The Primacy of Self-Editing

With six books under my belt, I’ve learned the importance of self-editing (as well as the value of a good editor).

Most authors who have been through the formal publication process understand this, but it can’t be emphasized enough. In a conventional publishing process, the manuscript is submitted to the publisher and subjected to several rounds of editing. The “cleaner” your manuscript, however, the quicker it will actually get to market. So the more you can do upfront the faster the process will be. I’ve personally cut off months from the publishing process by paying attention to editing.

The normal publishing process works like this. Once the author finalizes her manuscript, it goes to her editor at the publisher. The manuscript then goes through a series of edits. First, an editor reads the manuscript to determine if major changes are necessary. Are important elements missing? Are there contradictions in the argument (if nonfiction) or story (if fiction)? Often, two or three people may look at the manuscript and comment on it at this stage. Then the author makes changes to the manuscript. Usually, this part of the process doesn’t have a deadline, and it can take weeks, sometimes months, to revise if the comments are extensive and the manuscript isn’t polished.

Then, the manuscript goes through another edit to check the changes the author makes. Sometimes, major comments are sent back to the author at this stage, too, as the publisher tries to tighten up language and ensure the book is positioned properly for the market. This can easily take 3-4 weeks.  Again, I’ve known manuscripts (not my own) to take months to get through this process.

Once these comments are incorporated, and the editors are satisfied, it goes to a copy editor. The copy editor looks for syntax, grammar, and more obvious inconsistencies in language and argument. This can also take up to a month to turn around. Sometimes, “heavy” copyediting may be necessary if breaks in storylines, or inconsistencies in the style, argument or main themes are still embedded in the manuscript.

Once copyediting is done, the manuscript will also go through proofreading.

It’s easy to see how the editing process can add a year or more to the production schedule of a book. That’s why it’s critical for authors to send a manuscript to the editor the first time in the best shape possible. I’ve literally shaved months off the production schedule through this kind of rigorous self-editing (which also requires some humility and willingness to acknowledge your own writing weaknesses).

This became very clear to me as I was writing my last two non-fiction books on transportation policy and traffic congestion. The first, The Road More Traveled, was on a very tight production deadline. We couldn’t afford delays, or we would miss important release windows. So, we had to get this manuscript to the editors in top form. We were able to lop off a good three months off the production schedule by essentially collapsing the process to one major editorial review that led directly to light copyediting.

Most recently, I found weeks shaved off a very tight production schedule when A Warrior’s Soul came back from the editorial review process and determined the manuscript was in good enough shape to just need “light” copyediting.

That gives me a little breathing room as we advance toward the July 2011 release date.

Author: SR Staley
SR Staley has one more than 11 literary awards for his fiction and nonfiction writing. He is on the full-time faculty of the College and Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University as well as a film critic and research fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California. His award-winning Pirate of Panther Bay series ( has won awards in historical fiction, mainstream & literary fiction, young adult fiction, and reached the finals in women's fiction. His most recent book is "The Beatles and Economics: Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and the Making of a Cultural Revolution" due out in April 2020 (Routledge).