(This is quite honestly the question I’m asked most often, whether intentionally or accidentally, so I’m starting with this. It touches on copyediting-specific issues only peripherally, granted, but with the aforementioned ubiquity of the question, it begs to be addressed first.)
You’ve finally written Magnum Opus and you’re ready for the next step…but there’s no map. Nobody can point to a single, acclaimed guide entitled What to Do Now. Infuriating, right? Isn’t there a one-size-fits-all checklist to get you from “I write the thing” to “The thing is published”?
Sadly, there isn’t. It’s not because the vast world of publishing is poorly organized (well, it kinda is, but that’s neither here nor there). It’s because you have options, all entirely dependent on what you want to do with MO. They roughly break down into two broad paths: self-publishing and traditional publishing.
1) Get the story edited. Some people take this step by way of a writing group, a set of friends, some beta readers, etc.: people they trust to tell them what’s wrong with the story and give them at least some ideas as to how to fix that. This is fine…as long as you realize you’re probably going to get your money’s worth. Yes, this has worked fabulously well for a number of writers—I’m not dinging this approach at all, as long as you are sure the people you’ve chosen are sufficiently knowledgeable about the mechanics of worldbuilding, character development, story pacing and all those big picture aspects of any story. If you’re not absolutely certain that your circle of friends contains people who fit that criterion, you’re probably going to want to dig up a developmental editor (story editor, content editor, simply “editor,” etc.; there are a fair number of descriptions for that job, and they all boil down to someone who can both see and critique the big picture).
Caveat: This ain’t gonna be cheap (in fact, none of the steps cost only pocket change). A dev editor worth her salt is…well, worth her salt. Ask most successfully published authors and they’ll confirm this. Now, you’ve likely heard stories of old pros who bypass this step, and those stories are likely to be true. But the number of those who need no story editing is almost certainly not as high as the number of those who think they don’t. (I’m not being critical of the latter group, mind. Once you’ve learned how to do a thing and gotten into the groove of it, it’s perfectly normal to feel that you’ve mastered it and no longer need any guidance. That being said, a novel is a beastly thing with many moving parts, and the author is, if I may be blunt, almost always too close to it to be able to have an objective view on all parts of it. Unless you run across a bad editor [which, yes, does happen], it almost never hurts to run your work past an editor.) All this is why many freelance editors take credit cards either directly or via PayPal.
1.5) Line editing. Someone checks the flow of your words, sentences, paragraphs and basically deals with how you say the things that you’ve developed in the previous step. It’s the medium-focus art of composition, the turn of phrase, word choice, rhythm and so on. This has more or less disappeared as its own step, the job of the line editor being largely split to some degree between the dev editor and the copyeditor. Hence the grayed-out font in this part. It’s NEVER a bad idea to run your manuscript past a line editor, but given the added time and expense this incurs, and given how dev editors and copyeditors have taken on at least some of this mantle, it’s also not necessarily a bad thing to bypass this step. In the end, as with everything else here, it’s your choice.
2) Next, get the sentences and words edited. Some dev editors do this to some extent, but as a rule, this kind of professionally excessive nitpickery isn’t in the dev editor’s wheelhouse; it’s my neighborhood. The copyeditor. The word nerd. Someone who can judge whether this particular bit of grammar is correct in its context, whether that word/phrase would be used by that character, how those errant commas do or don’t change the meaning you intend to come across, when to use semicolons/colons/hyphens/en dashes/em dashes and so on. Contrary to the belief of some, this is not a by-the-book process. The copyeditor should NEVER just apply the Chicago Manual of Style universally and call it a day. Authorial voice, the kind of narration (especially any aspect that has to do with the narration’s viewpoint), context, verisimilitude and all the things that come from real life: these have a powerful effect on not only when you can break the rules but when you should.
Something that isn’t necessarily obvious out of the gate is that the CE (copyeditor) is also almost always charged with fact-checking, maintaining consistency, testing for coherence and other such particulate-level matters. In principle, this is the author’s job, but anyone who’s been through multiple drafts, multiple editing steps and so forth can attest that all those are pesky little beasts that dart into holes and hide, camouflage themselves, scurry all over the manuscript and otherwise go wherever they’re not wanted (like cats but without the cute internet memes). We typically don’t mind this, as the classic mindset of the copyeditor is one of an extremely, possibly excessively detail-oriented person.
3) Find a formatter. There are people out there who have established themselves quite well as folks who can take your raw Word/Scrivener/etc. document and futz with it to make it readable, pleasing to the eye and compatible with the requirements of whatever self-publishing service you’re going to use, whether it be Amazon, Smashwords or whatever. A formatter takes your words and makes them readable in the final product. They can also cross paths with designers, typesetters and other people who are good at creating a decent final appearance for your book.
4) Cover. Even if you’re going entirely the e-publishing route and thereby skipping the “How does it look on the shelf?” question, people do still see that thumbnail for your e-book…and it can all too easily make or break the potential reader’s interest in your book. Find a cover artist who suits your needs and preferences.
Summary: All this is a VAST oversimplification. There are innumerable small details that I’ve glossed over or stepped over entirely, and there are as many paths to self-publishing as there are self-published authors. The sine qua non of this process is deceptively simple: go find people who’ve done it before. Be patient, kind and receptive to them, as any professional author is busy. They may not have the time or energy to stop and tell you about their own path, so don’t take it personally if they say no. This is also why I said people earlier and not a person; one person’s completely legit, successful path may not apply at all to someone else, so assembling a number of viewpoints on the process is invaluable to finding your own.
In an ideal world, the trad-pub process is simple: 1) find an agent, 2) have them nail down a publisher and 3) go through the above steps with the guidance of said publisher. That being said, how often has the world been ideal? You have to find an agent first, and you have to make sure you’re getting a good agent (it has been said innumerable times that “better no agent at all than a bad agent”)…but what’s “good” for one writer may not be that at all for another. Agents, as with editors, are best when they have a good fit with the author; you can have the biggest shark in the tank on your side and that’s great in principle, but if they don’t love the subgenre you’re writing in, it’s not always a given that they can do their best agenting on your behalf. Furthermore, their preferences on submissions can vary wildly. Some require that there be zero errors in the pitch excerpt, while some have absolutely zero f***s to give about errors as long as they have no trouble reading and understanding. As a result, there are a lot of writers who choose to follow the first two self-publishing steps before they even submit the manuscript to an agent. There’s no right or wrong way in this, only what you want to do. Again, your choice. But it is a choice that needs to be an informed one.
In the end, as I said, this is only the briefest sketch of an overview, and your path may resemble this fully or not at all. What it always comes down to, at every step, is nevertheless entirely simple: do your research. Talk to other people; find out what they’ve done to get where they are. Do this until you have a clear picture emerging from the many-viewpoint noise of what you want to do. And even after you think you’ve achieved that perfectly clear picture, be ready and willing to adapt when you run across the inevitable roadbump or new information.