The Different Stages of Editing a Novel

Sophie Playle

It may surprise you to discover there are three stages of editing that a novel should go through before publication.

The first looks at the big-picture, foundational elements (such as story, plot, characterisation, marketability, pacing, voice, etc.). The second level looks at the sentences and paragraphs. The third level is the final check.

Though there can be more than one type of service for each of these levels, normally a manuscript will only need one service from each section.

The service(s) an author might pay for will depend on both their intended route to publication and the state of their manuscript.

The descriptions below should be taken with a pinch of salt. They aren’t set in stone, and what one editor chooses to offer may be slightly different to what another editor chooses to offer, even though they call their services the same thing. For example, my line editing service also contains everything described under copy-editing.

Here’s a summary of the different services at each stage:

Stage One

Manuscript Critique

A summary of the strengths and weaknesses of a manuscript.

  • Story: Is it engaging?
  • Plot: Does the structure work?
  • Completeness: Are there parts missing?
  • Characters: Are they interesting and do they serve the story?
  • Style: Is the point of view handled well? Does the narrative flow?
  • Pace: Is it right for the story? Do readers want to read on?
  • Theme: Does the story have depth?

Developmental Editing

Intensive, specific feedback on how to improve a manuscript.

  • Addresses everything in a critique but at a deeper level.
  • Advises on muddled point of view, lagging tension, inauthentic characterisation, specific problems in the plot, scene structure problems, where to strengthen theme, etc.
  • May suggest restructuring, rewrites or to delete parts of the story.
  • Helps authors bring their novels closer to their intended vision.

Stage Two

Line Editing

Makes sentences artful in the way they flow, and correct and consistent in the way they’re presented.

Aims to fix:

  • Awkward phrasing
  • Clunky syntax
  • Unintentional ambiguities
  • Misused words
  • Inappropriate tone
  • Ineffective use of cliché
  • Repetitive sentence structure
  • Minor inconsistencies in the plot (e.g. such as a change in eye colour or spelling of a name)

… and more!


Makes sentences and paragraphs clear in meaning, error-free, concise, and consistent in style.

Aims to:

  • Correct grammar, punctuation, spelling and typos
  • Eliminate text-based inconsistencies (e.g. in capitalisation and hyphenation)
  • Conduct basic fact-checking (such as brand name spelling, historic dates, etc.)
  • Ensure standard manuscript formatting
  • Mark up the text for typesetting (usually for publishing-house clients only)

Stage Three


Does not aim to assess or improve the manuscript but instead acts as a final check to ensure everything is correct.

  • Addresses nearly all the same issues as a copy-edit
  • Makes sure that the work of the author, editor and typesetter has been carried out to a satisfactory standard
  • Marks up any errors and flags up any last issues

I’ve written a more detailed description of each service in my post ‘Everything You Need to Know About Finding and Hiring a Freelance Book Editor‘.

Want to become a professional fiction editor? Take a look at my online courses.

Sophie Playleis a professional fiction editor. She specialises in developmental editing, critiquing and copy-editing, and loves working with authors and publishers who are passionate about high-quality storytelling. Speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction are her genres of choice. She's an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and has a Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more:

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