The Editorial Process: A Guide for the Friends and Family Members of Writers

I recently completed a round of revisions and resubmitted my debut novel to my editor.  A few days ago, I got the happy news from her that she is content with the revision.  Now we’ll move into the line-editing stage.

Lots of people in my life – people who are extremely supportive of my writing – have no idea what I’m talking about when I mention revision and line edits.  I’ve recently had several conversations like this:

Friend:  What’s the news on the book?
Me:       There isn’t any, really.  I’m revising.
Friend:  That’s great, you’re working on your next book?
Me:       Nope, still revising the first book.
Friend:  (Visibly confused) But I thought you said you already sold the first book.

If you are a friend or family member of a writer and aren’t sure why the writer in your life is still working on a book you thought they finished months ago, here’s how it works in traditional publishing (with novels, in any case – picture books involve art and that process includes additional stages).

1. Writing the book

This part can take years, particularly with a first book.  Lots of revising and editing happens during this time, but it’s all self motivated – the writer revises and edits in order to prepare the manuscript so that it is strong enough to sell.  Some writers do this all on their own, but most don’t: they ask friends to read the manuscript and give their opinions, they join writers’ groups, or they attend industry conferences to seek feedback from editors, agents, and other writers.

2. Selling the book

This is the stage where most authors seek the expertise of an agent, though some work without one.  Many agencies, including mine, often request a revision round of their own (this can happen before or after signing with the agent), before sending a manuscript out on submission.  When writers say their books are “out on sub” it means that their agent has sent the manuscript to a number of carefully selected editors whom they believe will like it, in order to generate interest (and even, potentially, a bidding war).

Ideally, one or more of these editors falls in love with the manuscript and wants to acquire it.  There may be another round of revisions at this stage, if an editor believes that a manuscript is more likely to make it through acquisitions if there are some changes to content first.  If all goes well in this phase, an editor/publisher makes an offer to the agent/author.

3. Book contract

After an offer is accepted, an author receives a contract.  A contract includes many things, one of which is a deadline by which the final manuscript must be delivered to and deemed acceptable by the publisher. It’s common for this deadline to fall about a year prior to the actual publication date.

4. Editorial letter and revisions

The editor who acquired the book now writes the author an editorial or revision letter, suggesting/requesting that changes be made to the manuscript.  Such a letter may be brief and ask for only a few changes, or it may be epic, requiring the author to engage in extensive revisions that are essentially complete rewrites of the book.  The author revises, then resubmits to the editor.  This stage often takes several months or more (and if you’d like to know why all of these steps take so long, from an editor’s point of view, read this excellent post written by my editor, Cheryl Klein).

Depending on what shape the manuscript is in when it emerges from revisions, it may go straight to the next stage, or it may be returned to the author with another letter detailing suggestions and concerns.  An author may be obliged to revise the work several times before it moves forward.

5. Line edits

This is when the editor suggests changes at the word and sentence level and asks for additional changes, clarification, or cuts wherever they may be needed.  The author changes, clarifies, and cuts, and sends the manuscript back to the editor for acceptance.

6. Copyedits

An accepted manuscript moves into the copyediting phase.  Copyeditors correct grammar, find continuity errors, and ask additional questions where needed (they do many other things as well, as Bill O’Sullivan explains far better than I can).  Authors make the necessary changes, consulting with the book’s editor along the way.

7. Home stretch

Here, the manuscript leaves the editorial process and goes into production.  At this point, as far as the author is concerned, the book is complete. A few tweaks may remain, but it’s pretty much out of the author’s hands.  Additional work continues – on the next book, the blog, the Twitter account, the professional conferences, and the various other things that writers need to do.

During this phase, the writer in your life will be all aflutter about ARCs. These are advanced reading copies of the book, which publishers provide to booksellers, reviewers, and known writers (or other celebrities) who might provide blurbs for the book cover.  They are bound and printed (in paperback) much like the actual book will be, cover design and all, and they are used as a final proofing stage.  Most authors get precious few of these, and may share them with friends and family as well as using them as marketing tools.

8. Publication

When the writer in your life tells you “I sold my book!” get ready to be excited – for a long time.  Publication usually doesn’t happen until at least 18 months after a book contract is settled, and often publication dates are set two or three years into the future (it can be even longer for picture books).

So don’t plan that book-launch party just yet.  Stay excited for your writer, though, during the many months ahead, even if it seems to be taking forever.  I feel very lucky to have friends and family who are enthusiastic for the long haul, who are willing to be thrilled with me over and over again, and who will listen when I share my fears (like losing control of the book, or the eventual reviews and the nausea they cause even now). It’s the nicest thing that my community of loved ones can do for me at this point – wait with me for the big moment, and squeeze my hand while I see it through.

Many thanks to children’s author and genuinely nice person Laurie Thompson for her assistance with this post. 


1 Comment

  1. Megan, this is Sara from old Bellevue-Barnes-and-Noble days. Oh, please, please, please let this be you!!!! I have been trying to find you for ages and don’t know how Google never pointed me to your blog before today! Email me at I would LOVE to rekindle our friendship.

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