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 (story) editing ensures that your story is strong and vital. Copyediting 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?

Different 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 an initial consultation at no obligation to you. 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 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. Achieving a truly comprehensive edit requires multiple edits at different levels of focus: developmental (story), line (language and style), copy (mechanics and accuracy). Depending on your editor’s workstyle and level of collaboration, anything but a copyedit is likely to spark considerable author revision and even rewriting; indeed, revision is the entire point.

(A copyedit, on the other hand, is a final polishing edit. Once your editor is done with a copyedit, you shouldn’t touch the manuscript further for fear of introducing new errors. Please don’t be That Author; your proofreader may charge you for another copyedit and could be hesitant to work with you again.)

Trying to accomplish story-level work alongside the polishing of a copyedit in a single round of editing is like tossing a cat and a dog into a bag and expecting no commotion to ensue. Why do a finalizing edit a story you’re having developmentally edited for the express purpose of identifying ways to improve and change it? That makes no sense.

Substantive or comprehensive editing may be a smart choice for a story that’s already been found to have a solid story foundation. Even so, not many editors offer this scope of editing because it’s such an incredibly slow, expensive proposition. The editor must keep watch for storytelling issues at the same time that they’re examining the language at the line level. This level of multitasking is not fast, and it’s not cheap.

Editing is not a multitasking function. It demands immersion, focus, and precision. An editor isn’t thinking about big-picture elements if they’re also thinking about word choice, styling, and grammar. An editor performing a comprehensive edit must make multiple passes through a manuscript to tackle these different angles. That adds more time and reduces or eliminates your opportunity for revision in between rounds—and yes, it costs more money.

If this is your first book

If you’re a first-time author, I recommend doing your best to budget for both developmental editing and line editing. Plan ahead. Save up. 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.

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 might do the job, especially if this isn’t your first rodeo with publishing and you’re assiduous at revision. Don’t compromise too far. Publishing is a business. If you release a substandard product, expect substandard reviews and sales.

Consult a professional editor. 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.

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.

Revised 5/10/21

Lisa PoissoWant more advice like this?  Sign up and get Baker’s Dozen, 13 things for your writing, fresh out of the editorial oven every month. 

If you’re looking for an editor to accelerate your journey from new writer to emerging author, that editor could be me. Let’s work together via short-term coaching for story development, long-term coaching to hone your writing, or story or line editing (my editing specialties). Contact me now—let’s talk.