman writes lyrical stories that dance with light. Most of the time you will find this Virginia Beach resident reading, biking, dancing, or hanging out with her husband and three children, preferably at the oceanfront. Since finishing her Professional Writing MA in 1994, she has enjoyed many opportunities to teach literature, writing, and the arts. She was the Overall Winner in the 2009 Touched by Love contest for unpublished authors. Her debut novel, Dance of the Dandelion with Whitefire Publishing, won an honorable mention in the 2012 Selah Awards. Her latest novel, Love in Three-Quarter Time, is the launch title for the new Zondervan First imprint. Dina is a contributing author at Inkwell InspirationsColonial, a part-time acquistions editor for WhiteFire Publishing, and she is represented by Tamela Hancock Murray of The Steve Laube Agency. Join her as she discovers the unforced rhythms of grace. For more info visit her at


  1. mine would go under the obsessive list maker way to edit:
    First, I'm big on plotting so I know what's going on plot-wise in every chapter before I start. and I have an idea what baggage the h/h have and how their goals will be in conflict with each other's.

    Okay, so then I write it as a rough draft (pretty much all dialogue and 'telling')

    Edits then go in layers for the most part but I tend to work on wording everytime. I make notes on each chapter: are their goals showing up? are their personalities coming through? How do they feel coming into this scene?

    Last comes the final polish on wording and searching for places to add visceral reactions, subtext, spot-in descriptions.

    I read it outloud and I also read it on my kindle (which makes it feel like someone else's work and is easier to spot the things I don't like!)

    Editing/Revising takes me four times as long as writing the rough draft. I know I need to make a better first draft but it spills out too quickly (I've found the story flows much better over all if I let myself tell it in a short period of time).

  2. I think it's fine to have a messy first draft. I'm starting to enjoy editing more than the manic first draft stage. I can do it at a much more leisurely pace. I enjoy fussing over every word.

  3. Great info, Dina. Like Deb, my edits take longer than the first draft. I also try to get everything down before editing. Only because if I stop to fix this sentence or that one, I tend to lose my way.

  4. Dina, this is an awesome post! Superbly helpful. Thank you!
    I'm weird (well, we knew that). I edit as I go, during the rough draft. Write a little, go back the next day and revise (on all levels) and add some more, rinse, repeat... Kind of the way TV serials have that "last time on such-and-so" before they launch into that day's episode, I guess.

  5. I think we probably all do a little of that, Niki. But at the end I find it helpful to do a full strategic edit at every level. Personally, I also do an "artistic" edit to look for poetic qualities like cadence, image, and symbol, but since publishers don't do that, I didn't include it here.

  6. Great advice! The one thing I hate as a reader is misspelled words, missing words, or the wrong word. I'm an excellent proofreader in that sense. I also notice when there is an inconsistency in a book. It's like a game to me, to find the errors.

    I also dislike when the book changes POV without any warning or marker. If I have to reread several sentences to figure out which POV we're in, I better really enjoy the story or I am putting the book down.

    Now doing all of this with my own work... Harder :)

  7. Good post, Dina.

    I used to get really upset when I found typos and misspellings in books. Those, and even bigger issues, sneak into books even published by the biggest houses.Perfection is impossible to achieve. Each editing pass just gets us a little closer. Two observations from editing other people's work: Sometimes the editing process can even create more problems. (Since the edits have not gone through rounds and rounds of editing, it's easy to introduce new errors, especially late in the process.) And a required change in one spot can eclipse a needed change close by.

    My best hints and tips? Get as many eyes on the manuscript as you can. People catch different things. An e-reader with text-to-speech can help,especially in finding missing words. Make multiple passes until you can't stand it anymore. Using different fonts and formats can help, since they force the eyes to see things and not just remember them. And keep a list of the kind of mistakes you tend to make. I leave off question marks all the time. So sometimes I need to do a pass just looking at punctuation.

    And know that the first time you open the published book you will immediately find something that nobody caught--often on the first page. (In the same way that hitting send makes us find mistakes in query letters and contest entries.)

  8. The Amish say that a mistake in a quilt is good - it's the reminder that only God is perfect. We must remember that with our queries and proposals and that permanently-in-print mistake.

    Writing is easy. Revisions and editing (someday we'll have to discuss those two terms) for me is like eating jello with a toothpick.

  9. Mel, beware. You might find yourself with a bunch or requests to be a beta reader! We can all benefit from an objective second pair of eyes, especially ones with those eyes pealed for boo boos.

    is that the right form of peal? or peel?
    jeepers I should have picked a different word.

  10. Good counsel, Dina. I actually really enjoy the editing process. But it goes quickly for me, more so than the writing.

  11. Argh - I'm disappointed - I wish this was 3 or 4 posts instead of one - I'd love to hear details :)

  12. Mel, sounds like you'd make a great line editor. As for POV shifts, I sometimes wonder if the ereaders cut out extra spaces that were meant to signify POV shifts. I always use asterisks, but some authors just use a space, and it's easy to loose that. I read a great book last year with rough POV shifts, but I read it on kindle, and I bet that's what happened.

  13. That is so true about editing creating its own issues, Barb. Great points! I always keep reading and re-reading until I feel like my eyeballs are going to puke. LOL.

  14. Lisa, editing for me gets faster and faster as I go along. Then again writing does too. Love in Three-Quarter Time took me 6 weeks to write and about an equal amount of time to edit. Maybe a little longer once I went through agent and publisher rounds of revision.

  15. Pauline (and others) I have some longer posts on editing as part of my Inspiration and Perspiration class on my website. Also, if you want, I'd be happy to share one this subject with the Yorktown group sometime. I'm going to give you this link because it has a lot of my writing posts, but for more on editing scroll down to "Writing Series" weeks 4,5, and 7.

  16. Excellent tips, Dina! Thanks. I'm diving into edits on space opera #2 in a couple weeks and compiling all the editing tips I can find. It needs major work at the structural level.

  17. Great tips. I use Natural Reader to read out loud to me. It finds a TON of errors. :D

  18. I use my kindles text to speech, DeAnna. Love it.

  19. Hi Rachel. I'm excited about your space opera. Hope it turns out great!

  20. Ooh, great post. I'm bookmarking this.

  21. Glad it was helpful. You know, rereading this yesterday helped me find a few areas I could improve in my latest manuscript on the scene level. I think it's a helpful checklist.


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