Editing is more complex than just fixing misspelled words (though that is an important step)! There are four types of editing that every manuscript should go through: developmental editing, line editing, copy editing, and proofreading. Whether you are self-editing or working with a professional, it’s useful to understand what these stages involve.
1. Developmental Editing
Also known as structural, substantive, or content editing, developmental editing is all about the big picture. Structure, tone, character voice, point(s) of view, worldbuilding, pacing, dialogue, consistency, plot development, and character arcs are all within the realm of developmental editing. It’s the first step after your draft is complete and beta readers have sent feedback.
Questions you might tackle during a developmental edit: Does the pacing feel too fast or too slow? Are the characters drawing you in? Is the dialogue full of tension? Is every scene necessary to the plot?
While beta readers will point out where something feels off (“I got bored here” or “this character doesn’t interest me”), a professional developmental editor will tell you why something isn’t working and suggest solutions.
2. Line Editing
Also known as stylistic editing, this usually comes after developmental editing and before copy editing, though some freelancers will offer two or more types of editing at once (which can be a cost-effective option if you are an indie author on a budget). Line editors focus on paragraph-level issues instead of broader story issues. They are less concerned about grammar or spelling and more about tone, clarity, and word choice. Here are some common problems that line editors work to correct or improve:
- Writing in passive voice.
- Using too many adverbs or adjectives.
- Telling vs. showing.
- Using unnecessary words or phrases.
- Unclear phrasing.
- Unintended shifts in tone.
- Mixed metaphors.
3. Copy Editing
Copy editing involves fixing inconsistencies and grammar issues—dangling modifiers, incorrectly-placed commas, passive voice, misspellings, who vs. whom vs. whose, etc. This stage comes after developmental and line editing, when the text is mostly finalized.
Copy editors also use a style guide, specific to the publishing house, your novel, or your author brand, to ensure consistency. The style guide, as the name implies, answers stylistic questions—will your novel use American, Canadian, or British spelling? Do you put spaces between em dashes? Do you use the serial comma? Do you spell out numbers or use numerals? If you are hiring a freelance editor, you can provide them with a style guide or they can make one for you.
Proofreading is the final step before sending the manuscript to the printer. It’s done after your book has been laid out into the file that will be sent to the printer. This is your (or your publisher’s) last chance to double-check spelling, look for typos, adjust widows and orphans, and fix any minor errors.
Traditionally published authors probably won’t be involved in this step at all. Self-publishers, of course, are in charge of every process.
Do I Need to Hire Four Separate Editors?
In an ideal world, you would hire someone to do each type of editing (either different people or the same person who does multiple rounds). However, many people can’t afford this. I’m an indie author as well as a freelance editor, and I certainly can’t. I normally hire one editor, maybe two, in the areas my book most needs. My fiction writing needs the most work in the early stages, so I hire a developmental editor. My nonfiction writing usually just needs one more set of eyes before publication, so I hire a copy editor (and my copy editor does some line editing as well), then I do the proofread after layout.
When deciding what type of editing your book needs, consider what area you need the most help in. Does your structure, pacing, and plot need a lot of attention? Hire a developmental editor. Do you want your sentences to be coherent and the reading experience to be pleasant? Hire a line editor. Does it need attention to grammar or a final check before printing? Hire a copy editor or proofreader.
Working with an Editor
Here are a few things to look for in an editor:
- Experience in the type of editing you’re looking for. Some editors do all four types of editing, others specialize. Make sure your editor has experience with the type of editing you want for your book.
- Experience in your genre. You want your editor (at least your developmental editor) to be familiar with your genre. Someone who regularly edits romance novels may do a satisfactory job on a sci-fi novel, but someone experienced in speculative fiction will do it better.
- Willingness to both encourage and challenge you. It’s helpful to have an editor who points out what is working well in addition to what needs attention.
- Willingness to work within your budget and time frame. I also recommend asking them to do a sample edit before committing your whole manuscript.
- Respect for your author’s voice. Constantly trying to force you into a different voice (probably theirs) is the sign of an inexperienced editor. You want an editor who values your unique voice and helps it to come through while suggesting improvements.
- Ability to suggest solutions. Your editor should recommend fixes rather than just point out problems. (e.g. “This feels rushed” is pointing out a problem. “What if you added some dialogue between these two characters here about X topic, which will slow down the pace and add character development” is suggesting a solution.)
Remember, you do not have to take your editor’s advice. If you consider their suggestion carefully and decide it’s not the right move for your story, that’s perfectly okay. I’ve heard several authors mention they take about 90% of their editor’s suggestions and reject the other 10%. As an editor, I appreciate when writers carefully consider a suggestion and then work a new solution that makes more sense for their voice. An editor’s word is not law. It’s your story, and their job is to help you make it the best it can be.