Independent authors usually know their book will need to be edited before hitting the shelves (both real and digital) - but they might have just a general sense of what that means. I've broken the writing, editing, and proofreading process down into four stages to help you understand it more clearly.
Stage 1: Write Your Book
Work with your writing group or trusted beta readers to get a basic version of your novel down. Workshop it in classes and writing organizations; set it aside for a few months and come back to it. This part of the process might take a couple years or it might take a couple months. Sometimes the book changes entirely through this process, in plot, characters, POV, etc.
Once you’re done with this stage, you have a solid idea of the major elements of the story: which tense is best, who the major characters are, what POV you’re using, what the premise and plot are, the right voice, and so on.
Stage 2: Revise Your Book
Now it’s time to work with a structural editor. You can either send the book out for a manuscript critique at this point, to get an overall sense of what an expert thinks about the book and hear suggestions on how to improve it yourself. Or you can hire a structural editor who will go through the book carefully and advise you on all of the issues mentioned above.
The structural editor will make some changes herself and point you in the right direction for other changes. Expect to see a lot of queries and probably some rewriting at this stage.
Stage 3: Make It “Feel Like a Book"
Once you’ve finished your work with the structural editor (which might take more than one round), and you’re happy with all the elements of the story, it’s time to pass it along to a copyeditor. Some people also call this stage line editing. It’s basically a close read that doesn’t address major storytelling elements but still makes sure the book feels like a cohesive book – mood, voice, timeline, style, etc.
Sometimes you’ll think you’re ready for a copyedit but you actually need a structural edit. It’s fair to ask the copyeditor what they think before hiring them for the copyedit, but they may ask you to make the final call, since it’s your book, after all. Also, not all copyeditors are prepared to make structural suggestions, so they aren’t necessarily the best arbiters.
Stage 4: Polish It
Once you’ve incorporated the copyeditor’s changes and answered any queries, it’s time to decide whether you’re at the absolute end point. In other words, do you want to make any more revisions? Or do you feel compelled to? If you’re ready to let it out into the world, it’s time for a proofreader. The proofreader catches the typos, spelling/grammar/punctuation, and any stray timeline or continuity errors that might have sneaked through. The proofreader will probably have a few more changes for you to make, but they should be greatly reduced from the copyediting stage, and vastly less than at the structural edit stage.
Don’t make the mistake of skipping this step, either. It’s been read a hundred times, yes, but you want a fresh set of eyes to catch niggling errors that would embarrass you if they turned up in the published book. When you’re done with those final tweaks, the book is ready to be printed or published electronically.
You might be thinking that book writing seems more editing and revising than actual writing. In many cases, that's true. The idea behind all this work is to produce a finished product that's every bit as professional as if you'd gone the traditional publishing route. It takes an investment, but it's your baby. It's worth it.