Welcome! Here at Bookbutchers we help authors edit books that people want to read. That part is super important, but too often overlooked. You see, there’s a huge secret to publishing successful novels and it’s this:
- they have to satisfy readers
If that sounds obvious, keep in mind that most of the writing advice you’ve ever read has been about *not* writing to market or considering your audience, and just tuning into your passion. That’s because writing a book is hard and enthusiasm is your greatest weapon, at least in the beginning.
But MOST authors, ride this wave of enthusiasm by putting their head in the sand about all things publishing or marketing, and then think they just need an editor to clear up their book before selling a million copies.
It doesn’t work like that…
The four stages of book editing
There’s a lot of info about editing books online and most of it will define the stages like this:
- developmental editing $$$ (story)
- copyediting or line editing $$$ (sentence)
- proofreading $ (words/typos)
That’s not too hard to understand, though it makes it tricky to hire an editor or decide what level you need. Before you even begin looking for an editor though, you should self-edit your novel, because even the best editor won’t be able to do ALL the heavy lifting your book probably needs.
After getting a PhD in Literature and writing a few dozen novels – even though I go through my books 8 or 9 times usually, I’ve broken it down into four main steps I think are most useful.
- What actually happens
- Why it matters
- How it looks
- Now it’s ready (or is it?)
#1 developmental editing (what)
Developmental editing is mostly about making sure the story is all there; all the things that happen, impact the story. You’re building a house of cards. A good story will be precisely balanced so that everything is essential and if you remove one piece, it falls down. This takes balance, and usually (but not always) starts with a plan.
What most authors have, is a pile of cards – and they expect readers to sift through it all and then put all the pieces together and “see” what the author is seeing. If you’re new at this stuff (and in my experience even very experienced authors need help with developmental editing or big picture story issues) it may be really tricky to see the forest for the trees.
This is what “kill your darlings” is all about – it’s hard to know what to cut or move. But don’t worry about that yet. You have to see the big picture first and then just add a few things to make sure the readers can ALSO see it – often the links are there but not stated in the text, so the author takes for granted that readers will make certain connections that don’t appear on the page.
Developmental editing is the most expensive because few editors are actually qualified at high-level story structure. I’m a plotter myself, so I tend to have well-constructed, satisfying books. But I have panster friends who actually have, in my opinion and most readers as well, *better* books (more gripping, more exciting, more drama and tension… even if the story barely holds water or will fall apart if prodded with questions, it doesn’t matter… as long as it’s moving fast enough that readers don’t have time to poke holes).
BUT! Here’s the important part – you don’t need to edit or clean your manuscript in the beginning. It’s probably messy and ugly and you know it. You might think an editor can help you *build your house of cards* or put the pieces together, but that’s what a ghostwriter is for, and it’s SO MUCH EASIER to figure things out yourself and fix it, ideally before you start writing, than it is after the fact.
When I start working on my rough draft, it’s basically a half-finished novel with some great pieces and scenes but it’s not complete. Editing is half of the writing process. You can’t expect an editor to write half your book for you. The best we can do is point out what your really story is with comment, so you can go back and edit or rewrite things. That’s what usually happens with your first novel. The more experience you have, however, the less you might need a developmental editor, especially if you learn to plot and plan as you go.
#2 character motivation (why)
You probably noticed, my list of four steps doesn’t match the common levels of book editing. That’s OK. When you’re self-editing your novel, after you go through it and fill in the blanks and actually have something HAPPEN in each scene, then you can move on. Just in case it wasn’t clear earlier, the point of every scene is that something changes or develops. Action, imposition, education… there is something new and usually unexpected. That’s the point of the scene – that’s usually where the scene ends also.
You might have a nice and pretty scene where nothing happens. You don’t need to cut it, you just need to add something. Each thing that happens will later be a small piece of your protagonist’s final decisions or actions in the final battle scene. But it’s not enough to have things happen. It also has to matter: it has to make an emotional impact on your characters or be relevant to their immediate story questions or goals.
More importantly, it has to have conflict. Each scene needs three kinds of conflict, because conflict is the full for drama, and without drama you don’t really have an engaging novel, you just have a collection of scenes. Tension and conflict is what pulls readers forward: tension is unresolved conflict. Your goal is to increase the tension without dissolving or trivializing it.
In my second readthrough, once I know what happens, I’ll add in the emotional core and fix the motivation and linear sequence, so it’s clear how it all fits together and matters to characters.
#3 scene description (how)
I’ve learned to save my description until stage three because otherwise I may describe pretty things that don’t need to be in the book. I’ve edited books that are beautifully written, with beautiful description, but none of it is satisfying because the story has no structure (1) or conflict (2).
You want to describe things when your characters are interested in them or paying attention; usually the first time they are somewhere new or when something has changed. Be specific with details and avoid cliches. Add what is different and unique, not what is the same. The laziest description is “it looked just like a stereotypical xyz…”
You can have light description or none at the beginning, but here in stage three we want to beef them up, because readers will remember the pictures, not the words. You also want to fix consistency issues (what are they wearing now, when did they last shower or change clothes, what objects or weapons do they have on them, they went north to Y but south to X… make sure your movements make sense).
#4 Is it ready (now)
Here finally, after three rounds of heavy self-revision, can we move to the actual writing stuff. Most authors skip the first three and focus only on the words… so they *think* they have a beautiful, well-written book and can’t understand why nobody else likes it.
Line editing is about style, making it sound and flow better. I got in a reddit fight recently with someone who said they wanted to be a writer because they have a great vocabulary and I said that’s actually an amateur red flag. New authors use fancy, show-off words. Great authors use whatever words get the clearest and most emotional picture across to readers. WORDS are not the point; the story matters more than anything.
But… pretty writing can be a feature as long as the story is there.
Copy editing is more about punctuation, typos and formatting. Most editors do a little of both in one package.
Finally, proofreading is about fixing last minute mistakes, usually after formatting.
What kind of editing does my novel need?
Well, that’s tricky. In my experience, 90% of new authors have great writing but poor story, because they haven’t ever focused on studying story structure (not just the basic hero’s journey stuff, but real advanced tips on writing satisfying fiction). Some of this, you get better at with time and practice, but you can learn a lot quickly if that’s your intention.
Also, your *first* book probably wasn’t written to market, which means – in many cases – it will never be profitable (you can sink a lot of money into it but never get the ball rolling enough). That’s why we definitely don’t want to encourage everyone to pay for developmental editing, without understanding the commercial risks involved.
I have courses and books and materials to help you learn, but let’s be honest, if you’re here you probably have a finished manuscript already and want to get it out there as fast as possible. That’s why we’ve tried to structure our packages in a way that makes sense for you – but it depends on your budget and whether you’re mentally fatigued and ready to move on or dive back in with edits. You probably spend hundreds of hours writing your book. Are you ready to spend double or triple that amount of time to edit it?
We can definitely make it all much faster and easier by pointing out exactly what your story needs to make it better. That’s the advantage of hiring professional editors. And the expense for your first book might mostly be for your own education, so you can do much better next time.