Developmental editing vs. copyediting—which do you need most?

If you could only afford one round of editing, should you choose developmental editing or copyediting? Developmental (content) editing ensures that your story is strong and vital. Copyediting (or line editing) crosses all the t’s and dots all the i’s. A purchase-worthy book needs both—but whether you’re hoping to be picked up by a publishing house or planning to publish independently, you may find yourself with the budget for only one or the other.

Even the dullest story can be copy edited into a beautifully polished volume—but will readers keep turning the pages? A compelling plot sells more books than correct commas every time. On the other hand, a look at the Amazon reviews of any title reveals readers who simply can’t get past glaring errors and quality issues. A hot, unedited mess turns readers off before they’ve had a chance to be captivated by your fantastic story line.

Yet here you sit with only enough money for one edit. What to do, what to do?

What does each type of editing do?

developmental editing vs. copyeditingDifferent editors use different terms for the types of editing involved in producing a novel. I’m going to use the terms I use in my own practice. If you’re curious to see how it all fits together, check out Types of Editing: A Practical Guide.

As its name implies, a developmental edit (also often called a content, structural, or story edit) focuses on the heart of your book—the story. You can expect to make significant revisions or even completely overhaul your manuscript during the course of a developmental edit.

Line editing and copyediting focus on the language you use to tell the story. You get extensive edits and comments designed to polish your writing, strengthen your individual voice and style, and raise the quality of your prose.

Choose the right level of editing

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to which type of edit will prove to be pivotal for your manuscript. That’s why I always begin the process with a consultation at no obligation. This assessment helps me understand the amount and type of work your manuscript needs.

During a consultation, I’ll look over your manuscript and edit a small sample at the line editing level. We’ll talk about your editing and publishing goals for the book, your writing and revision process, and the story itself. If it’s apparent that your book isn’t quite ready for editing, I’ll recommend alternatives to help you get your manuscript where it needs to be.

Why you shouldn’t try to have it all

Trying to accomplish both processes in a single round of editing is like putting a cat and a dog in a bag together and expecting no commotion to ensue.

If your budget won’t budge and you’re forced to choose between editorial services, it’s time to prioritize. My own solution, what I call “the essential edit,” is a substantive edit that covers major story issues, narrative technique, and writing issues—but it does not extend to anything that would require additional author development or rewriting. I minimize this shortcoming by starting clients off with a Plot Accelerator.

Achieving a truly comprehensive edit means multiple passes from the editor (what happens once the manuscript is in the editor’s hands) and most likely multiple rounds for authors as well. A developmental edit will generate considerable revision and sometimes rewriting; indeed, revision is the entire point. A line edit, on the other hand, is a final polishing edit. Once your editor is done with a line edit or copyedit, you shouldn’t touch the manuscript further for fear of introducing new errors.

Trying to accomplish both deep developmental work and copyediting in a single round of editing is like putting a cat and a dog in a bag together and expecting no commotion to ensue. Why copyedit a story you’re going to improve and change? It makes no sense.

Substantive editing, on the other hand, can be a smart choice for a story that’s already been found to have a solid story foundation. Not as many editors offer substantive editing because it’s a slower, more expensive task. Editors who are looking for storytelling issues at the same time as they’re examining the language at the line level are multitasking. But editing is not a multitasking function; it demands immersion, focus, and precision. Your editor won’t be thinking about big-picture elements if she’s also thinking about word choice, styling, and grammar. A thorough substantive editor will make multiple passes through your manuscript to tackle these different angles.

If this is your first book

If you’re a first-time author, I recommend doing everything you can to afford both developmental editing and line editing. First books are learning experiences. Authors call them “practice novels” and set them aside in a drawer, just as artists stash away experimental pieces that don’t go quite as planned.

But without a developmental edit , you might not be able to figure out what parts of your story work and what parts don’t. Without a line edit, you might not be able to spot where your writing is still weak or flabby.

When you get both developmental and line editing for your manuscript, you open yourself to an intense, one-on-one coaching experience in both storytelling and language. Coming at your book from only one angle will limit the growth you can expect from the experience.

When you must choose between services

So back to the bottom line: you can’t afford a full edit. Which way do you go?

If you’ll be submitting your manuscript to an agent, it’s vital that your story be compelling. Don’t worry about copyediting it to perfection. Build a story that grabs readers and doesn’t let go.

An experienced editor can create a custom plan that gets you across the finish line with as polished a product as your budget allows.

If you’ll be self-publishing, you need both developmental and line editing. A substantive edit could also do the job, especially if you are skilled and assiduous at revision. Publishing is a business, and if you release a substandard product, you’ll get substandard reviews and sales.

But before you try to do it all yourself, talk with your editor. Peer review and crowdsourced proofreading have their place, but a little flexibility can help you cobble together more professional results. I build custom plans for each and every client that pulls from all my available services—not only the edits we’ve talked about here but also coaching, Plot Accelerators, hourly revision, and more—to get you across the finish line with as polished a product as your budget allows.

Consult a professional editor. A good editor can help compare your priorities with your budget and the needs of your manuscript to help you get the most bang from your editing buck. I do complimentary initial consultations for every client so you’re assured of getting exactly the level of services your manuscript needs.

Nib_100How can I help you bring your book to publication on budget? Email me at and let’s talk about the right editorial services for your manuscript.