Updated: Nov 20, 2020
We've established that you need an editor no matter what kind of writing you do. But what kind of editing do you need? There are multiple types of editing, and knowing what kind you need can be tricky because types of editing are not clear-cut. Even different editors define the levels of editing in different ways, which is why communication is key.
If you are not sure what type of editing you need, your editor should be able to tell you based on a sample of your manuscript. Keep in mind that each level of editing costs a different amount, and editors charge different rates.
Developmental, Structural, or Substantive Editing
Big-picture editing is usually referred to as developmental editing, but it can also be called structural or substantive editing. This type of editing takes place during the early stages of writing after the author has revised the manuscript a couple of times. At this point, the editor focuses on the purpose and audience of the text to help the author adjust the bare bones of the manuscript. Developmental editors focus on content and organization to strengthen the foundation of a text. This includes things like characterization, plot, world-building, pacing, voice, and themes.
Copyediting or Line Editing
Some editors differentiate between copyediting and line editing, but the differences are so minimal that I consider them the same thing. Some editors will also count stylistic editing as a separate category, but I also include it with copyediting because the jobs are quite similar. Copyediting takes place after the manuscript is written and the structure is sound. Copyeditors focus on grammar, spelling, punctuation, internal consistency, usage, and mechanics of style. They work at the sentence level, checking for clarity and correctness.
This is my favourite level of editing because changing something as small as one word or one punctuation mark can strengthen the meaning of a sentence and change its impact on the reader. I have the most fun with copyediting, and not many people realize to what extent tiny details can affect the broader picture.
Proofreading is the final stage of editing that takes place after the manuscript has been copyedited and the text is in its final form. This is usually a PDF file. Proofreaders check for minor errors including missing information, typos, and formatting problems. Besides checking the body text, proofreaders check over things like page numbers, text alignment, chapter headings, running headers, running footers, etc.
I like to discuss the levels of editing as if you were a building a house. Think of it this way: With a house, you need to build a solid, strong foundation before painting the walls and putting in furniture, right? Editing is the same way.
Developmental editing comes first because it works on the story's foundations. It makes sure those support beams, ceilings, and floors are in place properly so that everything else can be successful.
Copyediting is the stage that fleshes out the house more. This is like adding paint, wallpaper, doors, windows, and then furniture.
Proofreading is the final decorating step. Once all of the basics of the house are there and the furniture is moved in, you go around and fix the decorations so the house is exactly how you want it.
Talk to Your Editor
Because editors have different definitions for types of editing, it is important to clarify with your editor how they define their job. Make sure both you and your editor are clear about what they will do for you to avoid any misunderstandings.
It may be tempting to ask for all levels of editing at once, but you need to go step by step to get the most for your money. You wouldn't have someone paint the walls of your house and then proceed to tear them down, and that's what it would be like if you went with copyediting before developmental editing.
Going through the process step by step will take time and many revisions—and possibly a couple of different editors—but it will be worth it.