On Editing: Methodology

When I'm not working on my novels, I'm a developmental editor. My job is to make people write better novels than I do. I like my job. It's fun. It's entertaining. It's rewarding. It isn't easy, and it takes up a great deal of time, but every time a writer improves and they realize they've improved, I feel like I've done a little bit of good for someone. I'm very proud of the editing work I do, and I'm not ashamed in admitting this.

Usually, when someone asks me about how I edit, I ask one of my clients if I can showcase a scene or chapter of their novel to show what my potential client is in for. My style of editing isn't for everyone. It isn't for those who aren't ready to work hard to see their novel become the best it can be.

One of my clients wanted to know about my editing process. At this point, I floundered a bit. I don't have just one process. I change my project with each manuscript. Why?

No one manuscript is the same.

I wouldn't repair a Toyota Corolla using a BMW's car manual. The same applies to novels. I have to cater my editorial to each and every client. Developmental editing must change from project to project because not every project has the same problems. The same author can write a book with strong characterization and weak plot, but in the next revision, write strong plot and forget the characters.

What I do is use a few basic types of editorial to help improve a client's manuscript.

The Line Edit

As a developmental editor, my job is to try to fix all of the problems in a manuscript. That's right, all of them. Repetitive grammar errors, syntax errors, word choice errors, character development, character arcs, plot lines, and even conflict and tension pacing. There is a lot I look for when I'm editing. If it can be stronger, even if it is a fussy, fiddling, nit-picky little thing, it is my job to mention it.

I will use the comment feature in word to address the fiddly little corrections. However, depending on the client, depending on the manuscript, and depending on how polished the manuscript is before it gets to me, line edits may stop happening as frequently after the first three or four chapters. They might loiter around to the very last page. If the author is someone who catches on really quick, I won't beat the dead horse. If they need the errors pointed out do to dyslexia or another reason that requires me to point out every last one, I'll highlight or comment as necessary.

I try to pick out at least four, five, or ten different examples of the same error. At the same time, I do my best to explain why it is an error.

While my primary job is to edit, my secondary job is to teach. I want to put myself out of business. I want my clients to develop their skills to the point where they need me to confirm that they got it right the first time.

Note: Everyone needs an editor — at least one editor — to make a novel better. No one can edit their own novel completely. I'm an editor, and you better believe that I have an editor of my own!

Every author, however, needs different types of editors. One of my clients does stellar copy and line editing of her own. She catches more of her own mistakes than most I know when dealing with her own manuscript. It never ceases to amaze me. However, she has other weaknesses, which is why I was hired to help her novel be the best it can be.

With her, my line edits are more likely to involve highlighter and snarky commentary instead of grammar lessons or homework assignments to hone skills. Yes, I am a jokester at heart, and jokes are littered throughout the manuscripts I edit. I try to pick clients who can handle and appreciate a sense of humor, because that much nitpicky work goes down better with a side dish of laughter, and I try to be extremely thorough.

At her request, she wanted named. Geeze. Yes, Brooke Johnson, I'm talking about you.

The line editing process doesn't vary much, as the comment tool in Word is best to show the fussy fiddly bits I love pointing out, even if it is a comment like, “I don't like this line and I'm not sure why.”

Yes, I write comments like that. Sometimes I just don't like something. Sometimes I just like something. I try to give the author these emotions I experience as I edit as I'm reading through, as I feel this is important information for them to have.

What someone is doing right is just as important as what needs improved.

Character Editorial

When I edit, I read a manuscript as though I'd just purchased it. I read until something bothers me. I comment on what bothered me and continue to read. How this method gets on paper changes, but I often don't leave this path of reading. First reactions are very important for me as a reader. I want to capture these points for my clients.

Characters are hard to edit. An author has to work on several levels to get characters perfect for their stories. An author needs to know who the character is now, who the character was, and who the character will become. People change, and I expect this to happen with characters. People make rash decisions. People make calculated decisions. People can approach the same problem in different ways each time it is presented to them, based on what is happening in the ‘here and now' of the story.

There are several ways I can deal with characters, but once again, it depends on the manuscript. Not all characters are created equal. Sometimes, a problem with a character is a one-off situation. I tend to put this in the comment feature or mark it in the manuscript like this:

// This is an example of how I will interject thoughts that are too long for a standard comment or need me to be able to do stuff like this:

Things to consider:


  1. This
  2. And this
  3. And that...

I will also include general thoughts about the character development, main and secondary, at the end of each chapter or scene, depending on the manuscript. Some authors write stellar characters that need very little fussing. Others have major foundation problems with characters.

No manuscript is the same as another — this is just one way my process can drastically differ between projects.

Plot Editing

This is shockingly simple. Take everything I wrote about character development and apply it to plot. That's the start.

Continuing from there, there are things I look for with plot, and it is also pretty simple:

Does the story make sense? Yes / No.

Is the plot supported by the characters and their decisions? Yes / No.

Is the plot reliant on ‘circumstance' to proceed? Yes / No.

Is the plot one of ‘convenience'? Yes / No.

I have a lot of questions I ask myself as I read in the efforts of stabilizing the plot. However, my job is to make certain the plot functions in terms of telling the story.

It is my job to offer ways to enhance the plot to increase tension and conflict without losing sight of what the story is actually about.

It is my job to make the read as enjoyable for readers as possible without sacrificing authorial intent on the altar of marketability.

That said, I am not afraid of telling a client when I do not feel a plot is marketable, while also providing ways I think that it could be improved or ways to resolve the problem.

A lot of my plot commentary happens at the end of a scene or chapter, but I will do interjections as necessary.

Proof Editing

While I line edit to point out mistakes, I'm not a proofing editor. It isn't my forte. I always recommend that my clients find a proofing editor that matches them. While I can do proofing edits, because I focus on developmental editing, if I've seen the manuscript before, I have the same exact problems the author has.

When I do proofing edits for my own novels, I leave them to sit for a week and work on something else. It takes at least that long for the read to be really fresh for me, though I can work on a project I have dealt with recently if I must.

It just means I tend to make more mistakes, which is really not good in a proofing edit.

Style Editing

One thing most clients hate being told is that their style needs improvement. I'm not going to pull the punch on this. Writers who don't have years of work and effort into their style need to improve it.

Errors are not style.

Fragmented sentences every other line is not a style.

Run-on sentences for the sake of complexity is not a style.

Purposeful misuse of language in the effort to be unique is not a style.

A style is a way of crafting words and flow in a way that is unique to you. Yes, those who know the writing rules can break them — but those who know the writing rules won't break them without just cause for emphasis.

Breaking the rules because you feel like it is not a style.

The best writers I've read break the rules, but they do so with grace, with planning, and with style. Their breaking of the rules is not the foundation of their style.

When I edit, I always try to keep in mind that every writer has their own style, but if the style doesn't have a strong foundation, it isn't a style — it's an error.

My job as an editor is to point out when a style has become a mistake — and in some rare cases, when a mistake can become a style.

It isn't personal. You can have your style. Just don't forget your readers. They want to enjoy reading, and errors prevent them from enjoying their reading. Fragmentation is a great example. Sometimes, it can make a significant impact. It can be the finishing blow to a reader's heart, the escalation of tragedy, defeat, and triumph.

When used correctly.

(Do you see what I did there?)

Fragmentation that happens frequently is a bit like riding a bike over a storm grate. Not only do I run risk of the tires getting stuck, I risk my teeth falling out of my head and my brains dribbling out of my ears due to the repetitive rattling!

I could continue this post for a lot longer, but I think this might provide a little bit of insight on why I have to adjust my editing style with each and every manuscript.

The only methodology to my editing is that I work to improve each manuscript one page at a time until I reach the end of the book.

Leave a Comment:

Ashley St Laurent says October 5, 2013

What are the beat books for self editing? Also if I or anyone that reads your blog wants you to edit their story would you do it? Or do you only edit stories for people living in your area?

    RJBlain says October 6, 2013

    I edit for people around the globe, but right now my client list is full. I won’t be picking up new clients until after the New Year and I’ve finished working with some of the clients I currently have agreements with.

    As for self-editing books, I don’t have any to recommend. What I do recommend is picking up copies of grammar books, and the various manuals of style. If you aren’t a strong hand with grammar, it’ll take a lot of research, but the style guides help keep things in your novel consistent, and the grammar books will help you learn what errors you’re making.

    Self-editing is a double-edged sword. Every author needs to learn how to self-edit, but every author should also invest in an editor or three.

Ashley St Laurent says October 5, 2013

Best I meant sorry I am typing on my phone.

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