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The 5 Stages of a Manuscript: The Path to Publication

Where the writing of your book is lawless, murky, and full of unexpected twists and turns, once your manuscript is done, the path to publication is clearly defined and involves only 5 stages. Do these, and you'll soon have a book that's ready to meet its readers!

Completing a rough draft of your book may be one of the hardest, most emotional, and greatest life-force draining/filling/draining-again efforts a person can undergo. But once you make it to the finish and have the manuscript in hand, the path to getting it prepared for publication is clear, specific, and involves a maximum of 5 easy-to-understand stages.

(And thank goodness for that; after the tumultuous process you’ve just endured, you’ve earned some predictability. And a nice cup of tea (or “tea,” as it were)).

*If you decide to DIY some of the preparation for publication, you may not even go through all 5 stages; however, given the competitive literary market, it’s highly advised to bring on an editor or skilled literary professional to make the path to publication a smooth one, and one that ends in your book ending up on the shelf.

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The 5 Stages of a Manuscript: the Path to Publication

Once you have your hard-earned sweat-stained manuscript in hand, the 5 stages of preparing your manuscript for publication are as follows:

  1. Manuscript Evaluation or Developmental Feedback

  2. Structural/Developmental/Story Editing

  3. Copy & Line Editing

  4. Proofreading

  5. (Optional) Publication support, editing submission materials, consultation on marketing initiatives, formatting for self-publication, author website design, and other aspects of the “business” side of selling your book

  1. Manuscript Evaluation or Developmental Feedback

Manuscript Evaluation: for early-stage manuscripts

The first step with any early-stage manuscript is to get a sense of how it is coming across as a cohesive reading experience. You as the book’s creator are not able to be objective, so getting a constructive manuscript evaluation (preferably from someone who does not love you*) is an excellent first step on your path to publication.

*Tempting though it is to have friends or family read the work, try to resist. Even if they tell you they “love” it or gush that it’s “so good,” apart from the quick hit of dopamine you’ll get from their kind words, you can’t practically do anything with them and may walk away feeling emptier than before you started.

In fact, judgement, whether positive or negative, can actually be harmful to you and set you back with your work (read why that is HERE).

word like with x through it

Need further convincing?

Because a novel or memoir isn’t a one-note thing but rather a complex experience, one designed to inspire change, challenge people’s thinking, bring about meaning, healing, or catharsis, and above all, invite conversation, it’s imperative you share it with someone who is able to embrace that complexity appropriately and meet your manuscript with identification and clarification commensurate with the complexity of the work.

~ “Why You Don’t Want Your Editor to ‘Like’ Your Writing”

Rather than issue judgements, which are subjective, an editor will articulate what they see happening in your existing draft. In a comprehensive letter, they will constructively detail how you can refine the work in line with its purpose by speaking to all aspects of the craft that go into building a successful narrative or book experience.

From macro to micro, they will identify the structure, purpose and pacing, narrative voice, the balance of scene and exposition, character development, use of language, and so on.

In this way, your editor is partnering with you in your creative process rather than judging it, and their constructive suggestions and solutions give you an excellent foundation from which to begin revising the work.

Developmental Feedback: for later-stage manuscripts

If your draft is further along such that you’ve had it vetted, have revised it, and now feel it’s “pretty darn close,” rather than a Manuscript Evaluation, you will instead benefit from deeper Developmental Feedback.

Developmental feedback offers the same comprehensive evaluation plus extensive margin notes. These notes give you a play-by-play at the line level of comments, questions, suggestions, and more.

Whether you get a Manuscript Evaluation or Developmental Feedback, these assessments give you actionable suggestions for improvement that you can follow like a road map in order to help you approach the revision with a clear plan for what to do and how to proceed.

map with vintage photos and camera and plant

(cue Muzak while you tuck in and revise the work)

1A: Applying the Notes Yourself: First Revision

After spending some time applying the strategies and solutions from your manuscript evaluation or developmental feedback (which you may do either on your own or in collaboration with your editor who will help guide the process, keep you accountable, and further support you through your draft’s development), the book will be ready for editing.

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2. Structural/Developmental/Story Editing

The first editing step—Structural or Developmental editing—is a holistic process that helps the book arc or develop properly.

Paying attention to the traveling mechanism of plot or purpose, your editor (or you if you’re doing this phase yourself) will ensure the work evolves through its development (in line with whether it’s a novel, memoir, or nonfiction work) to illuminate, elucidate, inform, and effect change (either in the characters, in the reader, or both).

You may cut or relocate sections or even plump up sections to best fulfill the structural integrity of the book. This creative process is a valuable insurance policy that your book takes your reader through the requisite journey you’ve designed- and dynamically so.

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copy editing handbook on notebook with pen and sandwich

3. Copy & Line Editing

During this hands-on editing phase, you or your editor will sift through each sentence, making sure every last line is lean, clear, tonally appropriate, and energetic.

You will lean heavily on your ears as well as your skills in grammar, punctuation, syntax and hearing the music of the line to lyrically deliver the work most effectively through its language.

This is also when you will consider standardizing language use, spellings, and other formatting conventions based on a particular style guide, so the reading experience is cohesive throughout.
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chicago manual of style

4. Proofreading

In this last important stage, you or your editor will “check every tooth” of your manuscript.

*If you are aiming to publish your book, it is highly advised you have an editor perform this last step. You’ve seen the work too many times, and your eyes are too familiar with the lines to catch errors.

During this stage, your editor will read your work aloud to confirm the manuscript is clean with no typos or missed words.

In a world where a missed comma can make or break your submission’s chance of making it to the “accepted” pile, or when a self-published work with errors is dismissed as “amateurish,” this last step is a critical one.

Grammarly is OK in a pinch, but it’s got nothing on a trained human proofreader.

5. (Optional) Publication support, editing submission materials, consultation on marketing initiatives, formatting for self-publication, author website design, and other aspects of the “business” side of selling your book

Once the manuscript is ready, you still have a few last items to prepare your book for publication. Additionally, once it’s ready for sale, there are myriad marketing efforts you’ll want to do as you shift into serving as your own small business owner and look for ways to gain visibility as an author to sell your book.

[Read: The Top 6 Marketing Efforts You Need to Promote Your Book]

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Preparation for Publication

Having your editor support you along your path to publication can be invaluable. They can:

  • advise you on your publication options
  • edit your submission materials for literary agents or independent publishers (cover letter, query, nonfiction book proposal, and sample of your book)
  • help you stay organized in your approach with spreadsheets and consultation
  • assist or advise on your “platform” (vital for all nonfiction writers) and on your social media presence
  • advise or build you an author website
  • advise or format your book for self-publishing (e-book and print) and upload it to the various online bookseller platforms

During this time, it is affirming and reassuring to have your editor as a sounding board and guide by your side. Having their support will free you up to focus on getting your book out into the world and into your reader’s hands (while you simultaneously hunker down and begin writing your next project)!


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