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The Different Types of Editing Explained

My last article, on the pitfalls of self-editing [1], provoked some discussion about the different types of editing. There’s certainly a lot of confusion around, and it’s not surprising.

There’s line editing, copy-editing, developmental editing, structural editing, substantive editing, and then proofreading. Editors can hardly agree on exactly what’s involved in each type, and that’s because it can be difficult to draw definite lines between each one.

But authors, since they are often the ones paying for the service, need to be aware of what kind of editing their manuscripts need and what is involved in each type.

And it’s all not so complicated. There are really only three types of editing. Everything else is another name for the same thing or an overlap of two. Fortunately, there can be no confusion about proofreading, so let’s start there.

  1. Proofreading

Proofreading gets its name from the ‘proofs’ typesetters produce before the final print run. The text has been laid out into pages, complete with photos, diagrams, tables, etc., if necessary. These used to be called galley proofs (and still are when printed), but, in these days of electronic publications, they’re more commonly called uncorrected proofs and usually come as a PDF file.

At this point, the publisher (a company or an independent author) will have paid for a designer—or will have worked hard themselves—to set the manuscript text into the book’s final format, using a desktop publishing program like InDesign. That means it’s too late to make any major structural changes or even to start deleting paragraphs and sentences (as this has a knock-on effect in the layout of subsequent pages). It can cost a lot of time and money to redesign the book after such major changes.

Proofreading only comes at the end of the publication process. It’s the final check before the book is printed or, in the case of ebooks, before it is published and sent to distributors.

For this reason, proofreading is intended to only pick up the final typos, spelling mistakes and to correct inconsistencies, to make sure, for example, that the word proofreading is always spelled as one word and not proof-reading or proof reading.

In the case of printed books, proofreaders also look for awkward word splits at the end of a line and make sure that there is no ugly single line left at the top of the page from the previous paragraph (known in publishing as a widow) or at the bottom of the page, which really belongs with the paragraph on the next page (known as an orphan).

You need proofreading when

Proofreading is only done just before the book goes out into the world.

Before that, the text should have at least gone through…

  1. Copy-editing

Copy, in the publishing world, refers to the text. So, copy-editing could just as easily be called text-editing.

Here the editor goes through the text, line by line, looking for typos, spelling mistakes and inconsistencies, which can make it seem a lot like proofreading. But, in copy-editing, the editor will do much more:

Editors work on a copy of the author’s manuscript, usually a Word file, using the track changes function and adding comments to explain any changes and offer revision suggestions. The author can then go through each of the changes and accept or reject them one by one and make any revisions where necessary.

The manuscript will have gone through many revisions before it goes for copy-editing.

The manuscript is, therefore, still at the draft stage when it goes for copy-editing.

It is only when the author is completely satisfied with the plot, story structure, characterization, settings, etc. that the manuscript ready for copy-editing. And nobody, no matter how good, gets all that right with a first draft.

You need copy-editing when you’ve completed a few drafts and…

Every manuscript needs more than one draft. If, after several drafts, the author isn’t 100% happy with all these aspects of the book, then it might be worth considering…

  1. Developmental editing

Also called substantial editing, structural editing or full editing. Here the book gets a full, substantial, structural developmental edit. This usually includes everything that’s involved in copy-editing—correcting the text—but it will also include a separate analysis document, detailing—sometimes chapter by chapter—the revisions the author could make to the essential elements of the story (in the case of a novel):

A developmental edit will come early in the publication process, while the author is still at the drafting stage.

The author will have rewritten the manuscript a few times before it is ready for a developmental edit.

Not every book needs developmental editing from a professional editor. Feedback from competent beta readers or a discerning writing group can be enough to iron out all the wrinkles in the book’s structure.

Note that the words ‘competent’ and ‘discerning’ are key in that last sentence. That rarely means your family and friends, wonderful though they may be. You wouldn’t ask the average lawyer, sales director or math teacher to repair your car, so it’s rarely a good idea to trust them completely with your life’s work.

As with copy-editing, the editor will use track changes to make revision suggestions directly onto a copy of the manuscript, but the developmental edit will usually include a separate critique document

You need developmental editing when you’ve finished the latest draft of your book and

Some editors offer line editing, which usually falls somewhere between copy-editing and a developmental edit. The editor works through the text, as in a copy-edit, but also offers more developmental feedback. This is usually done in comments directly in the manuscript rather than in a separate analysis report, and therefore tends to be less detailed.

And then there’s a critique. You could say this is the opposite of a line edit in that you get the detailed report without the changes to the text.

Other editors might define these differently. The important thing is to be clear what you’re getting before you start working with an editor.

In summary:

In the end, it’s up to you, the author, to decide how much or how little editing you would like for your book. And it certainly helps to be aware of what an editor can do, and what can be done at each stage of your rewriting.


Something new: from February, I’ll be writing a monthly series of articles called Fiction Therapy. I’ll look at the many different aspects of fiction—character development, plot, story structure, etc.—and offer advice and tips to help authors work through the problems in their novels. You can look at some of my previous articles [2] to see the kind of thing I mean. I’ll also be taking question from the WU community. If you have a specific concern about your novel, send a mail to jim [at] thefictiontherapist.com and I’ll do my best to help.

About Jim Dempsey [3]

Jim Dempsey (he/him) is a book editor who specializes in detailed analysis and editing of novel manuscripts through his company, Novel Gazing [4]. He has worked as an editor for more than 20 years. He has a master’s degree in creative writing and is a professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading [5] and is a trustee of the Arkbound Foundation [6]. Jim is fascinated by the similarities between fiction and psychotherapy, since both investigate the human condition, the things that make us uniquely human. He explores this at The Fiction Therapist [7] website. If you have a specific concern with your novel, send an email to jim [at] thefictiontherapist.com, or visit the website to ask for a free sample edit. You can follow Jim on Instagram @the_fiction_therapist [8].