Kinds of Editing: Developmental, Line, Copy, and Proofreading

You’ve finished your manuscript, and you know you need an editor. You start looking up editors online and find out there are different kinds of editing, and editors who specialize in each. How do you know which you need? How do you know what your book needs? What’s the difference between the types of edits?

I’m going to focus on the two I know best and do the most: developmental editing and line editing. I’ll talk a little about line editing and proofreading too, since they all have their place in the publishing process.

Developmental Editing

Developmental editing comes pretty early in the process. Usually, you’ve finished the first draft and then done several rounds of revisions on your own. Maybe your writing or critique group has read it; maybe you’ve taken chapters into a workshop or class; maybe you’re a seasoned author who knows how to revise.

You’ve done all you can with this manuscript, but you know there’s more to be done. You’re aware of plot holes, or the pacing feels off. Maybe you’re worried that you have too many characters or plotlines, or your research has shown that your book is wildly outside the norms for word count or page count.

A developmental edit addresses all of these questions and more. The editor will mark up the manuscript and have lots of questions in the margins of the text. They may suggest cutting or moving entire sections to improve flow and readability, or they may ask for more scenes to flesh out characters or setting. There will also be a lengthy editorial letter—a few pages at least—to help guide you during your revisions with big-picture suggestions.

What you won’t see in a developmental edit are lots of little fixes to grammar, punctuation, or style. There may be notes and suggestions provided about these things, but the developmental editor won’t take the time to fix these in the manuscript itself. There’s likely a lot of revision to be done, so fixing words and sentences at this level when they’re likely to be rewritten or cut doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Line Editing

Line editing comes after developmental editing. It looks at style, voice, and consistency throughout the manuscript. A line editor will make sure your character’s hair stays blond (unless he dyes it as part of a disguise) and your scenes are fully fleshed out. They will also make a lot of comments in the margins to ask for clarification in particular places or to straighten out convoluted sentences that might lose the reader.

There’s an editorial letter for this level of editing too, but it’s shorter. It usually covers any overarching issues that the editor found occurring throughout the book, but it’s only a page or two long.

You will see more changes at the word and sentence level with a line edit, so your manuscript is likely to be covered in red marks.

Copy Editing

I like to roll copy editing in with line editing. Usually at this stage, it’s easy enough for me to look for clarity and consistency along with grammar, spelling, and style issues. I also include light fact-checking during this level of editing, mostly because I can’t help myself. If I have a question about the source of a quote or a statistic you’ve cited, I’m going to look it up.

When I copy edit, I pull out my much-used copy of The Chicago Manual of Style to make sure comma usage is correct and consistent, President Biden is capitalized but the president is not, and that/which issues are addressed. Especially in nonfiction, I make sure to format all headings and lists consistently and in a way that creates fewer headaches for the layout designer. If there are footnotes or a bibliography, this is the stage where I’ll format those too.

What you won’t seen in a copy edit is high-level advice for major revisions. By the time the author is asking me for a copy edit, I assume they’re comfortable with all the major decisions they’ve made for the manuscript. If something really sticks out to me as needing work, I’ll make a note, but I try to confine myself to grammar, style, and consistency issues. I also keep the editorial note very short, usually just a couple of paragraphs in an email.

Proofreading

Proofreading is the last editorial stage a book goes through. This is batting cleanup for all the other editorial stages and the author’s revisions. The editor will look for typos and mistakes that have crept in during the previous revisions and for tricky little things like “the the” or the dreaded “public/pubic” typo.

The proofreader assumes the words on the page are pretty much set in stone. They won’t point out places needing revision unless something has made it through that might be confusing. There’s no editorial letter here either. Just red marks on the page—and hopefully not to many of those. I certainly can and do proofread books, but it’s not my favorite.

Take the Quiz!

Now that you know more about each type of editing, take the quiz to find out which one is best for your manuscript.

Not ready for editing yet? Check out some of my favorite books on the craft of writing while you revise. (If you order through this link, I will get a small portion of the proceeds.)

Published by Kristen

Freelance editor, author, and publisher