February 6, 2018

Editing Processes: How Do We Improve?

Pocket watch with text: When Are We Ready for Editing?

No matter our publishing path, our work always needs to go through an editing process. Our process could be any combination of the following options:

  • We might have an editor(s) at our publisher.
  • We might pay for a freelance editor(s), usually before self-publishing.
  • We might find friends or other writers to beta read.
  • Or at the very least, we need to self-edit.

When are we ready for editing? How will we know? How are those processes above different—or similar—as far as the phases of editing?

I thought of these questions after blog reader Lauren left a comment:

“I’ve been mired in mistakes and the realization that I’ve made just about every craft error in fiction you can make. Passive sentences galore. Confusion at how to weave narrative voice with internal character thought. Explaining everything. Not to mention, no clear editing process…

What comes first? Do I fix everyone on one page, then move to the next? Do a few passes?”

We’ve all been through what Lauren’s experiencing. The learning curve for writing seems huge because it is huge. Massive, in fact. And we can feel a lot of pressure to learn everything—all at once.

Worse, our universal-and-natural tendency to underestimate the learning curve can get us into trouble. We tend to think we’re much closer to being done with learning than we really are because we don’t know what all we don’t know.

That means we might think we’re ready for professional editors (either by paying freelancers or by sending out queries for the traditional publishing submission process) before we’ve learned important craft techniques—much less completed even basic self-editing. Either way, we’re going to struggle and waste time and/or money.

So let’s talk about the learning curve and how it affects editing processes—both with self-editing and with others.

When Are We Ready for the Editing Process?

We need an intelligent guess at where we are on the learning curve before starting the editing process because any advice will be of limited use if we’re not ready to understand.

We might assume the advice is wrong or we might implement only the barest surface edits if we don’t fully understand each craft skill and the feedback we receive.

Step One: Learn about the Stages of Competence

As I’ve talked about before, there are four stages of competence. Understanding those stages is important to understanding the learning curve and why we’re so likely to misjudge where we are along that curve (and thus start the editing process too early).

  • Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence
    This is the “we don’t know what all we don’t know” stage. The biggest problem with this stage is that we can’t research advice, look up tips, experiment with techniques, or otherwise improve until we know the skill exists.
  • Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence
    Frustration is rampant here. We’re faced with a huge list of things to learn, and every time we think we’re getting somewhere with one skill, we become aware of two more skills we need to learn.
  • Stage 3: Conscious Competence
    It’s still not easy to produce quality work—we have to pay attention and put in a lot of effort—but at least we know it’s possible to learn this stuff. However, we also need to keep our ears open for new skills to add to our list of things to learn.
  • Stage 4: Unconscious Competence
    This is the stage we dream of, where we can rely on instinct or other automatic processes to create quality work. But the mind can get lazy, and we all need editing to keep the bad habits leading to the entropy of our skills at bay.

Step Two: Guess Our Stage of Competence

Now, how can we use that knowledge to help us know when we’re ready to begin the editing process?

  • Start a Master List of Craft Skills: Seek out lists of craft skills (such as the list at the link above or the other links in this post) or keep our eyes open for craft advice or techniques.
  • Guess at Our Competence Level for Each Skill:
    • Do we know what each skill entails?
    • Do we really? Have we read multiple posts about it to get various perspectives on what it is, how to identify it, and how to fix it?
    • Can we identify bad examples along those lines in others’ writing?
    • Have we found examples in our own writing?
    • Were we able to fix it?
    • Do we know how we’re still weak at it? (If we don’t think we’re weak in the skill, we’re still blind to our level of incompetence, as there’s always room for improvement.)

If we identify our stage of competence for each item on our master list of skills, we might better know when we’re ready to begin the editing process.

Step Three: Analyze Our Competence Levels

Before we start this step, we should have a fairly long master list of skills. If we can’t think of 20-30 items off the top of our head (and with deeper thought, we should be able to come up with 30-50 items), we’re probably so deep into Stage 1 still that we don’t know what all we don’t know.

  • Are Most of Our Skills at Stage 1?

If we look at our master list of skills we’ve heard of and we’re not sure what those words mean, we’re not yet ready for an “official-ish” editing process. We’re still learning what those skills we need to know even are.

At that point, we don’t know enough to self-edit. And unless we have unlimited resources to have someone hold our hand through the learning curve, we’re still too green to get much out of advice.

To grow and improve from Stage 1, we need to do more research. Add to our master skill list and learn more about writing craft to know what those skills are. Plenty of free resources can be found here (check out the search box in the sidebar) or other writing blogs.

  • Are Most of Our Skills at Stage 2?

If we know what the terms on our master skill list mean, but we’re not able to do the skills, we likely need practice. This is also a great time to reach out to other writers for critique groups or critique partners.

How can we know when we're ready for editing? Check our progress on the learning curve. Click To Tweet

We might not know how to fix our own writing yet, but we’ll often know enough to recognize problems in others’ writing. So even a group of Stage 2 writers would be able to help each other improve, simply by giving feedback on what’s working and what’s not.

As we get closer to Stage 3, at least with some skills, we might find some “official-ish” editing processes bearing fruit. As we learn how to fix issues, we can begin a self-edit. Or we’d know enough about the issues to judge whether an editor is skilled at helping us find and fix them.

Every few months, we can review previous feedback and probably find new insights to apply to our writing, now that we know more about how to find and fix issues. Don’t toss any feedback received during this stage, as it will take a while to learn everything we can from the comments and suggestions.

To grow and improve from Stage 2, we need practice and feedback. Our attempts to fix issues will start out clumsy, but we’ll get better with the help of those two things.

  • Are Most of Our Skills at Stage 3?

If we know how to fix most items on our master skill list, we probably just need help finding issues. We’re all blind to what we’ve actually put on the page compared to what we think we put on the page. Every author—no matter how skilled—needs editing for this reason.

We can try to “gain distance” from our writing to look at it with fresh eyes and complete a self-edit. Or we can use real fresh eyes from beta readers or editors to help us find those issues.

At this point, we’re ready for any type of official edit or submission process. We won’t be wasting time or money by moving closer to our publishing goals.

To grow and improve from Stage 3, we need to work on finding the issues in our writing. Once we’ve found them, we should (eventually) be able to fix them.

We’re Ready to Start the Editing Process—Now What?

Even ignoring the differences of our publishing paths—traditional publishing or self-publishing—just as everyone’s drafting process will look different, everyone’s editing process will look different.

What “should” our editing process look like? Click To TweetSome of us will have strong “beta buddies” to beta read our work. Some of us will prefer self-editing. Some of us might want to hire freelance editors for our work even if we traditionally publish (especially if our publisher doesn’t offer all the editing phases).

Personally, even though I’m strong at fixing issues in my writing, I need a lot of help finding those issues (due to my photographic memory making it hard to see alternatives). So I use beta readers and several freelance editors, ensuring that I have help for each phase of editing.

Whether self-editing or using others’ eyes on our work, an editing process usually progresses through several phases:

  1. content/developmental editing (fix story and character-level issues)
  2. line editing (fix scene and paragraph-level issues)
  3. copy editing (fix sentence, word, and grammar-level issues)

If we’re self-editing, we’d usually make multiple passes on our story to look for one “level” of issues at a time, going in the order above. After all, there’s no point in trying to make our sentences or paragraphs perfect if the whole scene might be cut or rewritten from a different point of view. *smile*

If our publisher doesn’t offer content/developmental editing, we might use our beta readers to help fill in that gap and then use our publisher to edit the nitpicky stuff. Or we might have an easy time finding certain types of issues ourselves and feel stronger in self-editing that phase, relying on others for the remaining phases, where we struggle to identify issues more.

Again, there’s no “one right way” to approach our editing process. But we need to be far enough along the learning curve to self-edit and/or judge an editor’s skills before jumping to the editing step on our publishing path. *smile*

Do you know where you are in the learning curve? Have you ever “jumped the gun” on editing before you were ready, and if so, what happened? Do you have a specific editing process? What does it look like and how does it work for you? How did you come up with it?

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Sieran Lane
Sieran Lane

After looking at your master list from the first link, I think I’m somewhere in between stage 2 and 3. There are areas that I feel particularly confident in (e.g. sentence rhythm and flow) and areas I feel especially weak at (active settings and descriptions). It was helpful and informative to look at a list and go through the items one by one. 🙂

Sieran Lane
Sieran Lane

It’s me again! Do you just need to be “decently good” at the skill to be in stage 3? Or do you need to be REALLY good or even outstanding at it?


“Stage three” usually comes with much hard work, and years of editing one’s own material and that of other people’s material. From what I have learned from professional writers, “Stage One” is hardest for new writers to overcome because they do not know they need to overcome their own ignorance: they need other writers (editors, publishers, readers) to tell them “You need to edit this manuscript because ______” in a careful, polite, yet fact-based way.

My brother wrote a story that he asked me to critique. About 50% of the words were unnecessary; almost every sentence needed edited. I showed him how, but after I showed him why. It stung a bit, I’m sure.

I talked with a publisher and with a book printer regarding one of Douglas Preston’s essays; D. Preston has written around 43 books, 19 of them New York _Times_ best-sellers. The publisher and printer told me they sent the essay to their editor for any “fixing” that was needed, and the editor said the essay was flawless and told the publisher and printer to not “harm” so much as a single letter. That’s “Stage Four,” and it some times takes decades of labor.

Pat Garcia

When I first started writing to get published, I was at stage one, but didn’t know it. Having a good story is not enough. You have to learn how to write that good story so that it is appealing to read and draws the reader in. I find that out as I began to submit to traditional publishers. One of those publishers told me that my story was good but she didn’t have the time to teach me all that I needed to do to make my story great. That’s when I entered stage two and begun reading about the craft and implementing what I read. I also started taking writing classes and going to writing conferences online and in person.
Stage three resulted out of stage two. When I entered Stage Three, I knew within myself, I am ready. I call it the gut feeling, when you know what you know and you know that working with an editor is not a hazard but a blessing.
Enjoyed reading your article. It is very informative.
Shalom aleichem,
Pat G

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Good post, thanks.
I have found that taking advice which really didn’t sit well with me was always something to regret.
I agree totally about the need for fresh eyes, and after six months it’s time to re-read a book I have published and fix any tiny typos. Kindle lets you do that and updates the sold copies.
Not forgetting that even when we think our writing is perfect, a reader may dismiss it as ‘too long’. Attention spans are getting shorter.


Thank you; I was looking for editing advice and TAH DAH! here it be. 🙂


[…] time we talked about how to know when we’ve learned enough that we can start our editing process. As we discussed in that post, we all have a natural tendency to underestimate where we are on the […]


Impressive. Perhaps a little intimidating. I’m glad you said this was an ongoing process–that we never finish–thereby pushing back my initial sense that I needed to know all this yesterday.*smile*


[…] week we talked about how to know when we’ve learned enough that we can start our editing process. As we discussed in that post, we all have a natural tendency to underestimate where we are on the […]


[…] week we talked about how to know when we’ve learned enough that we can start our editing process. As we discussed in that post, we all have a natural tendency to underestimate where we are on the […]

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