Let's talk about the editorial process...
Line edits, copyedits, proofreading...is there even a difference? (Well, yes.)
When I got my first book deal, I was really active in my debut group and in other groups for new authors. And once we got to the stage where we were getting our first edit letters, I noticed something kind of funny. There was a subtle competitiveness over whose edit letter was the longest. It seemed to mean multiple things to us: “my editor is SO tough, my editor cares about this book SO much, my revision is going to be SO huge and I’m going to woe is me about it but also this is a badge of honor I’m wearing with pride...” I don’t know. It was subtle, like I said. There was just this air of legitimacy that came with a gigantic, eye-popping edit letter. (Or at least, I perceived it that way.)
And yeah, getting your first edit letter and realizing it’s basically a novella can be intimidating. But it’s not always an indication that the revision itself is going to be massive. In fact, in my case, the biggest gut punch of an edit letter I ever got was also the shortest—but I’ll get to that in a little bit.
First, I want to get into the different stages of edits you’ll go through in the traditional publishing process. There’s a lot of confusion here, and I think part of that is because every editor and every imprint does things a little bit differently. Which means my experience might be different from yours or another author’s.
I consulted with my good friend Rebecca Behrens, who is a copyeditor and was the managing editor for an imprint at Penguin Random House (as well as the author of several incredible middle grade novels), and she was kind enough to break down the process for me. (Side note: Rebecca first provided these thoughts for a video I posted a few years ago. Post-covid, many houses have changed their processes. However, the basics of what each type of edit is remains the same.)
There are two departments your book will pass through: the editorial department, which is where your story gets whipped into shape, then there’s the managing ed department, which is mostly about production and packaging. First up is the editorial department, and you getting your edit letter.
Edit letter: This is usually an actual letter, either a hardcopy sent via snail mail or an email, and they may or may not also send you the manuscript with additional comments in track changes.
Usually, the first round focuses on any big picture issues like character development, plot, and world-building. Each subsequent round drills down on smaller, increasingly scene-level issues. I usually end up doing two rounds of edits, though one of my books went through four, and another one only had one round.
Line edits: These focus on the sentence-level writing but may still incorporate some bigger-picture editing. The editor who acquired your book usually does this [or just someone in editorial, usually—it may be an assistant learning the ropes or a less senior editor if someone like an executive editor acquired the book].
Copy edits: At this stage, your book moves from the editorial department to the managing ed department. It’s worth noting that depending on how many installments your advance is split into in your contract, this is often a stage where another payment is released.
Longer novels—MG and YA and adult—are often done by a freelance copy editor, but shorter MG novels, chapter books, early readers and picture books are usually done in house by a staff copy or production editor—although some small houses may not have any copyediting staff in house, so they would freelance these shorter projects too. Also, some high-profile longer projects are CE'd in house because of things like embargoes, a rushed schedule (like if they are crashing a book—which means essentially rushing production to publish ASAP), or because the publisher wants to really ensure quality control—these might be the imprint's most important best-selling/award-winning lead authors, celebrity authors, high-profile brands and licenses, movie tie-ins, etc.
First-pass pages: This is the first time the text is in layouts with the book's design in place. Up until now, your book has been a Microsoft Word document. Now, you’ll either get it as a PDF or hardcopy. This is a super fun stage because it’s the first time you really see it starting to look like an actual published novel.
A proofreader will check these pages, word for word, against the manuscript text to make sure that everything is there and also will make additional corrections--things like typos and grammar/style/content changes missed in line edits or copy edits.
Proofreading may pick up on sentence-level concerns like echoes and repetition, but it's mainly to make sure that everything from the manuscript has correctly made it onto the proofs.
The author reviews the first pass pages at most houses and will see these proofreading marks, although some publishers make the choice to send the author final pages instead as their pass, in which case they won't see all the proofreader's marks and changes but just lingering queries. Whether or not this is appropriate is kinda questionable, because the proofreader may have made changes to text that was intentional on the author's part.
Whenever the author reviews their pass pages, they have the opportunity to make final small edits and also STET (ie: reject) proofreading edits they don't agree with.
First-pass pages are typically are what is printed in ARCs and galleys. Note that what prints in an ARC or galley should have gone through the copyediting process with the author, but the author has probably not had a chance to review pass pages yet so there can still be a lot to clean up and that's why ARCs shouldn't be treated as the final work. Sometimes text has accidentally been cut or copied incorrectly; there can be design and formatting mistakes; occasionally unauthorized changes have been made in ARCs that will later be corrected.
First-pass pages are sometimes sent out to a freelancer but more commonly they are done in house, at least at larger houses. Smaller/independent publishers with a smaller production editorial team may freelance more of their proofreading.
Second-pass pages and onward: In some cases, a book can get up to seven or more passes. That *shouldn't* happen, but it does. Usually starting with the second pass, the proofreader/production editor is just checking that changes were done correctly and is not reading the whole book. Sometimes a managing editor will add a cold read [reading the whole book for typo-level edits; not checking against a previous pass] in with a later pass, especially if a book had a messy production process, if it involved heavy editing, if it's higher profile and they want to make sure errors aren't sneaking through. These passes are almost always done in house--again, unless the house is freelancing out all their production editorial work, which some small houses do. AUs generally do not get a chance to review correx in these additional passes. Their editor will sign off on the correx. Presumably, if there is any doubt about whether a change would be okay with the AU (if it's not something obvious like a misspelling), the editor will email them and get their approval.
Final steps are things like F&Gs, printer proofs, and book approvals. F&Gs stands for “folded and gathered,” and it’s a set of unbound signatures that the printer sends along with a jacket or cover proof, typically for picture books or other full color books with a lot of art—it’s kind of like the ARC of the picture book world. As for printer proofs and book approvals, this is the stage where a production editor checks "final" versions of the interior and other components that the printer sends, and approves them for printing. These route to the entire publishing team—publisher, editor, design director, designer, managing editor, production editor, production—for approval and everyone has to sign off. Here it's not about the content and more about making sure the package is okay—cover/jacket elements in place, final art is in place, text isn't missing, etc. It's expensive to make changes at this point so this isn't the time for discretionary editing unless something is REALLY egregious.
Also, checks and balances happen throughout the production editorial phase: for example, whoever did the copy edit won't be assigned to do the first-pass pages. This is so someone else can catch the previous editor's mistakes and won't have the same knowledge holes/blindspots. Once it gets to those later passes, like 2pp and onward, the same editors can do those checks, usually alternating, though. This is why scheduling projects can get very tricky for the managing editor. There are a lot of moving parts to this!
Now that we’ve covered the editorial process, I want to get more into that first edit letter you get from your editor. The big one. The scary one.
For me, the scariest edit I ever got from my agent. It was also the shortest. And it was also not even technically a letter, but a phone call. And what she did was very kindly and very succinctly explain to me that my plot was actually three plots smashed into one book. She explained very specifically what those three plots were and encouraged me to choose ONE and write THAT book.
If you want all the gory details, I told the whole sad saga in a previous post. But the short version is that I did not take my agent’s editorial suggestion well, because I was scared, and that is why Olive and the Backstage Ghost was published seven years after I wrote that very first draft.
Why was I scared? Because my agent’s super short and to the point edit letter made me realize that my book did not need a revision. It needed a rewrite. And in my head, rewrite meant start over.
But, as I said in that previous post, rewriting is not starting over. The analogy I used was that your draft is a Jenga tower that is wobbling. It’s not structurally sound. Revising a draft in this condition is like carefully sliding pieces out and in and crossing your fingers it doesn’t topple. Rewriting is purposefully knocking the tower down but recognizing that the pieces are still there, and now you can build it up solid.
Yes, it does take some time, and that can be intimidating. But it’s not starting over. The work you did in that first draft wasn’t for nothing; the Jenga pieces didn’t just vanish. In many ways, at least personally, I find rewriting to be more freeing and sometimes even faster than doing a big revision.
So what makes a GREAT edit letter, if it’s not about the length? I think it’s different for everyone.
For me, I know I’ve got a great edit letter when reading it makes me feel scared but also excited. In a great edit letter, the editor has a clear vision for your novel and sees it at its full potential. And reading her suggestions, her thoughts, her ideas, it makes you see your novel for what it could be. There’s still fear, yeah—because getting there is gonna take a lot of work, because what if I can’t reach that potential, because fear of failure, because because because...but the excitement of that vision of the final story? It’s the same feeling I get when I first have an idea for a novel. Don’t you feel scared then, too? When you’re in that earliest stage of writing a book, you haven’t really started writing it and you almost don’t want to because what if it doesn’t turn out the way it is in your head? That’s the good kind of fear. The excited kind.
And a great editor is going to make you feel that way all over again.