If you clicked on this article hoping to finally figure out the difference between line editing and copyediting, allow me to break it to you: there are no industry-wide definitions of editing types that everyone agrees on.
This isn’t just a situation of traditional publishers calling certain editing one thing and self-publishers calling it another. It’s not a battlefield pitting the conventions of the news media against those of the publishing industry. Nor is it a case of Americans using one term and Brits using another. Heck, even the bastions of the editorial industry can’t agree whether to spell the term copy editing, copyediting, or copy-editing.
So how do you talk to an editor about what your manuscript needs if you can’t even be sure you’re talking about the same services? Here’s where to start the conversation.
There are two types of editing: the kind that looks at your story, and the kind that looks at your writing itself.
During developmental editing, your editor analyzes your story to ensure it has an engaging, satisfying structure that will keep readers turning pages all the way to the end. Your editor examines the structure of your story (including the plot, characters, and conflict) and makes recommendations and suggestions on how you can make it stronger. Developmental editing also helps you polish your narrative technique. These are the techniques you use to steer your story, including point of view, transitions and hooks, dialogue tags and beats.
Developmental editing is also known as content editing, structural editing, story editing, and sometimes substantive editing. It is one of the most expensive and time-consuming editorial services.
Quicker and more affordable than developmental editing is the manuscript evaluation, another type of editing that focuses on your story. Manuscript evaluations are often also called assessments or critiques. (I call mine developmental assessments.) They’re less time-consuming and expensive than developmental edits because the editor doesn’t work directly on the manuscript itself. Instead, you’ll receive a thorough editorial report or editorial letter—a big, juicy report outlining the strengths and weaknesses of your novel. An evaluation or assessment is a great alternative if you don’t have the budget for a full developmental edit.
While developmental edits focus on your story, language edits focus on your writing itself. This is the kind of editing most people think of when they think of book editing, the kind that remedies typos and spelling errors and grammatical bobbles.
Copyediting makes your writing clean and correct. The process scrutinizes grammar, spelling, punctuation, and usage. It also checks for internal consistency of facts and style, like whether the hero’s eyes are green in every reference (whoops, missed the blue eyes in Chapter 14) and whether the number fifty gets written as a word or a numeral.
Where copyediting ensures that your writing is correct, line editing ensures that it’s polished. A line edit, also sometimes called stylistic editing, is designed to strengthen your writing voice and raise the quality of your prose. Line editing addresses things like clarity, style, word choice, sentence and paragraph flow, and readability.
Substantive editing falls somewhere in between story editing and language editing. Some editors use this term to refer to developmental editing. In my practice, substantive editing is like a heavy line edit that also encompasses story issues—but only at the level we can address without edging into major revision or rewriting. Substantive editing is great at addressing narrative technique (things like point of view and narrative distance, dialogue tags and beats, showing vs. telling, transitions and hooks, and filtering), but it’s a slow, expensive service because your editor’s attention is split between story and language. It can be a good choice for seasoned authors with relatively strong manuscripts and authors on tight production schedules, but it’s not as good if you’re looking for editing with depth in a single area.
Although the term proofreading is traditionally reserved for a final comparison of final layouts against the manuscript itself, most people and especially self-publishers today think of proofreading simply as “the last check.” The editors I refer my clients to also call this final check proofreading. Whatever you call it, a final quality control review after your post-edit revisions is a darn good idea.
What do the various types of editing look like?
The best way to get a feel for the various levels of editing is to see what it looks like on the page. I like these examples from book coach Jennie Nash that show what comments and revisions might look like from the perspectives of a proofreader, a copyeditor, a developmental editor and a book coach.
What type of editing do you need?
The essential thing to know about types of editing is what your editor calls what they do. Don’t worry about what someone else calls their services. Zero in on the details of what your editor proposes to undertake. A higher price doesn’t automatically indicate you’ll get more for your money; find out what’s included.
Many new authors shy away from spending money on a book they rightfully realize isn’t likely to earn back what they spent producing it. They figure they’ll scrape by with copyediting and loop back for deeper editing once the sales start rolling in. But without a solid story at the heart of your book, it’s doubtful those sales will ever make an appearance. No amount of polish will transform a limp story into a page-turner.
Should you get professional editing before sending your manuscript out to agents? Agents aren’t looking for copyedited perfection; they’re looking for a compelling story—but in this ubercompetitive marketplace, your story has to be top notch. If your budget’s limited, don’t worry about hiring a pro to polish the writing. Get help building a story that grabs readers and doesn’t let go.
If you’ll be self-publishing, you need complete editing to create a competitive commercial title—period. Your book will be in direct competition with thousands of professional-caliber books produced by career novelists. Self-publishing means assuming the responsibilities of a traditional publisher yourself; it doesn’t mean justification for offering a DIY project for sale in a professional marketplace.
The right editor should be able to offer alternatives to help you reach your publishing goals on your budget. For instance, if you don’t have the money for a developmental edit, consider something smaller. Experienced editors can suggest multiple ways of getting across the finish line with a professional-caliber product.