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The Different Types of Editing Explained

My last article, on the pitfalls of self-editing, provoked some discussion about the different types of editing. There’s certainly a lot of confusion around, and it’s not surprising.

There’s line editing, copy-editing, developmental editing, structural editing, substantive editing, and then proofreading. Editors can hardly agree on exactly what’s involved in each type, and that’s because it can be difficult to draw definite lines between each one.

But authors, since they are often the ones paying for the service, need to be aware of what kind of editing their manuscripts need and what is involved in each type.

And it’s all not so complicated. There are really only three types of editing. Everything else is another name for the same thing or an overlap of two. Fortunately, there can be no confusion about proofreading, so let’s start there.

  1. Proofreading

Proofreading gets its name from the ‘proofs’ typesetters produce before the final print run. The text has been laid out into pages, complete with photos, diagrams, tables, etc., if necessary. These used to be called galley proofs (and still are when printed), but, in these days of electronic publications, they’re more commonly called uncorrected proofs and usually come as a PDF file.

At this point, the publisher (a company or an independent author) will have paid for a designer—or will have worked hard themselves—to set the manuscript text into the book’s final format, using a desktop publishing program like InDesign. That means it’s too late to make any major structural changes or even to start deleting paragraphs and sentences (as this has a knock-on effect in the layout of subsequent pages). It can cost a lot of time and money to redesign the book after such major changes.

Proofreading only comes at the end of the publication process. It’s the final check before the book is printed or, in the case of ebooks, before it is published and sent to distributors.

For this reason, proofreading is intended to only pick up the final typos, spelling mistakes and to correct inconsistencies, to make sure, for example, that the word proofreading is always spelled as one word and not proof-reading or proof reading.

In the case of printed books, proofreaders also look for awkward word splits at the end of a line and make sure that there is no ugly single line left at the top of the page from the previous paragraph (known in publishing as a widow) or at the bottom of the page, which really belongs with the paragraph on the next page (known as an orphan).

You need proofreading when

  • you’ve formatted your book for publishing and it needs a final check
  • you want to rid your manuscript of spelling errors, typos and ensure consistency throughout
  • and you want to add the final finishing touches to deliver a professional quality novel to your readers

Proofreading is only done just before the book goes out into the world.

Before that, the text should have at least gone through…

  1. Copy-editing

Copy, in the publishing world, refers to the text. So, copy-editing could just as easily be called text-editing.

Here the editor goes through the text, line by line, looking for typos, spelling mistakes and inconsistencies, which can make it seem a lot like proofreading. But, in copy-editing, the editor will do much more:

  • correct grammatical errors
  • point out redundancies (words that can be cut from the text without losing the meaning)
  • look for repetition (when words or phrases appear unnecessarily repeated)
  • suggest revisions to improve sentence and paragraph flow
  • suggest revisions to improve syntax (how the words are arranged in a sentence or paragraph)
  • make sure the narrative perspective is consistent
  • fact check
  • check the voice is suitable for the target audience (especially in books aimed at younger readers)
  • revise the formatting to prepare the text for publication

Editors work on a copy of the author’s manuscript, usually a Word file, using the track changes function and adding comments to explain any changes and offer revision suggestions. The author can then go through each of the changes and accept or reject them one by one and make any revisions where necessary.

The manuscript will have gone through many revisions before it goes for copy-editing.

The manuscript is, therefore, still at the draft stage when it goes for copy-editing.

It is only when the author is completely satisfied with the plot, story structure, characterization, settings, etc. that the manuscript ready for copy-editing. And nobody, no matter how good, gets all that right with a first draft.

You need copy-editing when you’ve completed a few drafts and…

  • you’re happy with all your characters, plot, story structure and pacing
  • or you’ve worked on your novel so much you can no longer see the mistakes
  • and your sentences and paragraphs still need some polishing

Every manuscript needs more than one draft. If, after several drafts, the author isn’t 100% happy with all these aspects of the book, then it might be worth considering…

  1. Developmental editing

Also called substantial editing, structural editing or full editing. Here the book gets a full, substantial, structural developmental edit. This usually includes everything that’s involved in copy-editing—correcting the text—but it will also include a separate analysis document, detailing—sometimes chapter by chapter—the revisions the author could make to the essential elements of the story (in the case of a novel):

  • setting
  • timeline
  • characterization
  • plot
  • story structure
  • pacing
  • presentation
  • marketability

A developmental edit will come early in the publication process, while the author is still at the drafting stage.

The author will have rewritten the manuscript a few times before it is ready for a developmental edit.

Not every book needs developmental editing from a professional editor. Feedback from competent beta readers or a discerning writing group can be enough to iron out all the wrinkles in the book’s structure.

Note that the words ‘competent’ and ‘discerning’ are key in that last sentence. That rarely means your family and friends, wonderful though they may be. You wouldn’t ask the average lawyer, sales director or math teacher to repair your car, so it’s rarely a good idea to trust them completely with your life’s work.

As with copy-editing, the editor will use track changes to make revision suggestions directly onto a copy of the manuscript, but the developmental edit will usually include a separate critique document

You need developmental editing when you’ve finished the latest draft of your book and

  • you’re still concerned the story takes too long to start or it sags in the middle
  • you want feedback to improve character development
  • you’ve cut a lot of text, and you’re not sure if the plot still makes sense
  • or if you need feedback to improve the drama in your novel

Some editors offer line editing, which usually falls somewhere between copy-editing and a developmental edit. The editor works through the text, as in a copy-edit, but also offers more developmental feedback. This is usually done in comments directly in the manuscript rather than in a separate analysis report, and therefore tends to be less detailed.

And then there’s a critique. You could say this is the opposite of a line edit in that you get the detailed report without the changes to the text.

Other editors might define these differently. The important thing is to be clear what you’re getting before you start working with an editor.

In summary:

  • developmental editing comes early in the writing process, after a few drafts, and not every book needs it (most do)
  • copy-editing is done when the author is satisfied with the story after several rewrites. Every book should be copy-edited
  • proofreading is necessary for only the final, formatted book, right before publication, and every book needs proofreading

In the end, it’s up to you, the author, to decide how much or how little editing you would like for your book. And it certainly helps to be aware of what an editor can do, and what can be done at each stage of your rewriting.


Something new: from February, I’ll be writing a monthly series of articles called Fiction Therapy. I’ll look at the many different aspects of fiction—character development, plot, story structure, etc.—and offer advice and tips to help authors work through the problems in their novels. You can look at some of my previous articles to see the kind of thing I mean. I’ll also be taking question from the WU community. If you have a specific concern about your novel, send a mail to jim [at] thefictiontherapist.com and I’ll do my best to help.

About Jim Dempsey

Jim Dempsey has worked as an editor for more than 20 years. In 2012, he set up his own book editing company, Novel Gazing, and offers proofreading, copy-editing and developmental editing services. The company works with publishers and self-publishing authors. Jim has a master’s degree in creative writing, and uses his passion for stories – all kinds of stories, fiction and nonfiction – to coach authors, helping them to develop their writing skills. When Jim isn’t editing, he’s still reading, and reviewing books for Bookmunch. Jim is a professional member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders.

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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.