There are different types of book editing — including proofreading, copy editing, line 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.
Updated January 2018.
“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 the 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, 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 four main types of book editing: proofreading, copy editing, line editing, and developmental editing.
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. It’s a word-by-word edit that addresses grammar, usage, and consistency issues. Copy editors will check for typos and spelling errors along with correcting grammar, language, and syntax errors. They will also pay particular attention to punctuation such as commas, semicolons, and quotation marks.
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.
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.
3. Line Editing
Line editing is a more intensive structural edit that focuses on the finer aspects of language – the flow of ideas, transition elements, tone, and style. Line editors expand their efforts to suggest changes to make sentences crisper and tighter by fixing redundancy and verbosity issues, while improving awkward sentence and paragraph construction without a full rewrite. Editors will look at the manuscript using a holistic methodology with a review of key aspects of the manuscript: the narrative, vocabulary, structure, characterization, style, and development.
4. Developmental editing
Development 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:
- Story structure
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 may 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.
- Developmental editing comes early in the writing process, after a few drafts, and not every book needs it (though most do).
- Copy editing and line editing are done when the author is satisfied with the story after several rewrites. Every book should be copy edited.
- 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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