What Type of Edit Does Your Book Need?

Types of Fiction EditingBy MarcyKennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

I’ve noticed a lot of confusion lately about the types of edits your manuscript might need to go through before you send it out into the world. It’s understandable since often terms that aren’t interchangeable are used like synonyms.

So if you’ll forgive the geekery of this post, I want to help set things straight. If you don’t know what each type of edit should include, you won’t know what your book needs and you won’t know if what a specific editor offers will include what you need.

Developmental Edit

You might have also heard this called a comprehensive critique, a substantive edit, or a macro edit. (No wonder everyone is confused, right?)

This doesn’t involve correcting your punctuation and grammar or smoothing out awkward sentences. It’s about big picture issues—for example, characterization, setting, plot, too much/not enough backstory, showing vs. telling, dialogue, POV problems, and making sure each scene has a clear goal and enough tension.

Sometimes a developmental edit will come back to you as an editorial letter of anywhere from 10 to 30 pages for an average novel.

Sometimes along with the editorial letter you’ll also receive a copy of your manuscript with comments added to flag issues.

Neither way is right or wrong, but the second way will cost more because it points out right in the manuscript, in detail, where you need to make changes. For example, when you only get an editorial letter, your developmental edit probably won’t flag individual POV errors or showing vs. telling. It will tell you that you have those problems, but then it’s up to you to find them and fix them.  

If you’re pricing a freelance editor, make sure you don’t just compare prices. Compare what you’re getting for the price.

Line Edit

A line edit will cover things like word choice, paragraph flow, smoothing out awkward or wordy sentences, eliminating repetition, catching clichés, and other style issues. During a line edit, your editor will also point out areas where you need to clarify what you’ve written and suggest spots where your transitions are weak.

Many editors will flag POV errors or small scale showing vs. telling during a line edit, but they will not do it to the degree that a developmental edit does. Because it’s difficult to do a line edit without also doing a copy edit, the two are often combined.

Good line editors are worth their price because they have to not only do all this but do it in a way that doesn’t tamper with your voice.  

Copy Edit

This is about making your manuscript follow the rules of grammar and punctuation. Editors will also trim unnecessary words and change passive sentences to active ones. Usually they’ll correct your formatting.

For fiction, a copy edit may include catching continuity errors as well—for example, your hero has blue eyes on page 10 but green eyes by page 100. For non-fiction, your copy edit might check and flag potential factual errors.

If you have big issues still in your book at this point, your copy editor is going to leave them there. It’s not their job to fix them. A good copy editor will brave your wrath to suggest you should have a developmental edit or a line edit done first. Some of them, if they have the skills, will fudge a little and give you a line edit even though you only paid for a copy edit if they see you need it and they have enough time in their schedule. Don’t count on this. They may not have the time, and you’ll only get what you paid for. (Plus, is it really fair to expect them to do more than you paid for?)


A proofread corrects typos and overlooked errors in grammar, punctuation, capitalization, etc. No big changes are made at this stage. It’s your last minute check because no edit ever catches everything.

As you’ve probably guessed, the lines between each type of edit are blurry rather than clean. That’s why you need to be certain what the editor you’re talking to will include in that type of edit. Don’t assume.

Is the order of the edits really that important?

In an ideal world, you’d have a developmental edit, then a line edit, then a copy edit, then a proofread. Few of us have the time or money to do it that way.

On shorter pieces, it’s not uncommon for an editor to do a developmental edit, line edit, and copy edit all at the same time. If you get a “critique” by me, on a short story, for example, I give it the works.

For a novel, however, you need to keep things in order. It doesn’t make any sense to have a copy edit done before a developmental edit if the developmental edit turns up huge structural flaws that require rewriting multiple scenes.

Do you absolutely need to go through every level of editing?


Do you have to hire someone to do every level of editing?


Skilled beta readers can often fill the role of a developmental editor. If you have a solid grasp on grammar and punctuation and a great eye for details, you might be able to do your own copy edit and proofread.

If you don’t remember anything else from this post, remember these two things:

Friends don’t let friends send their babies out into the world without some sort of editing. Poorly edited books make us all look bad. I know you’re worried about hurting their feelings, but it’s better to be honest than let them be eaten alive by the reviewer sharks.

A man (or woman) who is his own editor has a fool for a client. Even though I edit as part of my job, I still need a fresh set of eyes before my book goes out. If you can’t afford to pay for an edit, swap with a friend. Do something to get your book looked at by eyes other than your own.

Any other questions about editing? What forms of editing have you had done?

If you’d like to know about my editing services, you can email me at marcykennedy [at] gmail.com with “Editing” in the subject line (in case my spam folder eats your email).

I hope you’ll check out the newly released mini-books in my Busy Writer’s Guides series–Strong Female Characters and How to Write Faster–both currently available for 99 cents.

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