July 8th, 2020

The Importance of the Triple Edit

by John Peragine

Completing a draft of a book can feel like you scaled a mountain. You might take a moment to breathe and celebrate. You did it! You are on top, after a difficult climb. And then you notice, as the clouds clear a bit, that you have only scaled the first peak. There are three more even steeper peaks ahead before you can call it DONE! Those triple steep hikes are called editing.

I recommend three different edits completed by three different people. Try to use both men and women and people from different races and backgrounds than your own. They will provide a more diverse edit and provide you a broader perspective on your work.

If you are having the book edited by a traditional press, the process is similar to the experience of self-publishing in which YOU are the publisher.

I don’t recommend skipping any of these edits, because there is nothing worse than a manuscript full of typos, errors, and even plot holes.

Step 1: Developmental Edit

Hold on to your britches because the developmental editor is most likely the first person who will be reading your epic work. This edit usually takes the longest because they are looking at your manuscript through the lens of its overall story structure -- plot, characters, scenes, dialog, and more.

Before you open your editorial review document, have a glass of your favorite beverage and remember: this process is meant to help you polish your work. It isn’t personal.

It may feel personal, but it isn’t. The editor doesn’t hate your book. They love your work and want to help you bring the best version of it into the world. Editors have your best interest, so try not to cry and don’t give up.

Remember this mantra: ALL FIRST DRAFTS ARE CRAP! (Whenever you doubt that, watch this video from bestselling author Maureen Johnson.)

Pour yourself a second glass of whatever you're drinking and dig in. You have work to do.

Step 2: Copy Edit

Most of the time, you will move to the copy edit after the developmental edit. If your book needed a lot of work you might want to consider a second developmental edit, but try to find a different editor with fresh eyes to do it.

The copy edit is a step closer to perfection. Your grammarian will pull apart your syntax errors and dangling participles. They will point out beautiful things such as, “Don’t use the word large again. You have used it 80 times in this chapter. Treat yourself - buy a thesaurus.” (Taken almost verbatim to a comment I received.)

Once they are finished, your manuscript will be ready to sing. You can send out your Advance Reader copies and begin gathering the tons of compliments and reviews of your Pulitzer worthy masterpiece.

But wait…there is one more peak to conquer…

Step 3: Proofread

Many first time authors skip right to this step and believe this is all they need for their edit. If you skip the other two edits, a proofread can be compared to putting lipstick on a pig.

Remember: ALL FIRST DRAFTS ARE CRAP!

I could offer crasser euphemisms to describe what happens when you only have a proofread edit of your work, but I will confidently leave it to your imagination.

A proofread is the time to "cross eyes and dot teas." A good proofreader scans every word, every bit of punctuation, every missing pronoun, and creates a manuscript worthy of being printed on cream-colored paper. (I’m not too fond of white paper; it hurts my eyes. Be kind to your readers: use cream-colored paper.)

The Investment

If you are self-publishing your book, the process I mention here is an investment. Whenever someone asks me how much it will cost, I do my best impression of Dr. Evil and say, “One million dollars.”

The reality is, there is no standard price. It can vary, and more expensive editors are not always the best. More important than price is the output of the editor. The Writer's Market has a great section that offers market prices for editors and the like.

How do you know they're the best person for the job? Here are some things to consider:

  1. Where did you find the editor? There are many great organizations, such as Reedsy. They vet their editors. There are a ton of sites that have lists of freelance editors, but how do you know if they are any good? I hire most of my editors through referrals from people I trust. Ask other authors who they use and their experience with their editor.
  2. Not all editors are the same. I have not found any one editor that does all three kinds of edits well. They usually have one or two types of edits they do better than others. The reason for this is each edit is different and requires different skills. For instance, I tend to use College English professors for proofreaders. They are more versed in grammar rules and writing styles.
  3. How much experience do they have in your genre? If you are writing a YA book, your first choice for a developmental edit may not be a historical fiction writer. You want someone who knows your genre and how the book should read in that genre.
  4. Negotiate price. Most freelancers are flexible. You may even ask them to edit a couple of pages for you before you hire them. (You will, of course, pay them for this.) Tell them what your budget is, and they will often work something out with you.
  5. Editors work hard and often make your book fantastic, where it may have started out mediocre. I recommend you do these three things for your editors:
  • Tip them. A tip can be money or perhaps a nice bottle of whiskey.
  • Acknowledge them in your book. Your grandma should be thanked for all the recipes you stole from her to write your cookbook, but be sure to thank the editors who made the words sing on the page.
  • Refer them to others. If you like their work, send them to other authors. More work is the greatest ‘thank you’ you can give them.

What are your common writing mistakes? (Come on- we won’t judge.) Who do you recommend as an editor, and why? Share the love down in the comments!

*  *  *  *  *  *

About John

John Peragine has published 14 books and ghostwritten more than 100 others. He is a contributor for HuffPost, Reuters, and The Today Show. He covered the John Edwards trial exclusively for Bloomberg News and The New York Times. He has written for Wine EnthusiastGrapevine Magazine, Realtor.com, WineMaker magazine, and Writer's Digest.

John began writing professionally in 2007, after working 13 years in social work and as the piccolo player for the Western Piedmont Symphony for over 25 years. Peragine is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. His newest book, Max and the Spice Thieves, will be released this Fall. https://www.facebook.com/twilightdjinn/

39 responses to “The Importance of the Triple Edit”

  1. Terry Odell says:

    My long-standing editor is no longer taking freelance work, so I scouted around to find a new one for my current book. It's a stand alone, so I'm not concerned a new editor won't "get" (or have to read) all the other books in a series. I found her via an editor group website, which was recommended by a friend. I also went to another site people had recommended, then I sent samples and looked at what they did to them. I don't want a heavy-handed editor who is just marking things up so he/she feels useful, but I don't want someone who has very little to say. I ended up with an editor who does two full passes; one developmental and one technical. I have critique partners who catch a lot before it gets to the editor. Before I publish, I use Word's Read Aloud feature instead of hiring another editor. The ear catches mistakes the eye misses. And, since I'm reading along as the cursor bounces from word to work, I can also see any last-minute punctuation errors, etc.

    I've read books that were obviously "Proofread" instead of "Edited" --or at least started them.

    • John Peragine says:

      I had not thought about the word read along feature. That’s brilliant!

      • Terry Odell says:

        It's a great feature. If I read aloud myself, I still miss the mistakes, but the computer reads exactly what I've typed. There are some funny pronunciations, and abbreviations or acronyms might be mis-read, but those bits keep your attention focused. It's become my final pass before I publish.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I'm with John...that's a super-brilliant use of that feature, Terry!

  2. Some great explanation and advice here, John. (Though I'm not sure about the whiskey.... 🙂 ) All the types of edits can be so confusing--I like how simply and straightforwardly you break them down (and YES, all three are essential if you're self-publishing and hoping to compete with the big boys). And THANK YOU for posting about ways to find an experienced, reputable editor, and what to look for! There's no official certification or training for someone to call themselves an editor, and anyone can hang out a shingle--authors should make sure they are spending their money and energy on those with solid experience in their field (i.e., books, not magazines, newspapers, academia, etc.) and in their genre, and who have a verifiable track record. And finally YES YES on the sample edit--you wouldn't buy a car without a test drive; please don't spend thousands of dollars without seeing whether an editor is a good fit for you and your story. Thanks for this post!

    • John Peragine says:

      I think about editors like I do cover designers - each has their own style and may not be a fit for your particular book.

  3. Thanks for a great post! Editing is critical to a good story, and finding the right fit is so important for writers. I agree, using multiple editors makes my story better. But it takes time and money and lots and lots of patience, and sometimes you wonder—is it really worth it? Thanks for the reminder that building a winning team is hard work, and how important it is not to ignore this vital part of the process.

    • John Peragine says:

      It is about a winning team. My team changes from book to book because my genre and subject matter changes - so I’m always on the look out for new , great editors!

  4. Ericka McIntyre says:

    Such great advice here, John!

    It is vitally important that you have all three of these edits done on your books. They do not look for the same things; each is different, and just as necessary as the other. I have had many authors ask me if they *really* need all three--yes, you do.

    Make sure you are polite and professional with your editors, and always pay them promptly--this business is very close knit and if you try to stiff someone on their bill, or are a terror to work with, people will find out. You are building your platform and community with every interaction, so always keep that in mind. You don't have to agree with everything your editor suggests--you do have to be courteous and professional when discussing it.

    Editors are here to help you tell your story the best you possibly can. We're your friends, truly!

    • John Peragine says:

      OMG YESSSS! please pay them on time! I hate chasing money!

      • Jenny Hansen says:

        There's nothing worse than chasing money, and when the zero's add on, the stress gets even higher. I have a question about this - do most editors take a good portion of the money up front, or are they paid entirely on the back end? I'd think that would be incredibly stressful.

        • Ericka McIntyre says:

          I can't say how all editors do it, but I take a small deposit upfront, which gets refunded at the end, but most of the money doesn't come until the end, or if it's a really long project, at milestones. I also vet my clients as best I can, but I still have about one client per year who tries not to pay....I have been lucky enough that they have all paid so far though (after lots of hounding). (And no, I don't work with them again if they do that [yes, sometimes they still ask, bizarrely] and yes, I do make sure other freelancers know--freelancers talk--don't stiff us!). Not paying freelancers is no different than eating (and enjoying) an entire steak dinner, then saying, "Oh I hated this, I am not going to pay now." It's theft, plain and simple. You pay your plumber, you pay your hair stylist, you pay your dentist--pay your freelancer. If you want to get your hair raised, google "world's longest invoice"--you would not believe how many people try to get away with not paying. The Freelancers Union has actually worked on legislation to try to address this. Not cool man. Not cool. /rant over. LOL

          • John Peragine says:

            I have had a few not to pay- So explain to my clients this way- they are paying ahead- not behind- kind of like an attorney. When they want more work they pay more- if they don't- we stop. It's an out for me and them. Shit happens like Covid and I don't like holding clients hostage. It is a mindset- that if they don't like I am doing- we stop. I am already paid for the work I produce whether they like it or not, but it does reduce the risk of moving forward if they are not happy. It works best with larger projects such as ghostwriting. For editing- anything under $1500 they just pay up front because that is not worth arguing or going to court over for either side. I can't think of a time a client said no way. When I explain that is the way I do business, they tend to respect that. I like to get all the contracts and money out of the way first- keeps things clean and we can just concentrate on the work.

            • Ericka McIntyre says:

              You know John I never even thought of doing it that way! I have gotten my estimates down to a science now (years ago starting out I didn't!), so it seems reasonable I could ask for more up front. I may try it going forward and see!

              • John Peragine says:

                It's a game changer Ericka. It is about knowing your value AND...you are running a business- you are not just the hired help. Businesses have rules and policies. It takes the focus off of you being a solopreneur and being JUST a freelancer. People's mindset when you are a business is very different- and they respect that more. Think of it this way- If you had a small cart in which you fixed Iphones on the street, would people stop by compared to having a VAN with a logo of your apple repair business (GEEK SQUAD did this very thing). Same skills, same person, same service different response. People have no problem stiffing the hired help- but they have a harder time trying to screw a business over. I am all for negotiating and making clients happy- but at the end of the day I am running a business. That begins with the contract which says that there is a late charge added to late payments. If a client is late the first time- I send an invoice with the late fee- and then at the bottom I take that late fee off with a note that I am giving them a first time late fee forgiveness. Trust me- they are not late twice because now, they feel I gave them a break and they would be embarrassed to do it twice. Here is a little secret- when I tell clients that they must pay the entire amount for jobs under $1500, I am able to up sell them because they want the payments split up. Jeez- maybe I should write a blog just about this....

                • Ericka McIntyre says:

                  I think you should! The money side of this business for us is something NO ONE ever seems to want to talk about! I bow to your wisdom, sir. I am making some changes to fee structure going forward FOR SURE.

  5. Yvonne Müller says:

    Hey John,

    thanks so much for this article. I'm a novice writer and having it spelled out in such a clear and precise way, I finally feel like I understand it. I have a question left for you if that's okay. I'm in an Editor group on Facebook and they emphasize the importance a copy AND a line editor. I honestly don't understand the difference and you don't mention a line edit at all. Can you explain to me what a line editor is and whether it is important or not? I'm undecided yet, but probably looking into self-publishing.

    Thanks so much and all the best,
    Yvonne

    • John Peragine says:

      I think of a line editor as somewhere between a developmental editor and copy editor. They go line by line in your manuscript and make suggestions about style and clarity of your writing- some refer to it as stylist editing. This type of editing makes sure you are accomplishing what you want to do in your writing- It can be more expensive than other types of editing- because it takes longer to accomplish!

  6. Anna says:

    John, this is a great post with excellent comments. Regarding the Editorial Freelancers Association, can you verify your statement that they vet their editors? I am an experienced copyeditor and joined the EFA a few decades ago to have access to their jobs list. I was never vetted; all I had to do was pay my membership fee. I let my membership expire because it was a needless expense. I have plenty of work, thanks to my area of specialization and my contacts in the industry (this is NOT a disguised ploy to get work!).

    When I looked up the EFA just now, I found nothing about vetting. Back when I was an EFA member, I kept wondering about their quality control. Now that you reference them, I still do. Do you have fresh information?

    • John Peragine says:

      Huh, I thought that they did... I will make that correction right now. Thank you for pointing that out.

      • Ericka McIntyre says:

        The rates to join the EFA are fairly high in comparison to other orgs. I doubt you would do it if you weren't legit, but then again, perhaps you would, to try to appear legit. But I don't recall much vetting from when I was a member.

  7. dholcomb1 says:

    I would suggest finding someone familiar with your genre. Ask other authors in your genre for a recommendation, understand there could be a wait, so be prepared. If you write fiction, make sure your editor uses Chicago Manual of Style as their "bible" and not AP. Fiction uses different rules. If you're in the USA, use a USA-based editor. UK uses punctuation differently for a few things, plus there are some language differences and meanings even though we both speak English.

    Don't be afraid to question something if you feel the flagged item is you think is right--know the grammar rules. However, don't nitpick. Choose what you want to fight for, but with a content editor, learn to trust a cut or alteration.

    In addition to proofreading, have the computer read the document to you. Hearing the story might pick up something you missed. It's easy for the brain to miss things because it has a way of filling in the missing words when we read visually.

    Check your document for overuse words. If you change a name or character trait, search the document to make sure you changed it everywhere.

    Denise

    • John Peragine says:

      All great suggestions! I have a vineyard and while I love seeing all the bunches of grapes growing on a vine, I know the day is coming soon that I will have to cut and toss some of the grape clusters. It is so hard to do, because in my mind, more healthy grapes the better- but the opposite is true- by cutting some of the clusters I allow all the nutrients to really perfect the grapes that are left. Editing, especially early editing when I must "kill my darlings" is very similar to pruning my vineyard. The results are worth it!

  8. Good article. Clear and concise. I can personally vouch for how difficult it is to edit your own work-even if you have the help of Beta readers. It takes far more than three edits, for sure.

    On the developmental level, I had the benefit of an excellent, talented critique group, and one particularly knowledgeable and detail oriented Beta reader.

    On the first copy edit, I had my wife–who has 26 years experience as a professional writer and editor, but only in magazine publishing. I made the error of asking her to do the first copy edit (cue the Red Sea). Now I know I should only ask her to do the "last."

    I personally performed three more copy edits and two proofreads before finally releasing my first novel to Amazon in eBook form, one additional copy edit and proofread before releasing it to hard copy, and one additional edit and proofread after its initial printing.

    By that time, though, there were only two or three very minor instances–some introduced by word substitutions during edits. Is it perfect now? I doubt it, but at this point I feel its editing is at least on par with traditionally released novels. Of course, my wife–who is a voracious reader (8-9 literary books a week)–assures me that's a relatively low standard nowadays. Many big publishers release works rife with mistakes.

    • John Peragine says:

      Editing a book is a never ending process- like building a sand castle next the ocean- once you think its perfect another wave of mistakes wipes out its perceived perfection. It is a never ending process. I too have a wife whom I lovingly refer to as my "dream killer". I am very careful to ask her opinion on my writing ideas!

  9. ecellenb says:

    Great article, John! I edit my work as much as I can, and use critique groups, beta readers, and then my wonderful editor who I found through a referral. She enjoys the genre I'm currently writing, which I feel makes a big difference.

    If there are too many errors the work is horribly distracting. There are a lot of good stories out on Amazon that could have been great if they'd been carefully edited.

    • John Peragine says:

      Yes- Amazon is a wasteland of bad editing these days- it is hard to find the hidden gems sometimes. I take a chance on a new author and I can't get through the first few pages due to the numerous typos. ACK!

  10. michellebark190 says:

    Thank you for writing this. I am a published author but also work as an editor, and I can't count the number of writers I encounter who want to skip the developmental edit and move right into copy-editing as a way to save money. Yikes. I edit my own work countless times and have a whole team of other writer friends with whom I exchange my work. I wouldn't dream of sending out a novel without their critical eye on it first. Editing is an essential investment in one's work. You can't hope to find a publisher or agent without it. Even if you're self-publishing—perhaps especially if you're self-publishing—you'll want someone else's input. Preferably more than one person.

    • John Peragine says:

      It is sometimes hard to explain that editing is an investment- many writers move with the assumption that their work is perfect or that editing should be cheap and often unnecessary. I sometimes give a client a one or two page edit (my treat) to show them how their book could read. That usually sells them on the idea they need it.

  11. Eldred Bird says:

    Nothing of mine sees the light of day anymore until I go through at least 3 edits myself, then I take it my critique group. After I deal with that feedback it goes to beta-readers, then another round of self-editing. At that point I'm finally ready to send it off to the three editors I work with. After those edits are incorporated I proofread it once more before giving it to my proofreader so he can find the hundred or so things that have been missed along the way. Seems like a never ending process sometimes, but totally worth it.

  12. John Peragine says:

    As a total aside- What do you all think of the GIF (mini-movie) I used in this and my last post. I think they are fun- but that's just me. Also, I wonder what the lady at the top is correcting...

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