At The Sharper Quill, editing is the discipline of shaping content to give readers the experience that the author intends. The Sharper Quill offers four levels of editing: developmental, line, copy, and proofreading. Developmental editing structures the book, line editing corrects grammar, copyediting enforces consistency, and proofreading is a final review.
Before I started editing professionally, I thought that there was only one reason to edit a book: to make sure that there are no errors in grammar. Correct grammar is very important because it gives readers better access to content. However, I have learned that content is what gives books their value, not perfect grammar.
The author’s content can be compromised by more than just poor grammar. For example, a sentence can be grammatically correct but have factual errors, employ logical fallacies, convey multiple meanings, mix metaphors, engage in poor rhetoric, and contain plagiarism. A sentence can be mechanically correct but stray off topic, lack cohesion with the paragraph or chapter, and contradict previous statements. Copyediting and proofreading ensure that there are no errors in word use, grammar, and style, while developmental editing and line editing enhance the author’s message by engaging the book’s content.
Lessons from Bestsellers
I worked with more than 1,000 bestselling books as the Senior Research Editor at Instaread, a company that produces book summaries. I quickly noticed that bestselling books are written by outstanding individuals that produce compelling content. An outstanding individual is someone who has been at the top of their field for at least ten years (think successful CEOs), has researched on a professional level (usually a well-known journalist or a PhD), has an ability to engage a lot of people’s emotions (a novelist or a good historian), or has developed a method that has achieved durable success (an inventor or influencer). Bestselling books are usually the result of at least three years of professional research, the documentation of an extraordinary experience, or the presentation of a method or description of a process that has transformed the lives of hundreds of people. If you aren’t an outstanding individual—not many of us run a Fortune 500 company, have a PhD, understand the human condition, or invented something remarkable—you can still produce compelling content. Research that is not professional grade, experiences that are less than extraordinary, and methods that have transformed lives are still valuable and important.
All my suggestions to authors are based on what more than 1,000 bestselling writers are doing. When I edit, I consider how bestselling books are structured and the nature of bestselling content and shape books based on proven success.
Compelling content produces something that benefits the reader immediately. The benefit can be the stirring of positive or negative emotions, the simple joy of learning something new, or the promise of employing a method that has already produced great success for the author. Compelling content is valuable to readers, and agents and publishers appreciate that value. The developmental and line editing process at The Sharper Quill brings discipline and focus to what is compelling in the author’s content.
Developmental editing addresses issues that affect the entire manuscript. A book needs developmental editing if the manuscript is too long or too short for the market. For example, if an author produces a 160k-word draft when the average length of a book in the genre is 55k words, the editor will need to carefully review the entire book to determine what to cut. If the book is 35k words, the editor may suggest that the author write more chapters.
In both fiction and nonfiction, the content needs to make sense to the reader. Developmental editing the Sharper Quill includes rigorous fact checking and a plagiarism review to ensure that our authors’ content is credible. In a developmental edit, I also review the argument for logical fallacies, so the content makes sense. These services are restricted to developmental editing because factual and logical consistency affect the entire book.
Line editing shapes the author’s words to enhance the reader’s experience. A line edit corrects grammar by recasting sentences, improving word choice, and strengthening sentence structure. Line editing is distinct from copyediting and proofreading because it does more than simply correct grammar by using words properly. I select and structure words that best communicate the author’s message in the author’s voice. When I line edit a manuscript, my objective is to create the reading experience that the author intends.
Copyediting enforces consistency in grammar, style, word use, and appearance. If a word is spelled a certain way, is italicized or capitalized, or the Oxford comma is used, copyediting will ensure that those words appear the same way every time. It is a technical and mechanical process that does not consider anything else. Copyediting is done after line editing and strictly focuses on producing a manuscript that is clean.
Proofreading is the final review of the proof to make sure that no technical errors survived the editing process or were introduced in formatting. A proof is the print-ready PDF that has already been professionally line edited and copyedited. Many editors will only proofread proofs that they receive from publishers. I proofread for publishers, but most of my proofreading is for books that I have formatted for self-publication.
Your Voice, Sharper
My objective is for the reader to have the experience the author intends. I offer developmental editing to engage content to make books compelling, line editing to enhance the author’s voice, copyediting to enforce consistency, and proofreading to catch any remaining errors. I begin the editing process with a sample edit of the first 1,000 words of a book. I use that sample to determine what level of editing a book requires and how long it will take me to edit. If you're writing a book, start the editing process today by using the form below.
Nathan Barnes, PhD
The Sharper Quill