Non-Fiction Editing For Self-Publishers

You’ve finished your manuscript, enlisted beta readers, and implemented their feedback.

The next step is to hire a professional editor. But when you search online, you discover there’s more than one type.

What type of editor do you need, and at what stage of the publishing process should you hire one?

This short guide will explain four types of editing for non-fiction writers, and when to consider seeking them.

Editorial assessment

What is it?
An editorial assessment (or reader’s report) is a big picture report of your manuscript’s overall condition, detailing its strengths and weaknesses.

When should you seek one?
Seek an assessment if you have a near complete manuscript, and need guidance on how best to proceed or if you have a completed manuscript but don’t feel ready to publish it yet. Some writers also have an editorial assessment before sending out query letters to agents/publishers.

What can you expect from it?
You can expect a 5-page critique providing broad stroke advice on elements such as style, structure, consistency, clarity of message, appeal to your target audience, and overall storytelling.

What you won’t get from an editorial assessment.
It won’t provide detailed, line-by-line edits or major structural changes (that’s the job of a developmental editor), and it won’t provide suggestions on how to improve spelling/grammar (that’s the job of a copy editor).

Developmental Editing

What is it?
Where an editorial assessment is a condition report, a developmental edit is a full structural survey. It looks closer at the structure of the writing, if the story is soundly held together, and effectively fit for purpose.

A developmental edit is similar to an editorial assessment but digs deeper, closely analysing your storytelling, checking for clarity of message, if main points are effectively conveyed, if there are missing arguments or loose threads (what we call holes), and overall, if it is suited to the market and target reader.

A developmental edit will also highlight where you need to cut back on repetition or rambling of thought, and if information should be included to ‘tighten’ points made.

When should you seek one?
Although you can hire a developmental editor at any stage of your writing to push you forward, I suggest you hire one when you have a completed manuscript. At least with a completed manuscript, your thoughts are fully on the page when editing can’t interrupt your creative flow or flip it in the opposite direction.

Developmental editing is expensive, so I suggest you first exhaust free or cheaper options such as beta readers or fellow non-fiction writers. They will help you iron out minor issues, so that your editor can focus on more advanced ones.

What can you expect from it?
Expect a detailed, annotated manuscript, red lined with comments and suggestions on what to re-write to improve its structure. It will also include a separate report (critique) as a summary of that feedback. (Note: My development edit includes a phone or Skype call to discuss the edit with you).

What you won’t get from a developmental edit
A developmental edit will not include a check of your spelling, grammar or other surface related issues. That’s the job of a copy editor.

Copy editing

What is it?
A copy edit is a final sweep through, to make sure what we call copy – the content – is accurate, consistent and flows well for the reader.

A copy editor will look for surface issues such as spelling, grammar, punctation and sentence structure. They will also check, for example, if the table of contents is correct, chapter and/or sub-headings are appropriately placed, footnotes/endnotes correctly indexed, illustrations are captioned, and highlight other mistakes or ambiguities that may have arisen.

When should you seek one?
A copy edit should be carried out when your manuscript is fully developed, professionally edited, and ready to be published.

What can you expect from it?
You can expect an annotated manuscript, red lined with comments.

What you won’t get from a copy edit.
A copy edit will not provide comments on the structure of the story itself or a proofread.


What is it?
A proofread is the final check that nothing has been missed in the copy edit, checking for spelling, grammar, punctuation and consistency in formatting.

When should you seek one?
This is the final stage, just before your manuscript will be published.

What can you expect from it?
You can expect a mark-up of the document, with errors identified for you to change.

What you won’t get from a proofreader.
A proofreader will not provide comments on the structure or flow of the story itself.

Why does editing matter?

Have you ever had a conversation with someone who trails off mid-sentence without …. and keeps you hanging, wondering what they will say next, only to realise ….

Annoying isn’t it?

It’s a common trait in someone who finds it difficult to convey their thoughts in a clear, articulate manner. Trailing off perhaps allows them a few precious seconds to gather their thoughts together, by which time, unfortunately, another one comes along.

Similarly, when you’re immersed in writing your book, you can have so many ideas vying for attention that threads of thought can be inadvertently lost in the process, resulting in gaping holes in key arguments or worse, tangled ideas that make no sense at all.

And imagine how embarrassed you would feel if, after labouring over your manuscript for months, your beautifully typeset book returned from the printers with spelling mistakes spattered throughout.

Editing matters because it’s a reflection of you, that you have attention to detail, and care enough about your reader to ensure your message truly engages them.

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