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Novel Editing: A Three Step Recipe for Getting It Right

We are fans of UK fiction editor Louise Harnby’s podcasts and frequently share her posts on social media, so we were happy when she accepted our invitation to share her considerable experience and perspective on the subject of novel editing on the BW blog. Here’s her recipe for success… There are various levels of novel… [Read More]

We are fans of UK fiction editor Louise Harnby's podcasts and frequently share her posts on social media, so we were happy when she accepted our invitation to share her considerable experience and perspective on the subject of novel editing on the BW blog. Here's her recipe for success...


There are various levels of novel editing. Carrying them out in the wrong order is like icing a cake before you’ve baked it. Here’s how to layer the revision process so that your book’s in the best shape possible.

Step 1: Checking the Recipe—Developmental Editing

This is big-picture editing that involves looking at the story as a whole. You’ll hear it called various things—developmental editing, structural editing, even content editing—but the base ingredients always include plot, structure, characterization, pace, viewpoint, narrative style, and tense.3 step recipe for novel editing by Louise Harnby for BookWorks.com

  • Plot: This is the sequence of events that take the reader from the beginning to the end.
  • Structure: This determines how the plot is organized. Even if B occurred after A, the reader might learn about B before the events of A are unveiled.
  • Characterization: This is how characters are represented such that we can make sense of their behavior as we journey with them through the story.
  • Pace: Pacing is about the speed at which the story unfolds. Effective pace ensures readers feel neither rushed nor bored. That doesn’t mean the pace remains steady; a story can include sections of fast-paced action and slower cool-downs.
  • Viewpoint: In each chapter or section, readers should understand who the narrator is—whose eyes they are seeing through, whose emotions they have access to, whose voice dominates the narrative. It also means understanding the restrictions in play such that head-hopping doesn’t pull the reader out of the story.
  • Narrative style: Is the narrative viewpoint conveyed in the first, second or third person? The choice determines a narrative’s style.
  • Tense: Is the story told in the present or the past tense? Each has its benefits and limitations.
3 Things You Should Know:

3 step recipe for fiction editing by Louise Harnby for BookWorks.comThere are different types of developmental edits—full-novel edits in which the editor revises (or suggests revisions) that will improve story; critiques or manuscript evaluations that report on the strengths and weaknesses of the story; and sensitivity reads that offer specialist reports on the potential misrepresentation and devaluation of marginalized others.

Different editors handle developmental edits in different ways. One might include an assessment of genre and marketability; another might not. Some editors revise the raw text; others restrict the edit to margin markup. Check what you’re being offered against what you want.

Developmental editing isn’t about checking spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

Step 2: Baking the Mix—Sentence-level Editing

A strong sentence elevates the story; a poorly crafted one can bury it. This level of novel editing revises for style, sense, flow, consistency, and correction, and it comes after developmental work.3 step recipe for novel editing by Louise Harnby for BookWorks.com

You’ll hear the stylistic element referred to as line editing, substantive editing, or stylistic editing. The technical element is usually called copyediting. To complicate things, some editors lump the whole lot together and call it copyediting. Sorry!

The stylistic element includes:

  • Authenticity of phrasing and word choice in relation to character voice
  • Character-trait consistency and unveiling
  • Clarity and consistency of viewpoint and narrative style
  • Cliché and awkward metaphor
  • Dialogue and how it conveys voice, mood, and intention
  • Sentence pace and flow, with special attention to repetition and overwriting
  • Tenses, and whether they’re effective and consistent
  • Told versus shown prose

The technical element includes:

  • Chapter sequencing
  • Consistency of proper-noun spelling
  • Dialogue tagging and punctuation
  • Letter, word, line, and paragraph spacing​
  • Logic of timeline, environment, and character traits
  • Spelling, grammar, syntax, punctuation, hyphenation, and capitalization
  • Standard document formatting
3 Things You Should Know:

Levels and steps of novel editing by Louise Harnby for BookWorks.comThere are different types of sentence-level edits—full-novel edits in which the editor revises (or suggests revisions) that will improve the line work; line critiques that report on the strengths and weaknesses of the line craft; and mini edits in which the editor revises an agreed section of the novel such that the author can hone their line craft and mimic the edit throughout the rest of the novel.

Different editors define their sentence-level services differently. Some exclude stylistic work. Others do the stylistic and technical work in separate passes. Some lump them together. Check what you’re being offered against what you want.

One pass of a sentence-level edit is not enough to ready a novel for publication. Final quality control is necessary.

Step 3: Decorating the Cake—Proofreading

This is the last stage of the novel editing process prior to publication. Every manuscript, whether it’s being delivered in print or digitally, requires a final quality-control check.3 steps to perfect novel editing by Louise Harnby for BookWorks.com

A proofreader looks for literal errors and layout problems that slipped through previous rounds of revision or were introduced at the design stage.

Authors preparing for print can ask a proofreader to annotate page proofs. These are almost what a reader would see if they pulled the novel off the shelf. Others ask proofreaders to amend the raw text, either because they’re preparing for e-publication or for audiobook narration.

Proofreaders are more than typo hunters. They check for consistency of spelling, punctuation and grammar, but also for layout problems such as (but not limited to) indentation, line spacing, inconsistent chapter drops, missing page numbers, and font and heading styles. The remit is extensive (download a free checklist).

The art of good proofreading lies in knowing when to change and when to leave well enough alone. A good proofreader should understand the impact of their revisions—not only in relation to the effect on other pages but also on the cost if a third-party designer/formatter is part of the team.

3 Things You Should Know:

3 steps to perfect fiction editing by Louise Harnby for BookWorks.comA proofread is rarely enough, no matter how experienced the writer. It’s the last line of defense, not the only line of defense.

Be sure to clarify with an editor what you want and which mediums the editor works with. Proofreading designed page proofs requires an additional level of checking that a raw-text review doesn’t. And some editors work only on raw text, some only on PDF, and some only on hard copy.

Proofreading is about quality control. The proofreader should be polishing the manuscript, not filling in plot holes or trimming purple prose.

Which Level of Novel Editing Do You Need?

Authors need to take their books through all the levels of editing. That doesn’t mean hiring third party professionals for each stage. Writing groups, self-study courses, how-to books, and self-publishing organizations are excellent sources of editorial support.Levels of editing like steps in recipe by Louise Harnby for BookWorks.com

If you decide to work with a pro, invest in where you’re weakest. You might be a great structural self-editor but prone to overwriting. Or you might have nailed line craft but need help with story development.

Just be sure to order your novel editing process like a good baker.

(Additional reading: Spellcheck Cannot Save You! Book Editors' Roles in Publishing)


Fiction editor Louise Harnby on BookWorks.comLouise Harnby is a commercial fiction editor who specializes in sentence-level work for independent authors, particularly crime, thriller, and mystery writers.

She is an Advanced Professional Member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP), a member of ACES, and a Partner Member of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi).

Louise co-hosts The Editing Podcast, curates a weekly blog, and is the author of eight books on the business and practice of editing. Visit her library of free articles, booklets, and videos.


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