For the love of god, can someone please explain the different types of editing to me before I abandon society to live in the woods?

April 8, 2022

What are the different types of book editing

Type “book editor” into the search bar and you’ll turn up all kinds of different results: copyeditors, proofreaders, content editors, developmental editing, substantive editing, line editing… It’s overwhelming, right? 

What are all these different types of editing anyway? How much editing does your manuscript need? What types of editing are must-haves, and which are nice-to-haves? How can I know what my manuscript needs? Why do they all sound kinda the same, and why didn’t anyone explain this process to me earlier??

So if you’re feeling confused, rest assured you’re rubbing elbows with a lot of very smart and attractive people. So many authors come to me with these exact same questions—which is why I figured it’d be a good idea to give you an at-large explainer of the different editing types and when you need them. Shall we?

The way I see it, there are three stages of editing every manuscript should go through: 

  1. The Big Picture Stage
  2. The Detailed Stage
  3. The Eagle-Eye Stage

And yeah, the order matters. Mostly because A) you want to nail down your macro-level edits (the big picture stuff) right out the gate; B) the decisions you make at the book level will influence your decisions at the chapter level will influence your decisions at the sentence level and so on; C) it doesn’t make sense to do it the other way, and you’ll waste your money and time if you do. 

So, streamline your structure before you untangle sentences. Strength-test your argument before you worry about misspelled words. Sharpen your central message to a razor’s edge before you even think about zhuzhing up your anecdotes. That way, you can make your editing process as efficient as possible. Capisce?

And so we start with the Big Picture Stage. Secure your tray tables, stow your carry-on, put away all large electronics, and let’s zoom out for that panoramic perspective.

The Big Picture Stage

The Big Picture stage is all about taking that 35,000-foot view of the entire book. Think outline, structure, argument, and a logical flow of ideas. These are the most fundamental elements of your book—the bones if you will—and you want to make sure the bones are good.

And that means you’re looking for developmental editing.

Developmental Editing

Okay, first things first: If you’re writing a nonfiction book, you need a developmental editor who works with nonfiction books. Same goes if you’re writing fiction—find an editor who works with fiction books. And that’s because each one requires an entirely different approach. (Seriously, I’ve been doing this for a decade and I wouldn’t even know where to start with editing a fiction book.) Nonfiction is where I live, so when I talk about editing assume I’m talking about nonfiction editing.

Developmental editing is macro-level work, meaning your developmental editor won’t focus on the finer details of your writing. Instead, they’re hunting down those major issues that could derail your whole message, rooting out broken promises like a truffle pig. They’re working and reworking your structure, sliding your book’s essential bits into the exact right place like the Tetris savant they probably are. 

Your developmental editor will catch holes in your arguments, mark the “wait, how did we get here?” gaps in your content, and spy the dangling loose threads that make your writing look as sloppy as that old cardigan you know you should’ve thrown away five years ago. 

And then they’ll guide you on how to fix, move, improve, reframe, and refine all of it so that your book is as structurally sound as the oldest building in San Francisco.

When should you work with a developmental editor?

  • You have an idea for a book or a rough outline but need help bringing the pieces together.
  • Your manuscript is written, but its organization and structure need serious work.
  • You know your draft has some big issues but don’t know what they are or where to begin to sort things out.
  • You’re self-publishing.

Things to keep in mind when working with a developmental editor:

  • This is macro-level work, meaning your developmental editor isn’t going to touch on the finer points of your prose. Which also means…
  • Developmental editors typically don’t do any writing or rewriting. Instead, they’ll give you ample feedback and suggestions you can use to revise your manuscript. That said…
  • Developmental editing is notoriously hard to pin down to a single definition. Some developmental editors only do “big picture,” offering broad direction and overarching evaluative feedback. Others help authors form a vision for their book and then offer ongoing collaboration to help them execute said vision successfully. And some will dig in and get their hands dirty, suggesting rewrites at the chapter, section, paragraph, and sentence levels—which, as you’re about to see, is work you’ll typically find in what I call “the detailed stage” of editing.

The Detailed Stage

Once you’ve nailed down your message, your book’s structure, and moved every big piece into its proper place, you’re ready to move into the Detailed stage of editing. Here is where you’ll dig into your writing at the paragraph and sentence levels to tighten, refine, and punch up the words on every page.

Content Editing (AKA, substantive editing)

Think of content editing as a bridge between a sky-high-level developmental edit and a boots-on-the-ground-level line edit. It’s a mix of fundamentals and fine-point fixes that digs into big picture issues and the words on the page. Your content editor will read and carefully edit the manuscript with a giant Sauron-like eye on how you’ve constructed your ideas and stories.

Content editing is centered on what you’re saying and how you’re saying it and, ideally, your content editor will help you clarify your writing first and then make it as polished as a pageant queen. A content editor can also help you improve your book’s flow by pointing out where your book could use some pruning, where the pace slows to a trickle, and where the read becomes an attention-repelling slog. 
Your content editor will also pay close attention to the tone and language you use in your book so that it’ll capture and hold your reader’s attention and tickle their mind in all the right ways. Oh, and your editor should make damn sure that you sound like you and not every other author out there.

When should you work with a content editor?

  • Your draft is written, and you feel pretty good about the big stuff, but you know it’s not “there” yet.

Things to keep in mind when working with a content editor:

  • Welcome to the Track Changes Zone. Whereas a developmental editor is more likely to deliver your feedback in an evaluative assessment and in-margin commentary, at this stage, you’re likely to get back a Word document marked up in track changes so you can see all the suggested moves and tweaks. You’ll still get lots of comment bubbles too, along with an editorial memo that explains the changes more broadly. It can feel daunting to see your manuscript scratched up in this way, so go slow, pour yourself some noon-wine if you want to, and always read the memo first.

Line Editing (AKA, stylistic editing or comprehensive editing)

Up to this point, the editing work we’ve discussed has sat at a high level—either the macro “whole book” level or the chapter and paragraph level. Line editing gets into the weeds and provides the most detailed edit you can get. 

A line editor examines every chapter, every paragraph, every sentence and word—the entirety of your manuscript. Line editors correct misspellings, typos, and punctuation; they point out run-on sentences, sentence fragments, and clichés. They help you clarify meaning, eliminate jargon, and ensure that each sentence sounds right. They also tighten your writing and cut that fifteen-word rambling sentence into a tight five.

When should you work with a line editor?

  • You’ve got the foundational elements in place and are ready to elevate your writing from “this book is really coming together” to “holy shit I didn’t know I could sound THAT good!”

Things to keep in mind when working with a line editor:

  • It’s important not to jump in with line editing before your book has the proper structure in place. Your content has got to be on point—because line editors aren’t looking at those big picture issues.
  • Line editing is the deep, thorough edit many authors assume they’ll get with copyediting. (Rarely is a manuscript polished enough to bypass line editing. Seriously, not even professional writers can skip straight to a copyedit and even Stephen King gets editorially shredded.)
  • Line editing may require multiple rounds of revisions, passing the manuscript back and forth between you and your editor. Hold onto a craftsman mindset as best you can and don’t be afraid to set your manuscript down for a while.
  • A line editor may perform the duties of a copyeditor, but it’s not a given. If you want an editor who can provide this kind of all-in-one service, a mix of line editing and copyediting, clarify that desire upfront.

The Eagle-Eyed Stage

The third and final stage is all about cleaning up any lingering errors or mistakes that will make your book look amateur instead of the polished, professional product it is. Although the terms “copyediting” and “proofreading” are often used interchangeably, they describe totally different processes that benefit your book in unique ways. In fact, there’s an entire design stage that happens between copyediting and proofreading.

Copyediting and Proofreading
Copyediting and proofreading are more like this…

Copyediting

Copyediting deals with writing mechanics—spelling, punctuation, use of numbers, abbreviation, and capitalization. In other words, the essential deep clean that will keep the grammar police from lighting up your Amazon reviews. 

A copyeditor knows all those small grammatical rules that confound professional writers and seasoned editors and tenured professors and native speakers and Jeopardy winners. They’ll meticulously go through your book and find spelling, punctuation, and grammar mistakes. Copyeditors also check that your book follows the style guide appropriate for your genre (most books use the Chicago Manual of Style).

When should you work with a copyeditor?

  • It’s time to hire a copyeditor when you have a completely finished manuscript—not “close to done” or “just a few gaps left to fill in,” but one-freaking-hundred percent all the way D-O-N-E.

Things to keep in mind when working with a copyeditor:

  • Remember: Nobody, no matter how great they are at writing, can skip straight from cringe draft to copyedit. If you’re looking for a thorough deep clean, you want a line edit. That said, there are a lot of copyeditors out there who do both.

Proofreading

Proofreading is the last step in the editing process. A proofreader takes the printed version of your book after it’s been designed and formatted (called a “proof”) and gives it a final review before the book goes to print.


You can think of proofreading as quality control. It’s not just a final skim of the document; it is a very careful “fresh eyes” search for any remaining issues. Like a copyeditor, a proofreader looks for typos and misplaced punctuation, but they’ll also sniff out layout issues like page numbering, bad line or page breaks, headings consistency, placement of tables of figures in the text, and citation formatting. Since it comes right before publication, proofreading is your last line of defense against errors.

When should you work with a proofreader?

  • Proofreading happens after you’ve had your book professionally formatted. You can have the draft proofread before it goes into production; just know that the formatted PDFs will need to be proofread too.

Things to keep in mind when working with a proofreader:

  • Now is not the time for revising, rewriting, or refining. If you feel like you still want to make a few tweaks to your manuscript, you’re not ready for a proofread.
  • If the proofreader finds too many minor errors or spots something more significant, they may send the manuscript back to you. That’s why it’s so important that you don’t jump to the proofreading stage too early. Doing so can waste your time and money (and make your interior page designer want to strangle you).

So how much editing does a manuscript need? What types of editing are must-haves, and which are nice-to-haves?

So which of these editing services are essential to creating a polished, professional book? My answer to this question is “All of them.”

Look, obviously I’m biased toward the work editors do. But if you want your book to live up to the level of your brand, business, good name and sparkling reputation, you need to run your manuscript through the entire editing gauntlet: developmental editing, content editing, line editing, copyediting, and proofreading—the whole shebang. Full stop.

At the very least, you’ve got to hit each of the three stages I’ve laid out for you here. That means developmental editing, line editing, copyediting, and proofreading. (There’s no skipping those last two.) The good news is that a lot of editors will work with you at more than one stage and offer overlapping services. 

For example, the services I offer at Command+Z (The “Command+Zone”? …I’ll see myself out) encompass the Big Picture and Detailed stages. Take a look at the image below to see where each of my services sits.

Editing stages and Command+Z Content

Other editors do the same. You can find editors who overlap developmental and content editing, or content editing and line editing, or line editing and copyediting. Figure out what you need and then tailor your editor search accordingly.

How can I know what my manuscript needs?

The easiest way to figure out what type of editing makes the most sense for your manuscript is to ask an editor. I can’t speak for every editor out there, of course, but I’m always happy to look over your manuscript and give you a sense of where you are, what your manuscript needs, and whether/how I can help. 

Reach out to me here if you’d like me to kick the tires and give you an honest opinion.

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  1. […] I discussed in a previous post, I view the book editing process in three […]

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