Editing Part 1 – What is editing?

Editing is a job that is mostly misrepresented and overwhelmingly misunderstood. Behind most great works of literature is a dedicated editor.

As an editor one of the most frustrating misconceptions about our role is that we simply fix spelling and punctuation errors. In fact, that is the most inconsequential part of our job. Our role starts with the big picture:

Is this manuscript working? Why is it/isn’t it working? How can I help my author’s work reach its full potential? Where are the plot flaws, how can I help the author fix these? Would this MS read better if it started half way in? Should the structure be linear or non-linear? Has this author fully developed the voice? Are the characters believable? Do they have the right names? Are there too many characters? Is the setting believable? How can I help to bring the setting to life? Where is the most appropriate and engaging place to leak information about the setting? 

The list of this type of questioning goes on and on, as we work with the author to add detail, pull back detail, lengthen the MS, shorten the MS…

What we do and how we do it then changes according to whether it is fiction or non-fiction, for books or magazines, for new authors or established authors…

Until you have experienced editing/been edited you might not fully grasp what an editor will do for your manuscript, in partnership with you. That’s why I decided to write a short article, ‘What is editing?’ to help you understand a little more about what working with an editor entails. To better illustrate our role, my intention is to follow this up with book-specific articles, outlining how MAA editors approach particular manuscripts for editing, how we work with authors, and what it means to be an editor. We will take a closer look at working with an editor as an unsigned author, as well how we work with authors through trade publishing houses. So here we go …

[Note: Don’t forget to post any questions you might have, and I will be sure to respond!]


Editing is a big beast and not something that every author knows what to expect from, or how to tackle. Every edit differs according to each manuscript’s needs, and there are different levels of editing that can be conducted. There are three main editing types:

  • Structural Editing: (also known as development, content, or substantive editing) focuses on structure, style, voice, POV and content. The editor flags specific issue areas – structural difficulties, poor pacing, plot or thematic inconsistencies, dialogue concerns, undeveloped characters, stylistic troubles, lazy writing etc. The editor may assist with rewrites to fix the above issues to the MS by including this in the edit.
  • Copy Editing: (also known as line editing) is editing at the sentence level, focusing on paragraph and sentence structure, word use, dialogue rhythms etc., with the aim to create smooth prose flow. It also includes correction of common errors (grammar, spelling, punctuation), incorrect word usage, word repetition, logic lapses, continuity problems etc. The editor will also often fact-check the work to the best of their ability.
  • Proofreading: Checking for typos, spelling/punctuation errors, formatting mistakes, and other minor mechanical problems.


Editing is an important part of the writing process. If you’re self-publishing, and are serious about building a readership then editing is critical. As the self-publishing field matures, it’s becoming evermore crowded and competitive, and if you want to stand out from the crowd and give good value to readers, it’s essential that you present a professional product. Structural editing and copy-editing are an important part of that.

Editors also have a place if you intend to seek traditional publishing. A qualified editor will help you bring out the full potential in your writing and hopefully make it more appealing and marketable, which may make the difference between whether it is ‘publishable’ or not.

Alternatively, an editor might come in handy if you have been submitting (what you consider) your polished manuscript to literary agents for some time and accumulating rejections. This might indicate that there is something lacking in your manuscript, but you might not be sure what it is. An independent editor may be able to help you identify the issue in order for you to move forward in your publishing journey.

Generally speaking you would look at editing services once you have exhausted all your own energy on writing and self-editing your manuscript. You will get the most out of editing when it is in the final stages – when it has gone as far as it can with you alone working on it. It is often good to have some input from constructively critical friends before seeking out a paid service.


When hiring an editor, keep your expectations realistic. There are things even the best editor can’t do for you. There’s no set formula for dynamic plots or well-rounded characters or even good prose. And even the most accomplished editor can’t turn a bad manuscript into a good one, or a mediocre manuscript into a blockbuster.  They can only work with what’s already there.

Good editing can improve your manuscript, but finding publication depends on more than just the quality of your work. Effective targeting of your submissions, editors’ judgment of readers’ tastes, the perceived marketability of your book, and what the publisher is already publishing all play a part.

An excellent, polished manuscript is essential, but it’s just one piece of the total picture. There are no guarantees that it will secure you a publishing deal.


The Manuscript Agency editors are professionals with a vast experience in the publishing industry and in the wider book industry. We have editors who specialise in a number of different genres – this means we should have someone who will suit your manuscript genre and style.

To see how the editor of ‘An Adventurous Spirit’ (by Heather Hawkins, published by Murdoch Books in 2017) approached the manuscript for editing, visit our next blog entry. This might help to give you a sense of what is involved in a straightforward structural/copy edit of a pretty ‘clean’ manuscript.


About Kit Carstairs

Kit Carstairs has background in book and magazine publishing, academic research, marketing and broadcasting. She has almost a decade of experience working with a wide variety of content including: fiction (adult and children’s), general non-fiction (craft, gardening, home improvement, general DIY, food titles, natural history, general reference, photography) as well as working with corporate (marketing and sales material, business reviews and papers) and academic content (research publications and thesis). Having worked both as a freelance editor and as an in-house editor and project manager in publishing, Kit has a comprehensive understanding of the importance of content development and the need for authors to be proactive in developing manuscripts that represent their full potential. As well as providing manuscript assessments Kit is also able to offer her editing and proofing services (POA) as well as fast and accurate transcribing services (POA). Contact Kit to discuss these services in more detail. Kit lives and works in the inspirational surroundings of the Blue Mountains, in Australia's New South Wales.



Editing Part 1 – What is editing? — 2 Comments

  1. Is it the role of the editor, after reading the MS, to simply take a deep breath, place the MS gently on the table and tell the writer “this is bloody awful. Do you have any other hobbies?”

    Just curious.

    • Hi Gary,
      It is the editor’s job to be objective and provide concrete and constructive feedback on the MS they are working with. If I didn’t feel that I had anything to offer to an author then I probably wouldn’t take their MS on for editing in the first place – but that doesn’t always mean the MS is ‘bloody awful’, it simply means that I don’t feel that I have anything constructive to add to the writing. I would be honest with the author in saying that ‘there’s work to be done’, but I wouldn’t tell them to give up. At the end of the day, who am I to say that to someone? People write for so many different reasons, often because they simply love to write and enjoy the process. Having said that, I will always be honest about the weaknesses of a manuscript (as well as the strengths, of course!). The same goes for an appraisal; we will tell you ‘what isn’t working’ but we are never in a position to say ‘give up!’ Writing is a skill, and like all skills it can be improved upon with practice and diligence. A first manuscript might be incredibly average, but subsequent manuscripts might be truly wonderful – as the editor, you just never know what someone’s capacity for growth and learning. So, a quick response to that questions is: no. I would never tell any author that they should give writing away and try something different 🙂
      Thanks for the question!

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