How Many Rounds of Editing Does Your Book Need?

One of my blog readers asked the following question about the editing process:
Once a copyeditor has completed the first round of copyediting of a book, [she or he] sends it back to the author for acceptance or additional changes. Once the author accepts the changes or makes more, he [or she] sends the corrections back to the copyeditor. It seems this could continue indefinitely. In general, do these go through two or three rounds before an author is happy?

That’s a great question. One can easily imagine an infinite loop of endless editing, until either the author or the editor collapses in exhaustion.

In reality, things rarely go to that extreme. The short answer is that one to three rounds of editing will almost always do it.

The slightly longer answer is that the number of editing passes should be:

  • as many as the book needs, and
  • as many as the author and editor agree on.
For an even longer answer, let’s first talk about why one round of editing may not be enough. Then I’ll explain why some books might need a third round.
Why Two Rounds Are Better Than One

Let’s say you’ve written a book that you plan to self-publish, and you hire me to copyedit it. Let’s also say that the manuscript is in fairly good shape overall—it’s about the right length, the content is sound, the chapters are in logical order. It’s generally well written, but needs polishing.

As I edit, I’ll correct errors and inconsistencies in grammar, punctuation, spelling, and so on. These are relatively straightforward matters. That’s not to say I won’t have to ponder choices or make judgment calls: Is a comma needed here? Should I change “non-event” to “nonevent”? Should an amount of currency be written “$25,000” or “twenty-five thousand dollars”? But those are the kinds of decisions I feel qualified to make based on my expertise. If I have any doubt or need to defend my choices, I can turn to a grammar handbook, a dictionary, or a style guide.

Sometimes, though, I may encounter writing that isn’t “wrong,” but could be improved. A sentence, although grammatical, may strike my ear as awkward, or I may feel that your argument in Chapter 5 would be clearer if several paragraphs were reorganized. And I may need to ask you a question about a particular passage. For example, a sentence might have two possible meanings, depending on how it’s punctuated; which meaning did you intend?

So by the time I finish editing your manuscript, I’ve made a lot of changes, all of which are highlighted using Microsoft Word’s Track Changes feature. And I’ve probably also inserted a lot of queries—comments or questions that require you to respond in some way.

Now the manuscript goes back to you for review. You look over my changes, agree with most, and undo a few. You revise the awkward sentence and the ambiguous one. You start to reorganize the paragraphs in Chapter 5 as I suggested, then decide to scrap them and take a totally different approach.

What next? Well, one option would be to end the editing process there. However, depending on how much you revised in response to my queries, you run a risk that new errors or inconsistencies crept in. Did you punctuate those rewritten sentences correctly? When you replaced those paragraphs in Chapter 5, did you make any grammatical errors? Did you add “towards” somewhere, not noticing I had changed all the other instances to “toward”?

That’s why a second editing pass can be useful. If you send the manuscript back to me after your review, I can edit the revisions you’ve made and correct any last-minute errors. I can also remove all the change tracking and do a quick search for formatting problems, like extra spaces. The end result is a nice, clean manuscript that’s ready for page layout. Many traditional publishing companies consider this “cleanup edit” part of their standard procedure, and I recommend it to my self-publishing clients.

In most cases, there’s no need for further editing beyond the cleanup edit. If I still feel there are unresolved issues, I’ll probably contact you by phone or e-mail before sending the manuscript back, so that we can take care of them without the need for another editing pass.

When Three Rounds May Be Needed

Earlier, I said that the right number of editing rounds is “as many as the manuscript needs.” There are indeed situations when a manuscript needs more than two rounds. But the extra round almost always comes at the beginning of the process rather than at the end. In such cases, the editing process would look like this:
  1. Developmental edit. This type of editing focuses on “big-picture” issues, like overall organization. (It’s sometimes called a structural edit, content edit, or substantive edit.) If large sections need to be reorganized, if the writing style isn’t appropriate for the audience, if the content isn’t clear, if the manuscript is too long or too short, or if special features need to be planned and carried out, then a developmental edit is the place to start.
  2. Copyedit. Once the major structural and content issues have been taken care of, the manuscript is ready for an edit that focuses on the finer details, like grammar, spelling, and the clarity of individual sentences.
  3. Cleanup edit. As described above, this is a quick, final check to catch any newly introduced errors.

Communication Is Key

I also said earlier that one answer to “how many rounds of editing” is “as many as the author and editor agree on.”  No matter how much or how little editing a manuscript needs, it’s essential that the editor and author communicate with each other and agree on the process they will follow.  

A good contract will spell out the process, the fee or payment rate, and the schedule. If the editor is being paid a flat fee for the project, both parties need to agree on how many rounds of editing are included. If the editor is being paid an hourly rate, he or she should provide an estimate for each round. Of course, the author and editor should also be open to revising their agreement if the manuscript turns out to need less or more editing than expected. In an editing project, like any other, communicating clearly is the foundation of a good working relationship.


Susan B-K said...

Thanks so much for posting this, Kathy! I've been wondering how many rounds I should be doing with my current independent editor. We're on round three. He's been quite encouraging, but keeps saying that it's good for a first draft. Should I be worried?

Kathy Carter said...

Hi Susan,

Thanks for your comment! Do you feel that you're making progress with the manuscript, and that your editor is providing helpful feedback? And do you and the editor have a clear, shared understanding of the process you plan to follow? If so, I don't think you should be worried. If not, it might be a good idea to ask your editor how many more rounds she or he anticipates and to share any concerns you have. Good luck!

Susan B-K said...

Thanks for your reply, Kathy. I think this might be it after three. We originally planned to get it into such great shape the agent couldn't possibly say no. After he edited the whole thing, he said there was less line editing than he thought and just a few development things, plus the need for a new beginning.

Kathy Carter said...

Susan: Sounds like you're on the right track!

Writing Professional said...

Writing and editing are two different processes. Writing requires creativity; editing requires analysis. The writing process should be free and experimental; the editing process should be systematic and critical.

Kathy Carter said...

Writing Professional: Thanks for the comment. That's a good point.