I’m not big on technical terms, and I’ll never make you learn them in order for us to collaborate on a website or digital product.
However, a shared vocabulary help clarify differences and nuances. Plus, people often ask me about the differences between editing types, the order they should happen in, and where what I do fits.
- What’s the difference between a developmental editor and a copyeditor?
- When does a proofreader comes in?
- How do I know which kind of editor I need?
- When should I start working with you?
A Brief Overview of Editing
People often assume that editing just means fixing grammar and typos in the final draft. That’s certainly part of it, but the range that editors cover is much broader.
At one end of the spectrum are developmental editors, who can work with you before you even have a first draft finished. At the other are proofreaders, who look for errors in projects that are all laid out and ready to go. In between are line editors and copyeditors. We’ll start at one end and work our way through the whole spectrum.
First, though, it’s important to understand that there is some territory where all editors’ responsibilities overlap. Regardless of her specific title, the bottom line is this:
At its most basic, an editor’s role — no matter what flavor of editing she specializes in — is ultimately to help you connect with your reader, to make sure they hear what you’re saying loud and clear.
Each of the editing types that follow contributes to that overarching goal.
As you read, keep in mind that the terms that follow and the loose definitions I’ll provide are far from universal. I’ll explain them in a way I think makes sense for solo and small business owners, but different editors define these terms in various ways. Some blend several kinds of editing into one service depending on what a project needs. Some offer one or two kinds of editing but not the others. Some use different terminology altogether. That’s why you should talk to any editor you’re thinking about working with to make sure she offers the kind of work you’re looking for.
One final note: Anywhere I use the word “manuscript,” you can substitute in “ebook” or “web page” or whatever else you’re considering having edited. It’s just easier to go with one blanket term.
Ok! With the intro out of the way, let’s dive into the different kinds of editing.
Developmental Editing: Structure & Organization
Developmental editing (also sometimes called content or substantive editing) is the earliest point in the writing process that an editor can step in. Any earlier and you’re working with a ghostwriter or copywriter (who writes from scratch in your place) or writing coach (who may help you through blocks and support you through the initial drafting process).
A developmental editor is more concerned with the big picture than with grammar and punctuation. Her work is about getting the big pieces in place and lined up with your project goals before you start polishing what you’ve created. A developmental editor’s organizational powers can help transform a mess of ideas, webinar transcripts, blog posts, and notes into a cohesive finished product you’re proud to sign your name to.
With that end in mind, here are some of the things a developmental editor may do:
- Help you organize your thoughts in a way that makes sense with your project goals
- Work with you to develop an outline based on your ideas and/or any material you already have
- Help you shape your vision for the project and then work with you to make it a reality
- Keep your goals and audience in mind and ensure what you create fits their needs
- Make sure your argument is sound and clearly presented
- Watch for inconsistencies and contradictions throughout your project
- Propose ways to restructure your manuscript to make it more logical, easier to follow, or more coherent
- Note passages or sections that would benefit from rearranging or rewriting and give ideas about how you could do so
- Suggest extraneous parts to trim
- Call attention to places that could use more explanation, better examples, or additional information
- Point out places where you repeat yourself or don’t explain yourself clearly
- Ensure your transitions from idea to idea, section to section, and/or chapter to chapter are smooth and easy to follow
Who needs developmental editing?
I firmly believe all authors can benefit from working with a good developmental editor. My clients will back me up on that one hundred percent.
That being said, the people who will benefit the most are those who want to write but don’t think of themselves as authors. For instance, the small business owners I work with get a lot out of developmental editing because after we’ve worked together, they feel confident what they’re creating is well organized, soundly argued, and clearly presented. They’re sure it’s the best they can offer. They know the message they’re crafting will reach their right people in the way they intend it to, and that’s important to them.
Line Editing: Style & Voice
If we zoom in a little from developmental editing, we get to line editing. Line editing focuses on a writer’s voice and writing style. That means a line editor will look for things like the following:
- A consistent voice throughout your manuscript
- Readability (especially with your intended audience in mind)
- Clear phrase, sentence, and paragraph flow
- Writing fluency and clarity
- Confusing sentences or sentence fragments
- Proper word choice
- Overused words or cliches
- Awkward phrasing
- Opportunities to streamline your writing
Who needs line editing?
If the ideas in a manuscript are well organized but the writing doesn’t flow, a line editor can help. People who aren’t used to writing longer pieces (such as bloggers) or who tend to communicate verbally more than in writing (such as public speakers) are particularly good candidates for the help of a line editor.
Copyediting: Following the Rules
After developmental and line editing comes copyediting.
Copyeditors handle what many people think of as “editing.” They deal with all those errors in usage, punctuation, grammar, and spelling. It’s their responsibility to make sure the language and mechanics of the text follow the rules of whatever language or style a particular manuscript is written in.
A copyeditor’s job includes tasks like these:
- Checking for proper grammar and punctuation
- Ensuring spelling is correct and consistent throughout
- Watching out for usage errors
- Keeping an eye out for missing or incorrect words
- Paying attention to verb tense and point of view
- Examining sentence structure
- Paying attention to paragraph lengths and breaks
- Pointing out where an author has overused exclamation marks, bolding, italics, or underlining
- Making sure the text is easy to read (meaning it follows the conventions the reader will expect)
- Ensuring whatever style-related rules the author or publisher has requested are applied consistently throughout the manuscript
- Flagging inconsistencies and other potential problems with the text for the author to examine
- Double-checking for style and continuity
This step usually the last thing to happen before the manuscript is formatted or laid out for publication.
Who needs copyediting?
In short, pretty much everyone. Chances are overwhelmingly good that the books, newspapers, and magazines you’re used to reading have all been copyedited. It’s the sort of thing you don’t miss until it’s not there.
If you want to make sure whatever you’re putting out into the world is professional and will reflect well on you and your business, hiring a copyeditor is a great investment.
Proofreading: The Final Check
When people say “proofreading,” they’re often talking about what a copyeditor does.
Proofreading is actually the final error check before publication, a straightforward process meant to catch the little things that those who have become familiar with the text (like the author and editors) have overlooked. Where the other editors we’ve discussed look at raw manuscripts, proofreaders traditionally look at proofs — text that has been laid out, designed, or otherwise formatted and is ready to go out into the world. Some proofreaders also read line by line, comparing the formatted proof against the edited manuscript. It’s not the proofreader’s responsibility to re-edit the text when doing so, though.
A proofreader’s domain covers areas such as the following:
- Checking for typos
- Correcting spelling, punctuation, and usage errors
- Watching for missing words or other elements
- Catching formatting mistakes or other errors that may creep in during the formatting process
- Checking page numbers, headings, and the like
- Keeping an eye out for inconsistencies
- Ensuring the appropriate style guide has been followed
- Acting as a fresh pair of eyes
- Making sure the PDF, ebook, or web page really is ready for public consumption
Who needs proofreading?
As with copyediting, proofreading is something any serious writer should invest in. The kinds of errors proofreaders catch are often the ones readers will spot most quickly. Proofreading results in an infinitely more polished final product and gives you the peace of mind that comes with knowing your creation is representing you well.
My Flavor of Editing
Now that you’ve heard about the different types of editing, you might be wondering: Where do my services fit into the spectrum?
I offer a blend of developmental, line, and light copyediting. Some editors focus in tightly on the kind of editing you’re paying them to do. For instance, they won’t fix a grammar issue while they’re helping you reorganize a section. I prefer to blur the lines between types where it makes sense to do so.
There are several benefits to the approach I offer. First, I can customize where I focus to your project’s needs and goals. Second, you’re getting more bang for your buck out of each round. Third, you don’t have to figure out which kind of editing you think you might need. Fourth, your manuscript will be in much better shape with fewer rounds of editing by the time it gets to a copyeditor than it would otherwise be. Depending on how your copyeditor works, that can save you time and money.
Another quirk about my particular editing style is that I’ll often explain why something needs to be changed instead of just telling you to change it. Many of my clients report (rather enthusiastically!) that their writing has improved as a result of working with me because I’ve drawn attention to — and helped them fix — little bad habits that had crept into their writing. If you like to learn, you’ll love this part of my process.
I don’t offer copyediting as a standalone service, and I don’t offer proofreading at all. There are people out there who love those parts of the process more than I do. Besides, the deeper stuff — like developmental editing — is where I shine brightest. Which means, of course, that’s where I can help you most effectively!
You can also get to know me, my perspective, and my working style through Notes in the Margins, my (very) occasional e-letter, and the gift that comes with it: Out of Your Head and onto the Page, my guide to gathering the pieces of your first draft. If you’re stuck staring at a blinking cursor on a blank page, it’ll help you get past the inertia.
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