What sort of editing do you need?

“It just needs a light proofread… ”


Before you go looking for a proofreader …

… consider what your writing might need from an editor and what your expectations might be.

There are several stages and levels of editing. And, ideally, the different types should not be done at the same time.

1 Developmental edit

A book’s first edit is often a substantive one; sometimes also called a developmental edit. This is one round of editing and is carried out by a specialist developmental editor.

At this stage, we’re looking at the structure of the book. By structure, we mean how the information in the book is ordered. That structure is crucial in determining whether the book is understandable and enjoyable to read.

In a non-fiction developmental edit we’d consider if the text flows logically from one point to the next, and if it is covering all the points that it is meant to cover with sufficient balance. Also, is it communicating the information in a compelling and creative way? Is it conveying that information in a marketable way?

In a fiction book we consider if the plot makes sense; if the story is flowing in an effective way; if the characters are well characterised; if it has a strong beginning, a suspenseful middle, and a satisfying conclusion; if the characters progress, change, or learn something; and if the type of narrative voice is effective in telling the story.

In a developmental edit I will not usually make sentence-level suggestions unless there are obvious problems in the writing style that will maybe affect the structure, such as overwriting (telling rather than showing), over-describing the action, or unrealistic dialogue (which can affect characterisation).

Sometimes I’ll suggest that it is too soon for a developmental edit. That the book’s concept still needs work; that the writer would perhaps benefit from some feedback from fellow writers in a writing group, to hone their skills a bit more. There is no shame in this and it is usually because a writer is just impatient to move forward before they have truly found their own writing style. A developmental edit at this stage would be very costly and not necessarily very helpful.

Sometimes at this stage a writer does not want (or have the budget for) something as in-depth as a developmental edit. They’d prefer a manuscript evaluation. For someone “just” to read the book and give feedback. The parameters of this could vary enormously, depending on the quality of the writing, the length of the book… lots of things. As always, communication is the thing.

Another option – suitable for very long books or books where there are some writing problems to be ironed out – is a detailed copyedit of a couple of chapters and an evaluation based on the book’s synopsis.

2 Line editing and copyediting

Once the book is well-structured, the text will need a second stage of editing, where it is scrutinised at a sentence level and word level. Some fiction editors call this a line edit. Most non-fiction editors will call it a copyedit. Some editors consider there to be a significant difference between the two. Some consider that a line edit takes a much more creative look at the language chosen – the poetry and sound and imagery of the words. Some think of a copyedit as a third stage where the checking of facts, and editing for readability, good syntax and correct grammar are carried out.

In my own business, I don’t make a distinction between the two stages and I will use the term “copyedit” to include a more creative analysis of the words used and their potential nuances, as well as correcting grammar and syntax. It depends which editor you hire – and it may be a US v UK thing – but many of my colleagues don’t see a distinction between the two stages either. Line editing is not even a term I was familiar with until I started networking with US editors.

In my experience, there is often neither the budget nor the time to make a distinction between a line editing stage and a copyediting stage. The stages are combined. For both terms, we’re considering if the words work. We consider if the vocabulary choice is effective; if syntax and grammar are used correctly; and if the syntax and grammar used break the rules, whether they do so in a useful way.

All the changes at this stage need to be sympathetic to the author’s voice. We all have a writing style and we should not impose ours on someone else.

Whatever the terms used, it is always worth having a conversation about expectations.

3 Proofreading

The last line of defence is the proofread. Just a few years ago, this would have involved reading galley proofs of a fully designed and typeset book. These days, it probably means the last stage of the onscreen editing process before the book goes on to become a print book or an ebook. There is a lot of misuse of the word, in and out of the industry, and this is understandable in a time of flux like this, where workflows have changed to accommodate the production of ebooks and audiobooks into the publishing schedule.

Many of my freelance colleagues have reported independent authors asking for proofreading when it’s a more in-depth substantive edit that is required.
(“It just needs a light proofread. My sister has an English degree and she says it’s great.”)
When looking for an editor, consider what stage you are really at. You can ask the editor for feedback before you decide what you want to do.

We try to catch as many typos and grammar and punctuation errors as we can while we copyedit, but it is impossible to catch everything. It really is. So you rely on that second (or third) pair of eyes in the proofreader, to nitpick and spot the final few (we hope) flaws.

It is not (usually) the proofreader’s job to go rewriting or rewording things to make the text “better”. That stage has passed with the copyedit. Most managers will not thank a proofreader for making hundreds of suggestions when a print deadline is looming. But if the proofreader spots very many instances where the text sounds poor they should speak up before they do anything – and ask if the client wants these changes (and if they are prepared to pay for them! Let that decide it!).


Goal: The book needs help structurally (plotting, character arcs, characterisation, story structure).
Solution: Hire a developmental editor.
Outcome: A story that works well and makes sense structurally.
Will it be 100% error-free at this stage? No. Not in the least.

Goal: You’re happy with your structure but need help to make the text more readable, dialogue more realistic, etc.
Solution: Hire a line editor or copyeditor.
Outcome: Text is reworded in some areas, facts checked, dialogue improved, grammar and syntax corrected. The copyeditor creates a style sheet to pass on to the proofreader.
Will it be 100% error-free at this stage? No. A few errors will remain.

Goal: You are very confident you have written the story you want to write, the way you want to write it but just want it checked for errors.
Solution: Hire a proofreader.
Outcome: The proofreader will read your work very carefully looking for mistakes and inconsistencies, and they’ll be following a style sheet. Be aware that a proofread will take substantially longer than reading a book for pleasure. They may use specialist editing software and Word macros to help find errors and inconsistencies but the crucial thing is that the book is being read by a human being who will invariably give the text more consideration than a mere spot-the-typo exercise.
At the end of a proofread will there be ZERO flaws? No. No published book is ever PERFECT, there are always a few flaws, but they are likely to be debatable, or minor, or hard to spot, if a good workflow has been maintained.
Your proofreader will be aiming for perfection, but your proofreader is also a human.

“No one catches everything, but an editor will catch more than most.”

The reality

The above levels of editing represent one idea of an ideal workflow. These days, for reasons of budget or timescale, writers or publishers may want just one editor to do everything.

If you are a writer who wants one editor to just fix everything, be aware that after the third check of your book, while the editor will know the book inside out in terms of story, they may have gone a bit word blind when it comes to spotting typos. The possibility of missing a typo at this stage is high.

Communication is everything. It’s worth checking that everyone knows the terms being used and, crucially, that they are using the same definitions of those terms.

It is crucial to discuss expectations and to understand the goals and likely outcomes for each editing stage.

Image copyright © Aniwhite, courtesy of Shutterstock

One thought on “What sort of editing do you need?

  1. Oh boy. Well, that’s how I was trained, but try telling people that, including employers. I had no end of trouble in this regard, with both manager and authors – neither of whom understood any of the process. What galled me the most was the lack of support from management when things got sticky. I remember when I finally realised that I literally (aha) could not edit any more when my line manager asked me if I could (copy) edit things a little less. I told him that was my job. He told me to go away.

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