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Dear Track Changes: What are the Nuts and Bolts of the Editing Process?

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Dear Track Changes,

I’m about to go forward with an edit on my novel, and I found myself wondering what was actually going to happen between now and the deadline. Obviously, it’s going to get edited, but what are the nuts and bolts of that process? How do you tackle a project?


Workflow Curious

Dear Workflow Curious,

I THOUGHT YOU’D NEVER ASK! As a member of the human race, I constantly find myself compelled to talk about what I do all day, but rarely find an interested audience. Trust me, by asking this question, you’re really saving the ears of some unsuspecting party guests down the road. I’m happy to give you a window into my process. But of course, keep in mind that all of this is extremely personal—one of the nicest things about being a freelancer is that you are free to work however works best for you, so mileage varies a TON between different editors. For example, I have colleagues who like to truly take license with their schedules, doing as much work at 1am as 1pm. I, on the other hand, freed myself from the shackles of a 9-5 job only to find that I kind of like working…9-5, 5 days a week. So yes, since you asked, I’m boring.

I basically break the editorial process into two phases, the initial edit and the editorial letter writing process. The initial edit is the more time consuming of the two phases, but the editorial letter is more complicated. I like to allow myself about a month of work for an average ms—3 weeks of initial edit, and 1 week of letter writing—though that can go up or down by about a week if the ms at hand is particularly short or long. Also, since comprehensive edits take a lot longer than manuscript critiques, I sometimes tweak my timetables based on what kind of edit I’m performing.

The initial edit is where the bulk of the work in the ms happens. For a manuscript critique, that usually means a close read of the book and usually notes in the margins to highlight strengths and weaknesses. For a comprehensive edit, that means doing a full markup of the prose, reshaping the sentences and also keeping an eye on broader issues. I like to edit my first time through the book, which is a bit of a difference from how I used to work in publishing. As an editor or an agent, you are pretty much never doing editorial work on a book you haven’t already read, since you would have always needed to read the book fully to evaluate its potential. There are definitely plusses and minuses to that approach, but overall I actually think it’s more advantageous to edit on the first pass—after all, most readers aren’t going to be reading a book multiple times, so it’s important to experience it as they do, with a clean slate. That always raises some questions that are better answered after I’ve finished the book, but I’ll double back and catch those in the next phase.

As for the schedule of the initial edit, I’m pretty methodical in the way I work, and again, in a not-so-thrilling way. I just take the number of pages in the book (say, 300) and divide that by the number of editing days I have (say, 15). That’s 20 pages per day, which is probably my most ideal pace on any single ms—enough per day that I make plenty of forward progress, but little enough that I can go as slow as I need to without feeling pressured to go fast. That’s crucial for me—my biggest flaw as an editor is that I sometimes go pretty slow, which is fine as long as I don’t have a huge page count looming over me. That’s a luxury that editors at publishing houses rarely have—with lots of editing to do that is all on quick turnaround, it frequently becomes about how many pages you can churn through per hour, which isn’t much fun. I know that scheduling carefully helps me avoid that situation, so I’m diligent about keeping to my schedules.

Twenty pages per day doesn’t sound like much, and that’s because on its own, it’s not. In an ideal world, I would have three projects going at once, which helps me stagger deadlines and use the different mss to change up my day as I work through each one, keeping me from getting stuck in a rut with any one book. Then add on things like trial edits and followup calls, and the days fill up alarmingly fast. That means a daily editing load of something in the vicinity of 50-60 pages, which is about right. Much less and I start twiddling my thumbs and much more and I start to feel hurried.

The editorial letter writing actually starts with quite a bit more work in the manuscript. Throughout, I’ll leave myself notes in the margins when I feel like I need more context from the rest of the book to properly address a passage or ask a question. First, I go back through those notes, cleaning them up and using the bigger questions I raise to put together the skeleton of the letter in another document, making myself a map of the big points I want to raise. That usually takes me about two days. Once the letter has a bit of shape, I take another two days to flesh those ideas into a full letter, pulling together examples where necessary, and trying to help the author formulate a plan of attack for the revision. On the final day, I trim and polish the letter, going back through to make sure it makes sense, and basically editing my own work. I try to get the materials delivered by early afternoon. I always pledge to myself that I’m going to do a ton of work on other stuff once I’ve met a deadline, but I usually find myself a little exhausted and never manage to accomplish much.

So hopefully that gives you an idea of how at least one editor edits!

Track Changes

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