Levels of Editing

What kind of editing do I need? What’s the different between copyediting and proofreading? Can I hire one editor to do everything?

I run into these kinds of questions often, especially with first-time authors. There is a lot of conflicting information on the net, and many editors have their own definitions on what each level of editing entails. This leads to confused authors who want editors to edit for grammar, style, characterization, plot holes, and formatting–all at once. While many editors are capable of each step, editing for characterization and editing for grammar are completely different phases of the process and each step often requires its own pass. I think it’s important to try and create a standard in the industry, or at least a guideline, that is universally known and understood. Based on my own experience and after reading other peoples’ definitions, here are my explanations of the different levels of editing, and what you can expect from me:

Developmental Editing

This is the big-picture editing. Also known as substantive editing. Character development, restructuring the plot, adding scenes, removing chapters, rewriting sections–this is all something the developmental editor assists an author with. Developmental editors will call out areas that need improvement to the author, often suggesting options for the author to decide upon. Note that these are not ghostwriters–they don’t write the fixes, they only point them out and make suggestions. Developmental editors help to develop the book. They are the first responders on the scene, and usually get the book when it’s in it’s worst shape. Depending on the experience of the developmental editor, and depending on whether you’re self-publishing or going for a traditional publisher, you may only need to hire a developmental editor. If you’re self-publishing, hire a copy editor to do one last review. If you’re going for traditional publishing, start sending out proposals and query letters. Publishers will often foot the bill for copy editing and proofreading if the story is good and you have good market awareness and realistic expectations. The fact that you had it developmentally edited will be noticed, especially if you submit the manuscript with a proper proposal.

Line Editing

Also known as stylistic editing. This can border on rewriting in some cases. Line editing is reviewing for style, cadence, rhythm, sentence structure, flow, clarity, and concision. While this sort of editing will also catch many grammatical errors and inconsistencies, the focus is on making the ideas sound good by manipulating the words while also retaining the author’s voice. Depending on how heavy a line edit is, the author may need to have the editor, or another editor, copy edit the manuscript.

Copy Editing

Copy editing is reviewing a manuscript in a word document for grammar and consistency. It is often a purely mechanical edit, only correcting technical errors. Depending on the copy editor and what the author wants, copy editors may also call out areas where the text can be improved stylistically or where phrasing could be more concise. They will usually call out any areas that are conceptually unclear. I tend to do these extras unless an author specifically requests a mechanics-only review. Copy editing and line editing are often confused, and they can often blend together, especially if an author and editor are going back and forth with multiple rounds of editing.


Often mistaken with copy editing, but this is a very different stage. This review is conducted after a book is laid out. Galleys or large printed pages used to be sent to a proofreader, who would have to mark any formatting, consistency, or grammatical errors by hand, then send the printed pages back to the publisher. Rinse and repeat. Nowadays, these pages are often sent as PDFs. These people are the last line of defense for errors. They usually see the manuscript in its best shape, but they also have to catch the easiest-to-miss errors that have slipped by everybody else. In the self-publishing realm if you’re only publishing digitally you don’t need a proofreader, you need a copy editor (unless you’re doing a fixed-format e-book).

I can do all of these levels of editing. I normally won’t do them all at once, unless it’s a very short manuscript. I recommend that all authors have at least two editors review a manuscript–either a developmental or line editor once, depending on the state of the manuscript, and then a copyeditor (or a proofreader if it’s being laid out for print or fixed-format digital) for the final review.

And remember: Every editor is unique. Everybody has their own definitions. Any time you’re thinking of working with an editor, clarify your expectations. Get a sample edit–a sample edit will tell you more about an editor than any resume or conversation ever will.

Further Reading/References:




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