What level of editing do I need?

You’ve written your first draft. You’ve even revised your manuscript following feedback from beta readers. And you know you need an editor before you self-publish. But what you don’t know, is the level of editing do you need.

This blog post aims to explain the different levels of editing so you can confidently choose the level of editing that’s right for you.

The stages of editing start with developmental, followed by line, then copy, and lastly proofreading. Therefore, I’ll discuss them in that order.

Developmental editing

Also known as structural editing, developmental editing focuses on exactly that; the structure of your manuscript.

Think of writing a novel of a mix between art and craft. The art is your writing, the words on the page. The craft is the structural elements that make up good storytelling.

Novel writing is storytelling in written form. We’ve been telling stories for centuries and there’s always a common theme; there’s a character, a goal, and there’s conflict.

But what does that really mean? And why doesn’t including those three things automatically make a good story? Because there’s a lot more to it than that.

Firstly, your story needs to hook the reader. But more than that, it needs to keep them hooked. It needs to keep them turning the pages until the very end. And, once they get to the end, they need to feel satisfied.

To really make an impact and have your readers leaving glowing reviews, it needs to leave a lasting impression. And to achieve this, it needs to elicit an emotional response.

With me so far? Good.

So how does developmental editing help with this?

A lot of what’s discussed above comes down to character development and tension. But even those alone aren’t quite enough. You also need a plot that ties up all loose ends. And you need to answer any questions that are raised throughout the novel, whether raised intentionally or unintentionally. You also need a theme(s), and the right pacing. 

If characters are what your readers resonate with and plot is the events that happen, then theme is a novel’s soul. It’s what your novel’s really about.

A developmental edit does as its name suggests. It helps you develop all of these elements so that each one is strong in its own right. Because as soon as you improve one, they all improve. Character development, plot, and theme are so intricately interwoven, that changing one changes the others.

In short, a developmental edit looks at big picture issues and ensures the structure of your story is working. Then, the next levels of editing look more closely at the actual writing itself.

Developmental editing will look at areas such as, but not limited to:
  • Character development
  • Character arcs
  • Plot — structure, inconsistencies, and plot holes
  • Pacing
  • Theme
  • Show v tell
  • Info dumping and unnecessary exposition
  • Head hopping and POV issues
  • Tense issues
  • Conflict and tension

If you’re new to novel writing or know you have weaknesses in certain areas, a developmental edit is highly recommended. While beta readers can help with some of these issues, they are not a replacement for a professional edit.

Line editing

Following a developmental edit, you should expect a fair amount of revision and rewriting. But once that’s complete, it’s time to start looking at your manuscript on a sentence level.

Line editing is often used interchangeably with ‘copy-editing’. But I like to keep them separate and treat them as entirely separate forms of editing.

If you’re in the UK, chances are a lot of copy-editors will refer to line editing as a ‘heavy copy-edit’.

Line editing, as the name suggests, looks at your manuscript line by line and evaluates your language use. Line editing, by my definition, still falls under content editing. That’s because it’s suggesting, looking at rewrites, and revising rather than correcting.

By my definition, line editing doesn’t worry about being ‘correct’. It looks at the actual words and language choice. Are they being used to full effect?

For instance, some common problems a line editor might find are awkward sentences, point of view errors, repetitive words, and inconsistent verb tenses. A line edit will also help smooth out dialogue tags and passive voice.

What it won’t focus on is correct comma placement or other grammatical errors. It focuses on word choice and sentence structure to ensure that each word is doing its job. However, most line editors do fix obvious grammatical and spelling errors during a line edit, it’s just not the primary focus.

Once a line edit’s complete, it’s still important to have a copy-edit afterwards.

Copy-editing

As mentioned earlier, you may hear the terms ‘light copy-edit, copy-edit, and heavy copy-edit’. Figuring out which each one entails takes communication with each individual editor. Every editor seems to have a different definition.

Generally speaking, a ‘heavy copy-edit’ includes everything listed under Line Editing, as well as everything under a ‘light copy-edit’.

So, what are some of the typical things you can expect from a copy edit?

Once you get to the copy-editing stage, it’s more about rules and being correct. It stops looking at language and messaging and starts looking at correct use of grammar, punctuation, and spelling. It also ensures sentences are clear and there are no inconsistencies. For example, Alice’s eyes were blue in Ch.1 but in Ch.6 they’re green.

A copy-edit is almost entirely about correcting, not revising. So, for example, if you have an awkward sentence that could have its wording improved but grammatically, it’s correct, a copy-edit would leave it alone. A line edit would give suggestions on ways to improve it. Sentences and words are almost never changed just so that they sound better during a copy-edit. 

As well as checking grammar, punctuation, spelling and consistencies, a copy-edit will also see the creation of a style sheet. If you spell a character’s name several different ways, the most common is added to the style sheet. Whether you hyphenate certain words or use an uppercase, it will go in a style sheet. Whether to use the Oxford comma or not, you guessed it, goes in the style sheet.

This style sheet will then also be provided to the proofreader so that when they carry out the final proofread, they know what these words and choices should be, rather than making that decision and making the necessary changes. The copy-edit is the last chance to make any such changes.

Proofreading

Proofreading is often what authors look for when really, they want a copy-edit. There’s a common misconception about what proofreading actually entails. Proofreading is not the stage where you expect to see huge amounts of red pen all over the page, that’s copy-editing.

Proofreading is the very last stage of checking over the manuscript. It will look for for spelling errors, grammatical errors, punctuation errors, typos, and formatting errors. And this all comes after the manuscript is formatted. In other words, proofreading does not happen in Microsoft Word, but when the manuscript no longer looks like a manuscript and looks like an actual book — so the correct page size, font, indentation, and chapter breaks etc.

A proofread will fix orphan lines but it will not change a word in a sentence because another one sounds better. And while a proofread will add a missing comma, it won’t rewrite a clunky sentence. A proofread aims to change as little as possible but fix and correct any errors left over from the copy-editing stage, or any errors that crop up during the formatting process.

The proofreader compares the formatted manuscript to the copy-edited version and ensures all changes have been made. They also compare against the style guide to ensure that all choices are adhered to.

Key takeaways

While I’ve tried to explain the best I can the different levels of editing, it’s vital that when you’re looking for an editor, you know exactly what you’re getting.

Each editor will have their own take on what each level of editing means, although the general principle should be the same. It’s a pain for authors, but it’s an excuse to open up the communication channel and to get a first impression of the editor. 

Regardless of how each editor defines their level of editing, one of the most important things is that you choose the right editor for you and your manuscript. And you cannot do that without any form of communication.

Before you agree to hire an editor, ensure that you understand without a shadow of a doubt what you are and are not getting.

How to punctuate dialogue

No story is complete without dialogue yet punctuating speech is many a writer’s bane. Where do those pesky commas go? How do you indicate multiple speakers? And how on earth do you format speech?!

Books need dialogue. But get the punctuation wrong and you risk drawing your reader out of the story; the one thing that you absolutely want to avoid.

So why does writing dialogue, and doing it well, often stump authors? It can be daunting and remembering the rules of dialogue punctuation is half the battle.

If punctuating dialogue is one hurdle that stops you in your tracks, then read on and use this quick reference guide to get you back on track.

Identifying speech: Using quotation marks

When you add dialogue to your story, the first thing you have to do is think about how you’re going to identify the fact that somebody’s talking. And using italics doesn’t cut it. Italics are usually saved for when somebody is having an internal thought—and you don’t want your readers mistaking dialogue for thoughts.

Depending on whether you’re in the US or the UK, plus the house style of the publishing house, the most common indicator of speech you’ll see are either single or double quotation marks. Double quotation marks ( “ ) are more common in the US, while single ( ‘ ) are more common in the UK.

If self-publishing, whichever one you choose will mostly depend on personal preference. However, you should consider what is most common for the countries where you plan to publish; common punctuation helps avoid drawing the reader out of the story. The most important thing is, that whichever style you choose, you must be consistent.

Quotes within dialogue

Once you’ve decided how you’re going to identify speech—whether it’s with single or double quotation marks—you may find that at some point, a character will be quoting what somebody else has said. So how do you go about identifying a quote within dialogue?

It’s actually very simple. You just use the opposite identifier of what you’ve already chosen. So, if you’ve chosen single quotation marks to identify dialogue, you will use double quotation marks to identify a quote within speech.

For example:
When using single quotation marks to identify speech, it would look like this:
‘I did ask Beth if she’d come to the party, but she said “As if!” in that perfect high-school voice she has.’

When using double quotation marks to identify speech, it would look like this:
“I did ask Beth if she’d come to the party, but she said ‘As if!’ in that perfect high-school voice she has.”

Smart vs undirectional quotation marks

This is how your quotation marks look to the reader. Smart quotation marks, sometimes referred to curly quotation marks, are those that curl towards the text at both the beginning and the end. Undirectional, or straight, quotation marks, do not curl towards the text. It’s important to note that in mainstream publishing, it’s conventional to use smart (curly) quotation marks. Not all fonts have curly quotation marks so you may want to read up on how to add them in manually.

Commas and full stops within tagged speech

So you’ve identified what is dialogue by using quotation marks, but how do you now punctuate it correctly to identify which character said it? Knowing where to put commas and full stops within dialogue and dialogue tags is something that often trips writers up.

First, let’s explain the two parts which make up dialogue. There’s the dialogue text and the dialogue tag. The dialogue text is the part of the sentence being spoken, and the dialogue tag (or action) is the part where the speaker is identified (usually in the way of [character name] said).

The rules are pretty simple:

  • If the dialogue tag follows a complete sentence, put a comma before the closing quotation mark.

Example: “This is an example of a dialogue tag following a complete sentence,” Stacey said.

  • If the dialogue tag follows a question mark or an exclamation mark, then these also go before the closing quotation mark.

Example: “Is this the right way of using question marks during speech?” Stacey asked. (Just to confirm, yes, this is correct.)

  • If the dialogue tag or action is before the dialogue text, then the punctuation is reversed. In other words, follow the dialogue tag or action with a comma, before the dialogue text. Then end the dialogue text with a full stop, inside the closing quotation mark.

Example: Trying to explain dialogue punctuation, Stacey said, “The rules are pretty simple once you’ve grasped the basics.”

Ellipsis and Em Dashes

Ellipsis (the three dots: … ) and em dashes (the longest “dash”: — ) are used in mainstream publishing to indicate a significant pause/trailing off and interruption of speech respectively.

The ellipsis can go at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of a sentence, depending on where you want the speech to trail off or where you want the pause to be. But be mindful of not repeating yourself; if you use the ellipsis to indicate a pause or trailing off, then trust your readers will acknowledge it.

There is no reason to also add in the dialogue tag that the speaker trailed off/paused as well. It adds unnecessary clutter and actually risks pulling the reader out of the story. Using correct punctuation helps to show your reader what is happening, you don’t then also need to tell.

There are a couple of simple rules to follow when using the ellipsis:

  • If used at the start of the sentence, add a space between the final period of the ellipsis and the next character (letter or number).
  • If the ellipsis is used in the middle of a sentence, place a space at the beginning and at the end.
  • And if it’s used at the end of a sentence, place a space between the last character and the first period of the ellipsis.

Don’t confuse the em dash with the hyphen or en dash. There are plenty of articles out there which explain the difference so we won’t go into that here, but just note that the em dash is the longest “dash” of the three. Some word processors will automatically change a hyphen into an em dash, but it’s safest to know how to add it into text. To do this on a windows computer, simply hold down the Alt key and type 0151 then release all keys.

In mainstream publishing, the em dash ( — ) represents the interruption of a speaker. Using this form of punctuation instead of adding [character name] interrupted in the dialogue tag can significantly improve the flow and pace of your writing.

People will interrupt speech for a variety of different reasons. It can show emotions like impatience, shock, annoyance, anger, etc. But whatever reason you’re using it, be mindful that, just like with using ellipsis, there is zero reason to add in the dialogue tag that the speaker was interrupted. Let the punctuation do its job.

Formatting dialogue

Formatting dialogue, whether it’s to indicate multiple speakers, long passages of dialogue, or to add a dialogue tag or action between the dialogue is quite simple. But ensure you follow these rules, no matter if you’re in the UK or the US.

Multiple speakers

When there are two people or more involved in dialogue, each person’s dialogue should be on its own separate line.

For example:
“Hi, mum.”
“Hi, hunny. Did you decide what you wanted for dinner?”
“I’d like something with mash,” Stacey said.

If the conversation continued, mum’s next dialogue would continue on its own separate line. However, if Stacey was the next person to speak or act, it would continue on the same line.

For example:
“Hi, mum.”
“Hi, hunny. Did you decide what you wanted for dinner?”
“I’d like something with mash,” Stacey said, heading into the kitchen. “Maybe sausages?”

Do you see how the second part of Stacey’s dialogue stayed on her line? If we had moved that down onto its own separate line, it would have implied that her mum had said it.

That’s because not every line needs dialogue tags. And that’s evidenced quite clearly in the example above.

There’s no reason to add dialogue tags in the first two sentences, it’s clear who is saying what. Plus, your readers are pretty smart—they’re pretty good at figuring out who’s talking at what point.

Just don’t forget to add in the odd dialogue tag in a long passage of dialogue just to remind your readers of who’s speaking when.

Long passages of dialogue

If you only have one speaker, and that speaker has a long piece of dialogue (this is usually advised against as it’s best to try to break up dialogue, but sometimes this isn’t always possible), then the same rules as above apply.

However, you can’t just have one massive wall of text, at some point you will have to add a paragraph break. When you do, you simply need to add an opening quotation mark at the start of the paragraph and only have a closing one when the dialogue is finished.

For example:
“I’m not sure what I’d like for dinner tonight, mum. At first, I thought I might like sausage and mash. But then I remembered I only had mash last night so decided against it.

“Tom mentioned pizza earlier so I do kinda fancy that now, but I know we don’t have any salad to go with it and you know I can’t eat pizza without salad.

“How about a nice chilli? You’re the best at cooking that. And you know it’s my favourite.”

Breaking up dialogue with dialogue tags or action

Sometimes, you will want to add some form of dialogue tag or action between a sentence your character is saying. In this case, the rule is to add a comma before the first closing quotation mark, and then after the dialogue tag or action.

For example:
“I think,” she started, opening the fridge, “I’d like something simple. Like sausages.”

Less commonly, em dashes without spaces (in the US) and en dashes with spaces (in the UK) are used in place of commas. But their placing goes outside of the closing quotation mark.

For example:
“I think”—she started, opening the fridge—“I’d like something simple. Like sausages.” (US)

“I think” – she started, opening the fridge – “I’d like something simple. Like sausages” (UK)

Punctuating vocative expressions in dialogue

A vocative expression is where you mention a person’s name or use some other way of identifying a person to whom a request or command is being directed.

There are set rules as to how vocative expressions should be punctuated and these rules apply when using them in dialogue, too.

A person’s name, job title, and the pronoun you are all examples of vocative expressions.

If the vocative expression is used at the start of a sentence, place a comma after it.

Example: “Stacey, do you know where I put my keys?”

If the vocative expression is used at the end of a sentence, put a comma before it.

Example: “You don’t know where I left my keys do you, Stacey?”

If the vocative expression is used in the middle of a sentence, place a comma before and after it.

For example: “Hey, Stacey, where did I put my keys?”

Do YOU have any questions when it comes to punctuating dialogue?

How freewriting can help writer’s block

Writer’s block. The bane of just about every writer. Staring at a blank page with no idea what you’re going to write about brings all manner of emotions. And a lot of the time, once you’ve been hit with writer’s block, it takes some doing to get out of it.

If you asked just about any writer if they’ve ever suffered from writer’s block, you can pretty much guarantee that they’ll say they have at some point in their career. It doesn’t matter if you’re a professional writer, a hobbyist, or somewhere in between. A block of creativity can hit any of us at any point in our writing lives.

So what do you do about it?

There are a lot of different opinions and strategies out there. Some range from just persevering, others say take a break for a few days, and others suggest going for a walk.

But has anyone ever suggested to you the process of freewriting?

What EXACTLY is freewriting?

A process to just get you writing, freewriting helps break through the inner critic, the perfectionist, the self-doubt and the inner editor. It’s a process that generates ideas in the here and now without thinking about structure, the quality of the writing, or where it’s even going.

Spelling, grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, flow. None of it matters. It doesn’t even matter if what you write makes sense; you just have to write continuously for the allotted time and silence those voices of self-doubt and inner critic.

Freewriting is a process designed to give you complete freedom of writing.

It isn’t uncommon for writers to feel like what they write has to be perfect on the first attempt. In fact, it’s something which cripples a huge amount of writers and as a result, they never begin writing at all. This can be soul destroying to storytellers who are bursting to write but feel like they can’t even start.

The process of freewriting is designed to break through this state of paralysis. The idea is that you don’t give a second thought to what you’ve just written, you just keep going until the time is up.

So how you actually “do” freewriting?

How to freewrite

To give freewriting a go, you’ll want to set aside around 30 minutes. It’s broken down into steps, listed below. How many of these steps you do will be completely up to you and where you are.

For instance, when I first tried freewriting, I found for where I was in my writer’s block, I only needed to do the first two steps. You may find you only need the same or you may want to complete the whole process. It’s incredibly unique to you, what you get out of the first few steps, and where you currently are on your journey. The next time, you may need something different again.

The key is to not overthink it, set aside the full amount of time and just get going and see where it takes you.

Step One

If you’re anything like me and thousands of other writers out there, you’ll find imagery a huge source of inspiration. So the first part of the process is to find an image that triggers something in you.

It could be a portrait, a landscape picture, an abstract painting. Anything that ignites some kind of spark, or speaks to you in some way.

I love all things fantasy and historical. So when I first attempted freewriting, I went to the big G (Google) and looked for fantasy and historical landscapes. This was the image I chose.

how freewriting can help overcome writer's block
Image sourced from Google as my first freewriting inspiration

When it comes to finding an image, don’t overthink it. It just has to be something that you find appealing. Something that arouses some kind of curiosity. Something that makes your eyes light up just that little bit.

Got one? Good. Now the fun really begins…

Step Two

Set aside 10 minutes. Now in those 10 minutes, write. You put pen to paper and write whatever comes into your head for 10 minutes straight. Without pause, without break, without thought.

You’re not looking to create a masterpiece. You’re not looking to make a coherent paragraph. You’re not looking to make poetically crafted sentences. You just need to write non-stop for 10 continuous minutes.

Push past the voices telling you that you can’t do it. Push past the critics saying that what you’re writing doesn’t make sense. Push past the self-sabotage that’s laughing at your inability to spell. Ignore every single thought except what that image is creating and get those thoughts on paper.

Think of it like brainstorming. But instead of a big bubble in the middle of the page with random words shooting from it, you’re writing your ideas in one continuous block of text.

The trick is to not give up and to just keep going. Don’t think about what you’ve written or where you’re going or what point you’re trying to make. None of that matters.

Here’s what I wrote in those first 10 minutes after looking at the image above:

Flames of yellow broke through the cracks in the thick clouds that were acting as an almost fog-like entity, preventing curious eyes laying sight on what truly laid beyond.

Jagged pinnacles pierced through the cloud, reaching up and tall into the mystery a long way beyond what any mere mortal could see. Even a dragon flying that high with its wings spread would look nothing more than a speck on the horizon.

But still, he couldn’t stop himself from searching the skyline for a clue of what lived in the fortress so vast and immense he guessed it’d take the best part of the day to walk its circumference. Whatever laid claim to such immensity certainly didn’t want to be seen, though.

The thick cloud wasn’t the only thing stopping him from searching the fortress. A lake sat between him and the elaborate stonework, teasing him with every ripple that shook its surface, goading him in the most placid way he’d ever seen.

Fighting with something he couldn’t even see, it took all his strength to control the movements of his own feet. It took more self-control than he realised he possessed to resist the urge to disrupt the glistening call of the water, trying to entice him to envelope his soul in its cool embrace.

It’s not awful. But it’s also not brilliant. That’s okay, because it isn’t meant to be. I struggle with ideas. BIG time. Give me a vague plotline and I’ll write you a short story in mere minutes. But when I have to come up with something myself…? Eek. I can honestly sit there staring at a blank screen for weeks, months even.

So the fact that this image had allowed me to actually create something, had allowed ideas and imagery to flourish and develop in my own head, was pure magic. It doesn’t matter if it’s poorly written—that can be refined, scrapped. Whatever. The point is I could have spent yet another day staring at a blank page but instead, I came away for the first time in my life bursting with ideas.

So, what happens next? First get yourself a well deserved brew, then come back and move on to step three.

Step Three

You’ve completed the 10 minute exercise and you may be cringing at what’s written down. Great. You’re not going to use the vast majority of it anyway.

Wait, what?!

Yup, you heard. The vast majority of it is going to get scrapped. You can exhale that sigh of relief now.

What you’re going to do is read back through what you’ve written. And you remember how the image made you feel when searching for one? How it appealed to you in some way? How it sparked something? How it piqued even just a little curiosity? Good. That is the feeling you’re looking for when reading back through what you’ve just written.

When you come across something that evokes that same emotion, underline it. It may be a phrase, a sentence, or even just one word. But every time you feel it, underline whatever it was that made you feel. Simple, right?

Step Four

Now you’re going to repeat step two, but using everything you underlined from step three in place of the image. So set aside another 10 minutes and write down everything that comes to mind from what you have underlined. Again, it doesn’t have to make sense, it doesn’t have to be pretty, you just have to write.

Think of it like dancing as if nobody’s watching. Or singing like nobody’s listening. Imagine that freedom you feel and apply it to your writing. Write like your life depends on it and that nobody at all is ever going to even know the contents of what you’ve written, let alone actually read it themselves.

This isn’t writing for reading. It’s writing for idea generation, expansion, freedom. Think of it like scribbling on a piece of paper to see what colour a pen actually is. You are not writing now for a finished product.

But you still have to write. For 10 minutes, solid. No cheating—no breaks, no rereading what you’ve written, no editing as you go, no self doubt. Just writing.

Step Five

Okay! Now we’re getting somewhere. After another well deserved brew and break, come back to what you’ve just written.

You’re going to underline anything that stands out again, just like you did in step three. And once you’ve done that, get a fresh bit of paper and aim to develop the idea even further. Instead of setting a timer this time, set a word count of 500 words.

This is still a development stage so don’t allow yourself to get too caught up on the quality of the writing yet. But at the same time, don’t fall into the trap of writing one word sentences. This isn’t meant to be a 500 word bullet list.

You may find that what you’ve done doesn’t lead to anywhere. But don’t let that discourage you. Try again. Find another image.

You’re not going to find a gem in every attempt but the idea of freewriting is that it lets you get out of your own way. It can help you go back to another project and see things in a different light. It can help you generate and develop ideas when you think your creative well has run dry. It can help you break through a creative block when you’ve been staring at a blank page for far too long.

Try it daily for a fortnight. I dare you. I dare you to let your guard down for that long and get out of your way to see where it takes you. But most of all, I’d love to hear how you get on.