How Does a Professional Editor Work with a Writer?

I spend a lot of my time working as a freelance nonfiction editor. Although I do work with many writers who have had their work edited by professional editors before, I probably work with more writers who have never encountered the editing process with anyone other than a writing buddy, someone in their writing group, a spouse, or a high school teacher or college professor. Thus, they really have no idea what it means to work with a professional editor.

For this reason, I’d like to devote this post to explaining how the process works. I’m going to describe the process of editing a book; however, the same process would pertain to editing an essay, article, e-book, or anything else you might bring to me for editing.

Types of Editors and Editing

First, let me explain the kind of editing I do for my clients. I do “line or copy editing,” “content  or developmental editing.” That means I study each one of your sentences and decide how to make it not only grammatically correct but also the strongest sentence possible (line or copy editing). I also make sure that everything makes sense, you’ve explained yourself well, readers are not left with questions , and all the pieces are included—nothing needs to be added (or deleted)—and  everything is where it belongs (content editing or developmental editing). With developmental editing, I look at the minute details and the big picture.

Some editors just do line editing. Some just do developmental editing. Some call these different things. Some book or writing coaches do developmental editing, but most don’t do line editing. I usually give feedback on a client’s writing when I coach so they can improve their writing; this may include a bit of line editing.

Miscellaneous Concerns

Some writers think that they must live close to their editor. It doesn’t matter if you live in New York and I live in California. We can talk by phone…even by Skype if you want, and we send documents back and forth by email. You can even live in another country than your editor, and you can still have a successful working relationship. They key is to find someone with whom you can work well. It is nice, however, if you live close to each other and can occasionally meet in person.

Others worry about theft of intellectual property. There’s no need to worry about the editor stealing your ideas or your writing. An editor has to treat the information you offer in the form of your book idea, proposal or manuscript at “privileged.” Despite what some people say, little idea stealing occurs in the publishing industry.

How to Choose an Editor

Also, when choosing an editor, find one that suits your “style.” I’m not a “coddle-my-writers” type of editor. I tell it like it is. I want to help you improve, so I’m not going to tell you something is great when it isn’t. And I’m not going to hold back on your manuscript—unless you specifically tell me to do so. So, talk to editors before you begin working with one.

I love it when an author is working right with me, waiting anxiously for me to finish a chapter or a section of an article so they can get to work on it. Then we have a mutual flow and are in synch. We develop one “mind” and one “voice.” I also really enjoy working with writers who want to improve their writing and work hard early on to improve the manuscript so I don’t have to spend the time poring over every sentence trying to figure out how to make it read well. They go away feeling proud of themselves for having become better writers. A few of my clients have gone on to write several books without me afterward claiming I made them good enough writers to not need an editor any longer! What high praise!

So, choose your editor carefully. Check out their track record. Look for testimonials from past clients. And if possible, test them out. For example, I am usually at the San Francisco Writers Conference working as a book doctor. These are free short consultations. I also often do a short test edit on people’s work when I give an estimate of how long it will take to edit a job. This gives you an idea of my style and how I would edit your work. Hopefully, other editors will give you the same type of courtesy.

Phase I: The Analysis

When working with a book, more often than not, I begin with an analysis of the whole manuscript. This means I read the whole manuscript and make notes in the margins about what needs to be improved. I then go back and compose a document giving the author, first, a general idea of what has to be done to improve the book, and second, specific recommendations on a chapter-by-chapter basis.

This document becomes the blueprint for all the work done on the manuscript from that point forward. A writer who really wants to learn and improve their own writing will take this document and create a new and improved draft of the manuscript by incorporating as many of my suggestions as possible. This then comes back to me for the first phase of actual editing. Some writers prefer to have me just begin editing at this point; they give me the go ahead to implement my own suggestions.

Not all writers choose to have an analysis completed on their book. A written analysis does take time and can add considerably to the editing expense. That said, it is extremely helpful. When an author doesn’t want to complete this phase, I always recommend that they have me at least read the whole manuscript. Then I have a big picture view of the project and can at least jot some helpful notes to myself as I read. We can then have a consultation about what the book needs as far as improvements go. Some writers choose to do neither of these two and just have my dig right in and start editing, though.

Phase II: First-Round Editing

If  a writer has chosen to have me do developmental editing on their book, this phase involves me reading the book in much greater detail than in Phase I. I use the MS Word Track Changes option and leave numerous comments for the author about what should be changed, cut, moved, added, etc. I may ghost write small portions as examples of what should be added. I may ask questions or make suggestions. I may also do some line editing to show the author how to improve his or her writing. I will offer big picture and small picture comments.

If a writer has chosen to skip the developmental phase of editing, in this phase I attack their manuscript from a line or copy editing standpoint looking for grammar, punctuation and sentence structure and strength. Again using Track Changes, I work on every sentence. I am looking to make the author’s writing as good as I can—if it isn’t already. Additionally, I may throw in a bit of content and development editing along the way in the for of comments, but these will be more minor.

Track Changes allows my clients to see every change I make on their document. I also can leave them comments, which I do a lot. I leave little messages about information that needs to be added, explain why I deleted copy or why I went ahead and ghostwrote a few sentences or a paragraph, tell them why certain changes to sentence structure improve their writing, ask questions or suggest moving copy around or explain why I did so .

When I’m done with this phase, as my daughter says, the document bleeds whatever color track changes uses—one color for additions, another for deletions and one more for comments! The pages look a bit scary, so I usually send another version along as well that has the changes “accepted.” This allows the author to read a “clean” copy with just the comment showing. Then they can actually read without stress and notice the improvements rather than all the changes. They also can see the comments clearly.

At this point, the manuscript becomes their “ball” to handle. The manuscript goes back to the author for changes. Clients then address all my concerns. Typically with a book I send back one chapter at a time, and the author works on that chapter. We work through the book chapter by chapter until we have completed the whole manuscript. It’s a bit like tag team. Once I finish a chapter, I send it to the author and go on to the next. They author works on that chapter. I complete another and send it one, and so on. When we the author finishes making changes to the last chapter I edited, hopefully the whole manuscript gets sent back to me for a second round of editing.

I say “hopefully” because not all authors choose to go on to the second round of editing. I highly recommend that they do. I’ll explain why.

Phase III: Round-Two Editing

In round-two editing, I have a chance to check two things:

  1. My own work. Yes, sometimes the editor makes mistakes. In the first round of line or copy editing, I make so many changes I can and do sometimes miss a grammatical mistake—or make one. I may not see a misplaced or missing comma. I may delete a necessary word. I may change a sentence in a way that makes it unclear. Now, this is uncommon, but it does happen. So, I want to check my work. If I make 100 changes on one page (and a book has 150 pages), the likelihood becomes high that when I come back to check my own work, I’m going to find something upon which I want to at least improve.
  2. The writer’s additions and changes. The writer has now gone through the manuscript and had a chance to accept or reject my changes. He or she has also made changes or his or her own and addressed all the issues I raised. Therefore, the manuscript has numerous areas that need to either be re-edited or that have fresh copy needing first-round editing. I want to get my eyes on all of this and check for grammar, punctuation, content, etc. This is especially true if I have done a round of developmental editing on the manuscript. At this point, actually, the manuscript is coming in for a first round of line/copy editing.

Authors who choose not to do this round of editing don’t realize its value. So much can be caught and fixed and improved on a second round of line/copy editing especially since the writing is much cleaner and more polished at this point and all the pieces are in place. And a manuscript that has only been through a round of developmental editing definitely still needs line/copy editing–and proofing after that.

Most writers decide they don’t want to spend the money on another editing round thinking it will be as expensive as the first. In fact, it goes much faster. The second round of editing usually takes me about half the time as the first round.

If you don’t believe me, ask some other editors what they think about how much editing a manuscript needs. I listened in on an editing panel at the San Francisco Writers Conference two years ago and was pleased to hear Alan Rinzler, a freelance editor of great repute and executive editor at Jossey-Bass Publishing in San Francisco, say that he recommends at least two rounds of editing but prefers three rounds.

For those clients that allowed me to edit their manuscripts three times, the results were measurable…and well worth it. For instance, Enlightened Leadership by Doug Krug and Ed Oakley was picked up by Simon & Schuster (Fireside) and published verbatim from the author’s self-published version.

Good luck!

And…if you are wanting to give yourself the gift of an editor for one of your manuscripts in the New Year, click here for a special offer—my gift to my blog readers!


  1. Teresa McKeown says:

    Hi Nina

    Are you still offering Editting services (esp Developmental editting
    I have written/self-published my book via Amazon CreateSpace in the past year, and now feel that it needs some professsional editting.. .You may find the subject interesting and unique – it is non-fiction – initially identified in the fields of Ideology and Politics, altho it ranges from Human Identity to Ideology to Politics, Philosophy and Economy and Ecology ! The name is ‘Universal Ethos’ and I have written it under my pen-name Johan T Burgh. I believe it is pithy, instructive and highly relevant in pointing ways out of the many dilemmas in the world at the moment. I have also made it available on Expanded Distribution networks in US, therefore accessible by all the main Book distributors and retailers.. . so the logistics are in place, just professional editting and marketing required now. Obviously I am able to make any changes that would enhance the perception, saleability and content of the book, as well as all your Editting recommendations re correctness, balance, grammar, syntax, consistency, Typescript, Chapter, Contents and Covers formatting Initial pages content and formatting etc. I notice that one of your areas of special expertise is Spirituality etc so I would look forward to working with you on perhaps improving the content and ideas in my manuscript. I look forward to hearing from you and to get a quotation for the different levels of package which you may suggest.. . Many thanks ! Teresa McKeown BSc Hons Eng (Was IT Consultant in the Financial World for many years)

    • Teresa,
      I edit very few books these days…just one or two per year. I’m not sure yours would fall into the category I prefer to edit. However, I can find you an editor. Please email me at nina(at) ninaamir(dot)com.


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