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Self-Publishing 101: The Types of Editing

Red pen and edited manuscriptWhile at Rustycon recently, Jeremy and I were on a panel about self-publishing. We also met with an author who is considering self-publishing his book. One of the topics that came up in both instances was the types of editing, the order they happen in, and the importance of each.

The first step, prior to any editing at all, is to have the book done. While there can be some self-editing done during the writing process, I find that it’s often better to get a first draft done before you start editing. Then, let the draft sit for a little while before you go through and find your mistakes, smooth out some of the wording, and so on.

But you’re not done yet, not even close.

Beta Readers:

The next step for most authors is beta readers. You’ll want to find some beta readers who are just people who love to read, but it’s also valuable to find some beta readers who are also authors, as they can offer you insights on potential flaws in your story’s plot. What you don’t need beta readers to do is to work on your grammar, spelling, or other nit-picky things. Beta readers are just there to tell you what they loved and didn’t love about your story as a whole, your characters, and other large scale matters.

One important thing to remember about beta readers: they may have suggestions for how you can make things better. Neil Gaiman has said that if someone points out a flaw in your story, they’re probably right. If they provide you with a solution, they may be wrong. It’s up to you to sift through the feedback from your beta readers and figure out what works for you and what doesn’t.

Does every book need beta readers? Maybe not plural, but it’s always a good idea to get outside eyes on your book. Writing is such a solitary exercise that you can get really wrapped up in the story, and not realize that what you wrote doesn’t match what you thought you wrote. Many times, I’ve handed something off to a beta reader, looked at something that confused them, and realized that what I thought about a scene didn’t actually make it onto the page!

Developmental Editing:

Once you’ve gotten feedback from beta readers and either applied or discarded it, as appropriate, then you want to consider a developmental editor. A developmental editor does many of the same things that a beta reader might be able to do, but they come at your book from a different perspective. They are looking to help you make it well plotted and internally consistent. For example, do your protagonist’s eyes stay the same color for the whole book? (You’d be surprised how easy it is to foul up little details like that, especially as you go through rounds of edits.)

Another big difference between a beta reader and a developmental editor is that most beta readers will read your stuff and provide feedback for free. A developmental editor is a paid assistant. Rates for developmental editing can vary widely, and it can be difficult to find someone available for developmental editing. So poke around, see what other work they’ve done, and ask about their willingness to do a sample chapter or two so you can get a feel for their style. Many developmental editors will offer a special rate for this sort of service, which can then often be applied to their fee for a full developmental edit, as they also want to get to know your writing and style.

Does every book need a developmental editor? Maybe not. But when you’re starting out, it’s a good idea to get as much feedback as you can. And unless you’ve got a really kick-ass beta reader who doubles as a developmental editor for no cost, it’s worth the money to pay someone to go through your book and work with you closely to improve it.

Copy Editing:

Finally, the last stage in the editing process is a copy editor. This is my personal wheelhouse, as I’ve been copy editing in various capacities for the past 20 years (gulp!). I’ve got all sorts of good tips and tricks to help make a finished manuscript into the best possible polished manuscript possible. Again, like developmental editors, copy editor rates can vary, and it’s a good idea to get a sample copy edit too, if possible.

Does every book need a copy editor? My editor brain says yes. My writer brain says that with enough writing and editing experience, you can sometimes use some self-editing tricks to get around it. But again, I’m talking 20 years of experience under my belt. So I generally feel okay with self publishing a book that I wrote and copy edited. But most people can really use the outside eyes and fine-toothed comb of a copy editor.


While this seems like a lot of work and a lot of money, potentially, don’t despair. Remember that the whole point of editing is to make your book the best it can be, which will hopefully translate into better sales. Self-publishing is a lot of work; there’s no denying it. But self-publishing also gained a reputation for putting out books that were not necessarily handled as carefully as they should have been. Hopefully, with this advice on the types of editing, you can help to turn around the stigmas associated with self-published work!

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