There are different types of book editing – including proofreading, copy-editing, and developmental editing – for different stages of the publication process. You should be aware of what kind of editing your manuscript needs and what is involved in each type.

“An editor is a person who knows more about writing than writers do but who has escaped the terrible desire to write.”
– E.B. White

Many writers are confused about different types of book editing. Even editors can’t agree on exactly what’s involved in each type, and that’s because it’s difficult to draw definite lines between them. The definition can change with each editing job too, and is only finally decided in the author or publisher’s brief to the editor – the outline of exactly what the author or publisher requires from the editor – which can range from correcting only the obvious typos to suggesting word count cuts or changes to story structure, plot, and characters.

We’ll look at the three main types of book editing: proofreading, copy-editing, and developmental editing.

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. 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 someone – or worked hard themselves – to set the manuscript text into the book’s final format. That means it’s too late to make any major structural changes or delete paragraphs and sentences, as this has a knock-on effect in the subsequent pages. It can cost a lot of time and money to redesign the book after such major changes.

Proofreading comes at the end of the publication cycle. 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 pick up the final typos and spelling mistakes and to correct inconsistencies, like making sure 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 ensure 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 (orphan).

Proofreading is only done after the raw manuscript has already been edited. Before that, the text should have at least gone through…

2. Copy-editing

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

Some people, including editors, call this line editing. Others say line editing is a different thing, but what it all boils down to is an editor going 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, including:

  • Correcting grammatical errors
  • Pointing out redundancies (words that can be cut from the text without losing the meaning)
  • Looking for repetition (when words or phrases appear unnecessarily repeated)
  • Suggesting revisions to improve sentence and paragraph flow
  • Suggesting revisions to improve syntax (how the words are arranged in a sentence or paragraph)
  • Revising the formatting to prepare the text for publication

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 or make 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 is, therefore, still at the draft stage when it goes for copy-editing. The manuscript will have gone through many revisions before it is ready for copy-editing.

Only when the author is completely satisfied with the plot, story structure, characterization, settings, etc. is the manuscript ready for copy-editing. And nobody, no matter how good, gets all that right with a first draft. If the author isn’t 100% happy with all these aspects of the book, then it might be worth considering…

3. Developmental editing

Development editing, also called substantial editing, structural editing, or full editing, means the book gets a full, substantial, structural, developmental edit. This will often include everything that’s involved in proofreading and copy-editing, plus a detailed critique of the essential elements of the story (in the case of a novel), which include:

  • Setting
  • Timeline
  • Characterization
  • Plot
  • Story structure
  • Pacing
  • Presentation
  • Marketability

A developmental edit will come early in the publication process, while the author is still in 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 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 detailing – sometimes chapter by chapter – the changes the author could make to improve the areas listed above.

To recap:

  1. Developmental editing comes early in the writing process, after a few drafts, and not every book needs it (though most do).
  2. Copy-editing is done when the author is satisfied with the story after several rewrites, and every book should be copy-edited.
  3. Proofreading is necessary for only the final, formatted book, right before publication, and every book needs proofreading.

In the end, it’s up to you, the author, to decide how much or how little editing you would like for your book. You might not want the editor to interfere with the format, for example, and you might have your own ideas for a particular style issue (always The Beatles, not the Beatles). It certainly helps to be aware of what an editor can do, and what can be done at each stage of your rewriting. Writing is, after all, rewriting. And editing. But, of course, I would say that.

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Jim Dempsey

About Jim Dempsey

Jim Dempsey has written 9 posts in this blog.

Jim Dempsey is an associate editor at Novel Gazing. Novel Gazing offers professional editing services to authors and publishers. Quote the exclusive BookBaby discount code BOOKBABY10 to receive a 10% discount on all of Novel Gazing’s proof-reading, copy editing and substantive editing services.

33 thoughts on “What Type Of Book Editing Do You Need? And When?

  1. Bruce Neckels says:

    Done several rewrites on my manuscript, “Matter of Conscience,” based on my experience in the 60’s-early 70’s, dealing with the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector. Though not a historian, merely a window for readers from which to peer, I still have many references which I’ve done my best to acknowledge. But this is a different beast that a fictional novel – more difficult, I feel. Could address the kind of editor (s) I need?

    1. Bruce, you’re right: a memoir or autobiography is a different beast from a fictional novel, often because it’s difficult to distance yourself from your past experiences. Nevertheless, every manuscript (no matter the genre) requires the same three types of editors.

    2. Jim Dempsey says:

      Non-Fiction is certainly a different beast from fiction, and references can be tricky to handle and ensure they are all consistent. That’s certainly the kind of work an editor can help with. If it’s only checking the text for errors and making the references consistent, then that would fall under proofreading. If you want detailed feedback on your story, then go for a developmental edit. You might be happy with your story, especially since this is your personal experience, but if you’re not confident about your spelling and grammar then a copy-edit would be better.

      My advice would be to try a few editors with sample pages to the see the difference editing can make to your mansucript and to find someone who ‘clicks’ – understands – your story and style.

      Good luck with it, Bruce. So much has been written about the Vietnam War that it’s difficult to find something that really adds to the bigger picture, and this sounds like an interesting direction to go in.

      All the best,


  2. Once gave my manuscript for editing. It came back to me with many errors introduced by the editor. Just too many cowboys and cowgirls out there calling themselves editors. Watch out.

    1. Unfortunately, that’s true. It’s always wise to inquire about an editor’s education and experience, ask for references (be sure to actually talk to the references) and see a sample of his or her work.

      1. Too true. I thought about taking an editing class at a junior college, but the introductory page was rife with errors I recognized. If a junior college can’t get it right, how do you choose an editor?

  3. As a literary agent, I insist that new clients bring professionally edited manuscripts. Publishing Is A Business, Not A Writers Circle!

    1. Maho Shing says:

      “Publishing is a business not a writers circle” interesting comment. So being a business why not fully disclose all the various cost implications up front.

      The practice of selling this glorious perception and wonderful dreams to be chased by the hungry and easily excitable, is so wrong. One of the great maladies of the practice of “business” these days.

      Many want to be novelist are fundamentally on an egoic trip to nowhere yet they are indulged, and coherst out of the meagre personal resources be it in time or limited funds.

      Unfortunately this hungry sinister behemoth we call business, will suck them in, in a very slow and seductive manner until they are totally lost in crippling debt.

      As we talk about editing, we should also couple this with a realistic dialogue about the “business” side of things. Namely how to recognize and avoid the sharks and vultures out there waiting to feed on the innocent, naive and ignorant.

      1. Bob says:

        Maho, your post is an incoherent, perhaps leftist, word salad containing at least one nonsense word, “coherst”?? hmmmm

  4. Cheryl Kesterson says:

    My novel is historical fiction. I feel this genre needs a different kind of editor than fiction or nonfiction. Is there a certain place to find an editor with the expertise to do this correctly or does that even matter?

  5. Writers need to distinguish which edit is which and which one they should begin with. Thank you for this valuable information. I’ve shared generously on social media.

  6. Excellent article! Even though it can be disheartening to see multiple corrections and suggested changes, know that the editor is working for you, not against you. All three types of editors help you create the best book possible – which ultimately helps you sell more books.

    1. Jim Dempsey says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Dalene. Greatly appreciated. And remember, it’s not necessarily about three types of editor. Any good editor could do all three types of editing, except that the editor who did the copy-editing or substantial editing on a novel shouldn’t be the one who does the proofreading as that person would be too close to the material. So, strictly speaking, each book should have two professionals look at it: one for the substantive/copy-edit and one for the proofreading.

      A good point too about the editor working for you. And I think auhtors understand that when the critique comes with the right intention.



  7. Megan Harris says:

    Great summary! I usually refer to copy edits as line edits, but same principles apply!

    Definitely do your due diligence when you decide to hire an editor. Editing samples, references, etc. are a great way to vet them. Too many people who have later worked with me were either burned by other editors or forced into a cookie cutter package that didn’t fit their needs. Knowing what you need is the first step, but doing your homework should not be disregarded, either.

    Thanks for the good read!

  8. Jordy Leigh says:

    Your post did a lot to clear up my understanding of editing jobs. But now I’m just wondering, for those who want to invest in all three types of editing AND beta readers, where do the latter fit in? My thanks in advance!

  9. Wendy says:

    There’s got to be a level between “copy-editing” and “developmental editing.” I’m typing/editing (He couldn’t even use notepad, so he wrote it out longhand–914 single-space notebook pages) a novel for a FOAF, and I’m not looking at plot or characterization or structure. What I AM doing is formatting dialog (he knows nothing about the grammar of dialog and often switches between direct and indirect dialog mid-sentence), finding “time tag” errors (it’s set in 1940, and he’s got stuff from 1939 and 1941 happening in the same MONTH), and debating how much to cut (it’s so full of extraneous detail, my review audiences are going to sleep when I read it to them; it should be cut 40%, but I’m also under pressure to get him a bound copy in hand before he kicks the bucket, and that kind of a “haircut” would take an awful lot of time)

    Which reminds me of another article here that said something about 30% change by the editor usually being acceptable. Is that measured from the original or the edited manuscript?

  10. Good day, Steven:

    Thanks for an informative post re types of editing. Nice going.

    Unfortunately, my simple mind is confused (as per usual).

    In the beginning of your post you define three types of editing. Towards the end of your post you note “The five most common forms of book manuscript editing.” and you define developmental editing only.

    If there are five types, please define the remaining two.

    Keep up your sterling work. We need it.

    Thanks in advance for your help.

  11. Phyllis says:

    Maho Shing says: The practice of selling this glorious perception and wonderful dreams to be chased by the hungry and easily excitable, is so wrong.

    I hope she is not an editor, because the comma here separates subject from predicate, a big no-no. Lots of other errors too, but this one shows a serious lack of knowledge. This is exactly why I would never choose an editor without seeing a LARGE sample of their work.

    Former English teacher, not in need of help with punctuation, but could use help with improved wording.

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