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  • Writer's pictureTiffany Noel Froese

Types of Editing and How to Figure Out Which Ones You Need

Trying to figure out what kind of editing your project needs isn’t always easy. The terminology can be fluid, and the different kinds of editing often overlap. Yet, it’s impossible to do all of the editing a book needs before it’s published in one pass. Therefore, editing is executed most efficiently (timewise and moneywise) when it is approached methodically.

Ideally, your book would be edited by a professional in three stages: developmental editing, copyediting, and proofreading. There might be multiple passes within each stage, but these are the umbrellas of editing.

Developmental Editing

Developmental editing is big picture editing. It completely ignores your typos and bad grammar and focuses solely on your story, or if you’re working on non-fiction, your concept and argument. Here is a shortlist of the areas addressed in developmental editing:

- Story structure

- Character development

- Plot

- Pacing

- Worldbuilding

- Scene construction

- Theme development

- Thesis development (non-fiction)

Substantive Editing/Line Editing

Another term you will often come across is Substantive Editing or Line Editing. This kind of editing is somewhere in between Developmental Editing and Copyediting. Here, we look at your writing at the paragraph and sentence level. Are your paragraphs well structured? Should sentences be reworded for reasons of clarity, flow, and voice?

Line editing also addresses unnatural dialogue; creating mood through the musicality of the language; and instances where information might be better conveyed to the reader through exposition rather than drawing it out in a scene, and vice versa.

Correctness of prose, that is, issues of grammar, usage, and punctuation are not addressed during a line edit. This is reserved for the copyedit.


Copyediting is an absolutely vital stage of the book process. Even if you’ve got a great handle on grammar and punctuation rules, you’ve been looking at your book for too darn long to catch all of the inevitable mistakes you’ll have made when you were focused on crafting a beautiful story.

Copyediting is about making sure that the reader has an enjoyable experience—that they don’t get tripped up by your accidental confusing of “paradigm” and “paragon,” misplaced and missing punctuation, or dangling participles. “What are those?” you ask. Precisely.

Even if you know what a dangling participle is and how to spot them in the wild, you might miss them in your own work. I know I have, and I’m trained to catch them. Even the most careful author can’t help making thousands of mistakes over the course of a several-hundred-page novel.

A basic copyedit will:

- Correct all errors in grammar, mechanics, and usage

- Ensure consistency in all mechanical matters

- Point out infelicities in language

- Address patches that are wordy or convoluted and suggest revisions

- Query facts that seem incorrect

- Query faulty organization or gaps in logic

The thing is, you don’t have to be fluent in the Chicago Manual of Style to be a great storyteller or writer. That’s what copyeditors are for! However, you should be able to structure a sentence clearly enough that the reader knows what you mean.

Copyediting should only be done on a final draft. And I don’t mean that file in your documents labeled “final draft” from five drafts ago. Before you engage a copyeditor, make sure that your developmental editing and line editing are absolutely finished.


Proofreading is done after your book has been typeset. In addition to catching minor errors that a copyeditor may have missed, the proofreader looks for strange line breaks, or word breaks, in the typesetting (called “widows” and “orphans”), ensuring that your book looks as polished and professional as possible. If you’re e-publishing, widows and orphans may not be an issue. However, you may still want to have your manuscript proofread to catch anything the copyeditor might have missed.

Wait! Shouldn’t the copyeditor catch everything?

A typical novel manuscript can have thousands to tens of thousands of errors. Copyeditors always aim to catch every single one of them, but they’re human too. A professional catch rate is 95% of errors. That said, it’s nearly impossible to know how many errors were actually there to begin with.

I always recommend hiring separate editors for the copyediting and proofreading stages because fresh eyes will catch things that someone who has worked with the text before won’t. I have had clients who want to work with me for both stages, regardless of my recommendation, and I’m happy to oblige as long as there is a few weeks' break between the time I copyedit and the time I proofread. That’s usually not a problem because it takes the author a few weeks to go through my copyedit suggestions.

What Kind of Editing Do You Need?

Ideally, you’d have all the editing. You’d start with a developmental edit, move on to a line edit, then a copyedit, and after your book was typeset, you’d finish off with a proofread. But budgets vary and this ideal isn’t always feasible. So what’s an author to do?

The answer largely depends on your experience as a writer and where you are with your manuscript. Readers will forgive a typo here or there. They won’t be so forgiving if your story doesn’t make sense or if they have to wade through a cumbersome amount of errors or convoluted sentences. So my advice for authors on a budget is to make sure the story is sound and not to skip the copyedit.

Developmental Editing and Copyediting

If you’re a first-time novelist, developmental editing can be crucial. But developmental editing can run from $4,000 to $10,000 depending on the length of your novel and the state it’s in when you hand it over to an editor, and not every author has that in their budget.

Fortunately, you have a few options to try before hiring a developmental editor.

1. Have people beta read your novel. You want to choose people who are going to give you honest and constructive feedback. DO NOT give it to someone who only ever says nice things or things you want to hear. Honest feedback is going to smart a little, so be patient with yourself and your beta readers.

Members of a writing group might be the ideal beta readers because they will also be practitioners of the art of storytelling. They’ll not only know what kind of criticism to give, but they will hopefully also know how to give it so that you don’t become completely demoralized.

2. If you don’t belong to a writers group, there are courses you can join that function similarly. And you might befriend other writers to start a group with. Gotham Writers in New York City offers a novel critique course online, for example.

3. Instead of doing a full developmental edit, hire an editor to do a review of your manuscript. They will read and give an overall critique of your manuscript, painting a broad picture of what works and what doesn’t. It would then be up to you to implement their suggestions. Each editor handles these differently, so be sure to ask what is covered and how they give you feedback.

If you can’t afford a full developmental edit from a professional editor, I recommend doing all three of the steps above, saving the professional manuscript review for last. If you’ve done all these steps and still feel that your manuscript isn’t working, it may be time to hire a professional for a developmental edit.

The other crucial step in editing is the copyedit. There really is no workaround for hiring a professional copyeditor. You can’t have your mom, partner, or best friend find and correct all of the errors—even if they have a Master’s degree in English. Readers will know the difference and you will lose their respect and trust. (The only exception to this is if the person is actually a professionally trained copyeditor. )

Copyediting should only be done when you are finished making changes to your manuscript. Yes, we could all keep improving our manuscripts forever. In some ways, we’ll never be finished. But there does come a point when you declare that it’s good enough to be sent out into the world. That is the point at which you should hire a copyeditor.

Whether you’re publishing through traditional channels or self-publishing, you should absolutely do everything above. If you’re submitting to agents, you want to put the best version of your book forward.

If you’re lucky and skilled enough to get picked up by a traditional publisher, your book may go through more editing after it’s purchased by the publisher. But then the publishing house will provide editors for you to work with and cover some if not all of the costs of further editing.

Line Editing and Proofreading

If your story is sound, but you feel like you need help with the rhythm and flow of your sentences, and just can’t get them where you want them on your own, a line edit could be the way to go. A good line editor does more than read your text, they listen to it. They listen for cadence and flow and mood. They help identify where it needs tightening and where it needs embellishing. And they do all this without erasing your voice. In fact, great line editors help clarify and polish your voice.

While line editing may not be essential to have your readers understand your manuscript the way developmental editing and copyediting are, it can really elevate your manuscript to a whole new level.

Some writers like to do this kind of editing themselves. And if this is your thing, hiring a line editor isn’t essential. But if you know your real strengths are in crafting a story, not so much in laboring over the sentences, then you might consider hiring a line editor.

Finally, proofreading. The last step in turning a manuscript into a book. What most people think of as proofreading—correcting errors in grammar, mechanics, and usage—is actually copyediting. Proofreading takes place not only after the copyediting has been done, but also after the manuscript has been typeset. In fact, it’s more about correcting the typesetter’s errors than the writer’s, though any errors the copyeditor has missed will get picked up here.

If you’re self-publishing and on a tight budget or run out of money, you can forego the proofreading without compromising reader experience too much.

Figuring out what your manuscript needs and finding the right editor for the job can be a complex process. Many editors will offer sample edits for line editing and copyediting. Asking for a complimentary 1000-word sample edit is reasonable, and most editors will agree to this request.

If you’re writing fiction or narrative non-fiction, it’s not important for the copyeditor to be a specialist in your genre. Someone who edits sci-fi can do an equally good job of editing your big idea book. However, if you are an academic writer or technical writer, it would be helpful to seek out an editor with experience in these fields as there are nuances here that don’t show up in fiction.

When it comes to developmental editing, you want to find an editor who is well-read in your genre and familiar with the different genre conventions or tropes readers expect to see addressed. Your developmental editor should be able to help you identify those conventions, or lack thereof, in your own writing.

To help potential clients understand my familiarity with different genres, I maintain an affiliate bookshop through where I curate lists according to genre. Every book I feature is one that I’ve read and enjoyed.

Ultimately, every project has different needs. If you have more questions about the editing process and how to figure out what kind of editing is right for you, please contact me. I offer a complimentary 20-minute exploratory phone call just for this reason.

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