The different types of editing can be broken into three major categories: content, style, and copyediting. Some editors might go with only two major categories since stylistic editing bleeds onto both sides. To make matters even more confusing, various editing terms are often used interchangeably or to describe different steps in the process. In any case, what matters most is clarifying how the editor you will be working with defines the task at hand. It goes without saying, always endeavor to educate yourself to better understand the ins and outs of the services you are seeking.
This year, I will be covering choosing an editor, the cost of editing, self-editing for content, the value of beta readers, as well as self-editing for language. Feel free to explore Word Bank’s archive of editing posts. In particular, you may find The Value of Critique Groups of interest.
Types of Editing Defined
Broadly speaking, content editing deals with the style, organization, and concept or deeper meaning of a manuscript. Stylistic editing (line editing) and copyediting both focus on a manuscript’s use of language, but differ in focus. A line edit is intended to shape the language to be more clear and pleasurable to read, whereas a copyedit focuses on correcting errors and ensuring consistency, cohesiveness, and completeness. However, even if an editor is solely focusing on correcting copy, chances are they will still point out any glaring content issues with the manuscript.
Depending on your skill level as a writer and your publication goals, not all of the types of editing may be necessary, but all manuscripts need more than one level of editing. To address content issues would be foolish without addressing language issues and vice versa. When taking the time to make a manuscript truly shine, there will undoubtedly be an understandable degree of overlap between various stages in the editing process.
What if you can only afford one step of the editing process? Some people would say a manuscript evaluation is essential, and others would say a copyedit. If submitting your manuscript to publishing houses, the story must be solid and varying degrees of editing will be provided in-house. If that’s your route, a manuscript evaluation might rank higher. If self-publishing, a copyedit is a must. Perhaps if you can only afford one step in the process, you aren’t ready to submit or publish yet. There are so many types of editing for good reason.
While decent feedback on content can be sought from beta readers and critique partners, a professionally trained developmental editor will notice much more in a condensed frame of time. The more eyes that see a manuscript, the better. If trying to produce a quality manuscript as cheaply as possible, a writer will get what they pay for. Most editors will generally provide a complimentary consultation, a free editing sample, or both. They love to answer questions, but please be considerate of their time. Make sure to sign a contract for services that details the type of editing, turnaround time, and when payments are due.
Of the three major types of editing, content editing goes by the most names and varies the most in the depth of feedback that can be given. Content editing is also more subjective than stylistic and copyediting. Always be sure to establish if you and your content editor are on the same wavelength when it comes to the intended purpose of the manuscript and whether or not you will be able to communicate effectively in times of not seeing eye to eye.
Developmental Editing: This type of editing can help bring a book into existence or assist an author in completing an unfinished one by reorganizing chapters and adding new ones. It is big picture editing. The editor may take on the role of a book coach where brainstorming sessions are held, emails are exchanged, and deadlines for various drafting stages are set. When the developmental editor writes new material to add to the manuscript, this veers into ghostwriting. In some instances, this process begins at the idea level and continues through all the way to a marketable final copy.
Substantive Editing: A substantive edit tends to focus on the scenes and whole pages. It may also be called structural editing or comprehensive editing. Substantive editing is often considered to be on the same level as developmental editing. It is a heavy edit on a finished manuscript that may or may not be in rough shape. A substantive edit usually tackles all three levels of editing simultaneously, though this can vary by the editor’s approach and overall needs of a manuscript. Even though multiple levels are addressed at once, isolated levels of editing will still be needed to continue to improve the draft.
Manuscript Evaluation: A manuscript evaluation offers less in-depth help than developmental or substantive editing. This form of editing may also be called an editorial report, reader report, critique, or assessment. The editor will read through the manuscript and then write a report that will cover content strengths and weaknesses (including marketability) or language issues, but typically both. Some editors may offer a full manuscript critique where comments are left in the margins of each page while also including a follow-up report of some sort.
You can learn more about what publishers do from the University of Chicago Press.
Of all the types of editing, it’s unlikely most authors will hire a third editor to perform a stylistic edit as doing so tends to be on the spendy side. Such editing is typically reserved for trade books from commercial publishers, though it happens less all the time. Make sure you clarify to what degree your substantive editor or copyeditor will address stylistic concerns during their edit. Not enough can be said about putting effort into crafting well-written prose, but then again, this is my favorite part when it comes to types of editing.
Line Editing: The focus with stylistic editing is on paragraphs and sentences. A line editor may not know the agreed upon style guide by heart because their goal is to coax more effective rhythm and sound from a writer’s lines. An excellent line editor will not change a writer’s unique voice, but make it better in ways the writer didn’t realize was possible. If appropriate, the line editor will tweak the reading level of a manuscript for a target audience. Numerous errors are corrected along the way, but the goal is not to return error-free copy. The goal is to return aesthetically pleasing copy.
You can learn more about the difference between copyediting and line editing from the NY Book Editors website.
Editing language for correctness comes in two forms: copyediting and proofreading. As with the blurry lines between line and copy editing, there is also overlap in these two final stages of the editing process as well. The copy editor follows an established style guide, typically The Chicago Manual of Style for fiction and creative nonfiction, that will inform the editing process as they also fill out a style sheet while working on your manuscript. Also be sure to communicate any strong language use preferences before the edit starts.
Copyediting: A copy editor will address issues in the manuscript at the word and punctuation level. This is commonly what many people picture when they conjure an image of an editor in their mind. Errors in spelling, grammar, syntax, punctuation, and capitalization are corrected. A copyedit can be likened to a supercharged proofread in that inconsistencies within the manuscript are also tracked, continuity is upheld, facts are checked, and any legal liabilities are also brought to attention. The copy editor also prepares a style sheet that can then be passed off to the proofreader.
Proofreading: A proofread serves to check the work of the copyeditor as well as catch formatting issues. In traditional publishing, a proofread tends to take place after the book has been formatted for publication in its Word or pdf form, which is called a galley proof. Another proofread may then take place on page proofs after the book has been typeset. In self-publishing, it’s more common to have the book proofread before sending it off to the book formatter. This saves time and money, but when at all possible, an indie author is well-served having their manuscript proofread after it’s been formatted.
Don’t bother with a proofread if you are submitting your manuscript to publishing houses as that will be taken care of in-house if the book makes it into production. As for authors who intend to self-publish, please don’t try to convince yourself a proofread is sufficient before publishing your book. It’s not uncommon for a proofreader at a publishing house to send a manuscript back for more copyediting if it’s too full of errors. As a freelancer, I’ve adopted this approach as well and have learned the hard way to fully assess whether or not a manuscript is ready for a proofread. Ideally, your proofreader should not be your copyeditor.
You can learn more about the difference between copyediting and proofreading from the NY Book Editors website.
What are your thoughts or personal experiences with the types of editing defined in this post?
Please share responsibly. Jeri Walker, 2018. Image credit: Typewriter 1
Thank you for an outstanding explanation of the various editing processes. Since I’m at the juncture of needing editing, this is invaluable information to help me choose. Now I know what to do, what to request, and exactly what to expect.
Shari, I’m glad this post will help you make informed decisions regarding the editing your book will need.
As a freelance writer, I’ve run up against the confusion about what editors/writers do and how & when specific professionals should be called in. I write & rewrite (from my clients’ initial drafts). I don’t do copy editing and proofreading. Of course I’ll tell a client when I catch a typo, but when they want to hire me to proof text I’ve seen over and over again in various versions I have to run in the other direction. As I often work for people for whom English is a second language, I’m fixing all sorts of errors and acting as a sounding board with options for more complex corrections. All this and I don’t refer to myself as an editor. Editing is big, many armed job!
Candy, your example just goes to show how wide a spectrum editing tasks can fall under, and when more rewriting is involved, the term editor might not be used at all as you go with freelance writer since you’re helping with doing a lot of shaping to existing prose. Right now, I’m engaged in one of the rare times I proofread work I’ve copyedited. I cringe when I find errors I missed in the copyedit, but then again, that’s the name of the game 😉 Having a couple of month’s distance from the copyedited manuscript helps as well.
Time between drafts is critical and it does not exist in my business life. I always suggest that clients get an outsider to proof text but…
I totally get that and can relate 😉
A lot of good information that I’m sure is enormously helpful for new writers.
Ken, writing the post was enormously helpful to me as well since doing so made me realize I probably do more line editing than some other copy editors might do.
Fantastic in-depth description of the different editing processes. Thanks Jeri. I’ve shared everywhere 🙂
Thanks so much for sharing, DG!
Such an interesting, thorough post.
Substantive Editing seems to be the best choice as it simultaneously involves content, style, and copyediting.
Manuscript Evaluation captures my attention, due to the fact that it gives the author suggestions, provides notes or a critique… Hence, presumably, it is the author himself who improves his own manuscript. But no everyone are able to deal with it, I am guessing.
Maybe the type of edition also depends (more than we could have thought) on the author´s abilities, literary background and… his perseverance as writer…
Thank you for sharing, Jeri!. Love & best wishes 😀
** But not everyone is able to deal with it, I am guessing.**
Aqui, so many factors go into the editing choices a writer needs to make. For me as a writer, I really struggle with the shaping phase and would love to work with a book coach one of these days. Even though I have had a few of my shorter pieces copyedited by other editors, I know I can do a decent job of self-editing my own work in that arena. Then again, I say that knowing full well anothe set of eyes can always catch what an author can’t see due to being too close to the text.
What an informative and enlightening post Jeri! Language is as important as content because a combination of both make a book worth reading and the editor’s role is crucial.
This is enormously helpful. Thanks. I hired an editor about 18 months ago on the basis of a couple of writing clinics she’d taught. I didn’t even know what to ask for. This will help next go-around.
Julie, working with an editor is such a give and take process. One of my clients wrote the other day she’d always thought copyediting was something that was only done to fix advertising materials, not books. She asked for a proofread, but turns out what she really wanted was a copyedit.
Excellent post, Jeri! I really learned something about the types of editing. It’s amazing how many there are, and you’re input into what to use when is great. Thanks for sharing.
Denise, that’s great to hear. It can be a lot of newer writers and those thinking about self-publishing to take in, but each step does indeed play a crucial role.
Great information on the different types of editing. I was aware of the differences between the three major categories at a high level, but not of the details and nuances within the categories.
Donna, I’m glad this post could fill in some of those nuances for you 🙂
This is really useful information. I remember when I first started looking for editors, I was lost in all the different meanings.
Loni, trying to sort out the differences can truly be overwhelming. Writing this post even made me realize a couple of new distinctions.
Thorough explanation of the various kinds of editing options, Jeri. Thank you for taking the time to write this all out. The value of editing can’t be overlooked. I have stopped reading numerous books I’ve been asked to review because they have not been edited.
Thanks for doing a good job editing my mystery!
RoseMary, that’s understandable you no longer want to read and review books that need more editing. Even when I edit copy, I still warn writers to make sure to proof the text!
This article came at the right time, Jeri. I’m reading and studying it in the next weeks, because I’m going to need these kind of services soon. Amazingly useful, well written and stunningly clear. Thank you.
Alessandro, seeking out editing services is a big step and a daunting one. Do let me know if you have any questions.
At the right moment, you will know, Jeri. Thank you.
Awesome break down of edits. If you haven’t been through the entire process at least once, this is probably pretty eye opening. =)
Crystal, that’s so true. Too many writers don’t take the time to thoroughly investigate what all of the steps are when they seek to do it on their own.
I had no idea there were so many different kinds of editing! One more reason I would hire you if I were ever to write a book!
Meredith, write that book!
This is a fantastic post, Jeri. Defining the many differences between edit types can be confusing for new authors. As a self published author, I’ve been learning this from you in the editing process 🙂 I have learned a lot from you, Jeri, while writing my short story collection.
For my first published book which was non-fiction, the editing was mainly copy edit. But I’ve been discovering that fiction takes more content editing. There’s quite a difference between the writing.
I am currently reading a book that has several typos in it. It’s a real shame too because the book is a good read, has a wonderful message and unique style. I don’t mind a few typos but when there’s almost one in every chapter it gets on my nerves. I’m wondering if this author had an editor and if so, who? (I want to make sure I don’t ever use their services). I can’t find an editor credit on the book so maybe there was none.
Lisa, it’s also possible that the book you’re reading with typos in it did make use of an editor, but only one round of editing was performed. I try to catch as many errors as I can in a copy/line edit, but always advise an author to seek a final proofread from someone else. Only rarely will I do a proofread after a copyedit, and that will be for a few clients I work with on a regular basis and know I’ve given myself enough time and distance from the manuscript between rounds.
Interesting, Jeri. Typos are the main focus of a final or copy edit though?
Yes, copyedits focus on catching typos, but the more eyes that can be on a manuscript, the better.
Fabulous post, Jeri. Until I self-published a book, I had no idea how many levels and types of editing there are. And neither do many writers/authors. I’ve happily shared this post.
Doreen, thank you for sharing the post. Experience is often the best teacher in any endeavor, for sure.