The Editorial Process

Several of you have been curious about the editorial process inside a publishing house.

Rosslyn asked:
What is the role of freelance editors in the publishing process these days? I’ve noticed cases recently in which published authors had in-house editors AND freelance editors working on their novels. Do publishing houses hire these freelancers, or do the authors do it? Why do publishers or authors hire a freelancer when a novel already has an in-house editor?

Then Katy expounded:
If a contracted novel has, say, three editors working on it, do they all do the whole book separately and simultaneously? And then does the author have to compare notes from all three of them in order to figure out the fixes?

Every publisher has their own process, and they may call each step of the process by a different name. It’s basically three steps, and they are done sequentially, not all at once. They might be done by one person, or two or three people. At some houses, these steps will be combined.

1. The Macro Edit (developmental, substantive, or content edit; sometimes simply called revisions.) This is where the editor gives big-picture notes on plot, characterization, scene crafting, POV’s, and all the other elements of your story. They don’t actually edit your work, they simply give you a set of notes and send you back to work on your revisions.

2. The Line Edit. The editor works directly in your manuscript document, using Track Changes and Comments in Word. She suggests word changes, looks for discrepancies, asks questions about things that don’t make sense, highlights inconsistencies or POV breaks, and looks for anything else that needs to be smoothed out. The line editor is responsible for seeing that the manuscript conforms to house style guidelines.

3. The Copy Edit. This is the most detailed editing, dealing with typos, spelling, punctuation, word use, etc. Sometimes fact checking is done; permissions are checked; footnotes are verified.

Where do freelancers fit into the picture? At many houses, the editors are swamped and don’t have enough time to edit all their books, so the publishing house has a list of freelancers they regularly use. For authors with multiple books, they do their best to give the author the same editor each time, so good working relationships are built. Freelancers may be used at all three of the above stages in the editorial process.

If a freelancer is doing the macro edit, she will usually confer with the in-house editor prior to the edit. The in-house editor will convey her general thoughts and impressions to the freelancer so they can be incorporated. When the author receives the notes, they’ll all be together in one place. Authors are never left to decipher multiple sets of notes at one time!

In the past, I’ve been involved in every stage of this process, from every angle. At various times I’ve been the in-house editor, the freelancer, and yes, even the author dealing with those editors.

As a freelancer I was Camy Tang’s macro editor on her first three books for Zondervan. The in-house editor is Sue Brower. Camy would turn in the manuscript, and Sue and I would read it at the same time. Then we’d have a phone conversation and discuss it. Sue would tell me all her impressions and we would discuss various aspects of the book, identifying problem areas and sometimes brainstorming solutions. Then she’d leave it to me to do the complete edit. After the macro edit was finished, Camy worked with other editors for the line edit and copy edit stage, one after the other.

At some houses, this is a long and involved process, where at others, it hardly takes any time at all. Some publishers place a high priority on editorial excellence and put a lot of time and money into it, while others basically print what the author wrote. From this, you can extrapolate the idea that some publishers are more open to signing contracts with authors who show great potential but need some help getting there; and others need the author to be immediately publishable.

Hope that doesn’t make things even more confusing! Let me know if you have more questions about editing.

Rachelle Gardner is a Christian literary agent affiliated with WordServe Literary Group in Colorado.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. printing on October 25, 2011 at 10:45 PM

    Thank you for the post

  2. Basil Sands on August 29, 2008 at 1:45 PM

    >Thanks for the advice Rachelle. I will probably be contacting her and setting up something to see how it goes. At the time I was totally new to the game, now am learning more and more. And after spending a year and a half in the house of rejection, it’s time to up the ante I guess and see if I can grab someone’s attention.

  3. Rosslyn Elliott on August 29, 2008 at 9:54 AM

    >Timothy – I usually agree with everything you say, but on this one I have to differ. I hired Camy Tang to work with me on my proposal. I knew that my manuscript was strong as a whole, but that the opening chapters needed to be even better if I wanted to get past the proposal review stage. After I worked with Camy, I signed with an agent and as of now, have made it past the proposal stage with a major house. Hiring an editor is not a magic pill. It can make a crucial difference, however, if you do it at the right time. I paid only a couple of hundred dollars for a partial edit. It was the best financial decision I ever made for my career. I will not have to do it again: I learned what I needed to learn from her excellent feedback, then I applied it to the rest of my manuscript. In my opinion, a freelance editor is not so much a manuscript “fixer” as a private teacher who knows LOTS about the business and whose judgment you can absolutely trust. (Just make sure you work with the right one.)

    Camy Tang has an excellent post on her blog (storysensei.blogspot) about *when* to hire a freelance editor.

  4. Timothy Fish on August 29, 2008 at 8:30 AM

    >Anonymous 10:20,

    I seem to have hit a nerve. I am not saying that editing is not a good thing. Every author must decide for himself or herself if the benefits of pre-submittal editing outweigh the costs. In general, the earlier editing takes place in the publishing process the more cost prohibitive it is.

    While money is not our only consideration, it is a very important consideration. If money were not a consideration, I would print 6.6 billion copies of each of my book and ship it to every household around the world. There are many benefits of doing that too, but that doesn’t mean it is going to happen.

    If we keep it real, most authors can expect to succeed only if they produce the best manuscript they can and let the publisher pay for editing.

  5. fairchild on August 29, 2008 at 6:56 AM

    >I just want to say that I read your blog often and find it educational, informative, generous, and most of all, very positive.

    Thanks for taking the time. 🙂

  6. Anonymous on August 28, 2008 at 11:20 PM

    >Timothy, there are a lot of ways to look at the use of a freelance editor, but if you consider it purely from a financial point of view, I think you might be missing the greatest benefits.

    You are correct that great manuscripts from great writers will always rise to the top of the consideration pile. What if your writing is almost there – but not quite? A talented editor’s touch could bump it into contention.

    You still might get the rejection letter (as will some of those great writers who didn’t use a freelancer). If so, was the money a complete waste? The answer depends on the writer. Did you learn something from the editor’s notes and edits? Did you discover things about your writing that can help you make the next manuscript better? If so, no matter the outcome, it was money well spent.

    A couple other thoughts:

    *A publisher isn’t going to sign a contract for a book that they don’t think will sell enough to earn out the advance. They certainly don’t look at a book written by someone who used the services of a freelancer and say, “well, this author needed help, so let’s just let the book die.” If they thought that, they wouldn’t sign you in the first place.

    *If you’ve written a book that the reader loves, he or she won’t know or care if you wrote every word yourself or required heavy in-house editing…or had the help of a skilled editor even before you submitted it for consideration. They simply want to enjoy your book.

  7. Timothy Fish on August 28, 2008 at 9:19 PM

    >$1,200 is reasonable. It is by no means cheap. Depending on the publisher, that could be 25% or more of the advance. It gets worse. The author may send manuscripts to editors to try to improve their chances of getting a contract. If we assume ¼ of all pre-edited manuscripts result in a contract then we are basically saying that the authors giving all of their money to the editors. If we factor in the agent’s cut, the author is paying the agent from her husband’s salary. It is a catch 22. The author’s who making enough from book sales to pay for pre-editing will probably get a contract anyway and those that need it the most probably won’t sell enough books to pay for it.

  8. Laurie on August 28, 2008 at 5:25 PM

    >Rachelle, this is great insight into what happens after a manuscript is accepted. I’m also curious about the steps for acceptance. Specifically, a publisher requested my manuscript several months ago. I suspect he’s passed it to someone else to read. Does the reader make a report? Is it discussed by a committee? I’m wondering if my “precious” writing is on a shelf somewhere or being used as a convenient footrest under someone’s desk. All I know is calling them is a big no-no at this point. I’m supposed to (gulp…) WAIT.

  9. Katharine O'Moore-Klopf on August 28, 2008 at 4:08 PM

    >Basil, as a freelance copyeditor, I have to say that $1,200 for a complete copyedit of a manuscript is very cheap, unless the manuscript is quite short. Most freelance copyeditors, unless they’re newbies, make the equivalent of at least $35 an hour, and that rate goes up substantially for highly specialized copyeditors, such as medical copyeditors.

  10. Dawn on August 28, 2008 at 3:21 PM


    As for ADVICE, you’d probably tell them to double check their spelling on anything they put out there for others to read!

    That’s what I get for trying to read AND comment during a short break while at my day job!

  11. Camy Tang on August 28, 2008 at 2:07 PM

    >I have to say that Rachelle did a STELLAR job doing my macro edit! It was my first experience doing a publishing house edit and she made it easy, seamless, and painless!

  12. Rachelle on August 28, 2008 at 1:38 PM

    Renni Browne is one of the best editors in the business (see Self Editing for Fiction Writers) and her quote was extremely reasonable. You would be wise to jump on it.

    This is good advice for everyone… when you come across something like this that makes you question someone’s validity, don’t make assumptions either way. Do some research. A quick Google of Renni’s name would have told you all you needed to know!

  13. Dawn on August 28, 2008 at 12:34 PM


    Thanks for the helpful information. 🙂

    If someone was interested in becoming a freelance copy editor or proofreader, what advise would you give them? Do publishers look at resumes? Or are most freelancers hired out of relationship with in-house editors?

  14. Basil Sands on August 28, 2008 at 11:48 AM

    >What would you say regarding third party editors offering to edit your text (for a fee of course). I was at conference last fall and got into one of the little sit down sessions with the lady who runs “The Editorial Department” Renni Brown. She praised the story with something “Boy you can write, I love the story.”

    Then said I needed some editing, and offered to do it for between $800 and $1200. I choked back the shock and assumed it was a fraudulent offer she probably gave all the writers there.

    Later though a couple of other writers I told this to looked at me in surprise and said they had not been told anything like that when she reviewed their fiction, rather than offer to copy edit their work, she told go home and work on it some more. They were both published non-fiction writers as well.

    So my question is, are companies like this legit? And does having such work done before submissions enhance the chance of getting picked up by a publisher / agent?

  15. Anne L.B. on August 28, 2008 at 11:20 AM

    >Rachelle, I never cease to be amazed at your posts! You can simultaneously strike tangilble dread in me (I can feel it in my chest and the pit of my stomach as I read) to anticipate what it will take to get a published novel, while at the same time I am put at ease as you make everything seem so clear and simple. (You could probably make a patient facing brain surgery feel like it’s no more than clipping fingernails, too.) God has truly gifted you!

  16. Rachelle on August 28, 2008 at 8:54 AM

    >Rosslyn, your comment definitely made me LOL. Pine trees! 🙂

    Katy, you’re right that advance reader copies are usually printed before the final stages of editing. But I didn’t mention in this post the proofreaders. There are usually two or three proofreads after the copyedit and again after the typeset. The galley is the printed version of the typeset. This is post-editorial but before the final proofread. The author and the proofreader will be reading the galley at the same time, for that last chance to find and correct problems.

    Yvonne, the author is involved throughout (with most publishers). The “last chance” is when they receive a hardcopy of the galley to read and catch any lingering errors.

    The editorial process can take a month to six months or more depending on publisher.

    It’s important to be aware that each publisher does things differently, so my explanation is only a generalization.

  17. Rosslyn Elliott on August 28, 2008 at 7:56 AM

    >Thanks, Rachelle!

    This is especially apropos as I had not one but TWO dreams last night about a certain editor rejecting my novel. Oddly, one of the reasons for the rejection was that the novel was set in the Vietnam period (which it is not). I need to stop reading other writers’ blogs. 😉 You know who you are.

    The other dream-reason was that the editor felt I had too many pine trees, and I needed some more birches and alders. All the trees in my novel are deciduous!

    Though in the past I’ve thought that it would be nice to just get a green light on my work without having to do much rewriting, I’ve recently had a change of heart. It would be much better to have a really great editor push me to be the best writer I can be.

  18. Yvonne on August 28, 2008 at 7:44 AM

    >Wow! Very interesting! There are a lot of people who read it before it is finally done…that’s good!

    So, how long is the author a part of the editing…after the macro editing or line editing?

    How long does this process usually take? I’m assuming at least a year, right?

    Thanks for explaining things so clearly to us, Rachelle.

  19. sheriboeyink on August 28, 2008 at 6:44 AM

    >This was a great look inside a publishing company. I had always wondered if they had different editors for the various types of editing out there.

  20. Katy McKenna on August 28, 2008 at 6:42 AM

    >Wonderful explanation, Rachelle. Thank you!

    I’ve also wondered at what point in the editorial process advance copies are typically printed?

    I am reading one for review right now. I am sure it’s been through the macro edit. But the line and copy edits surely haven’t taken place.

    And then there are the “galleys.” My understanding is that this is the FINAL chance for the author to catch mistakes of every kind. Is the author herself literally the last person to sign off on the manuscript?

  21. Karen on August 28, 2008 at 6:36 AM

    >Well done!