Q & A: What Type of Editing Does Your Book Need?

Image Credit: Willemijn Simonis (www.freeimages.com)

Image Credit: Willemijn Simonis (www.freeimages.com)

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

I’m starting a new monthly feature here on my blog where I answer your questions. If you’d like to submit a question for a future episode, head over to my contact form to send me an email.

To inaugurate this new venture, I’ve decided to answer a question I receive a lot.

This one comes from Rachel Funk Heller:

What’s the difference between a developmental edit and proofreading?

Writing doesn’t have standardized terms like some other industries, and this leads to a lot of confusion among writers. (This actually came up in the comments on the guest post I wrote last week for Jami Gold about internal dialogue.)

So to answer Rachel’s question, I’m going to explain the different levels of editing. And remember, if you’re not sure what’s included in the type of editing an editor is offering, ask. You have the right to know what you’ll receive in your edit before you agree to hire the editor.

I’m putting these edits in order from big picture to small details. The order is important. If the foundation of your house isn’t solid, it won’t matter how pretty your living room drapes are.

Developmental Edit

You might have also heard this called a comprehensive critique, a substantive edit, a structural edit, a content 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 story issues—characterization (including likeability), setting, plot, too much/not enough backstory, showing vs. telling, dialogue, point-of-view problems, pacing, and goals, stakes, and motivation.

Most writers on a budget skip this step, but this is usually the type of edit we need the most. We might be able to copy edit or proofread our own work, but we’re not objective enough to developmentally edit our own book. And a fantastic story can cover over a multitude of other writing sins.

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.

Good line editors are rare because they need to be mimics. They need to enhance our voice rather than stamping their own voice on our writing.

Copy Edit

A copy edit is about making your manuscript follow the rules of grammar and punctuation such as comma placement and homonyms. Editors will also trim unnecessary words, change passive sentences to active ones, and catch typos or missing words. Usually they’ll correct your formatting.

For fiction, a copy edit includes 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. (Be sure to ask if continuity checking is included.)

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 might brave your wrath to suggest you should have a developmental edit or a line edit done first.


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.

Do you need to go through every level of editing?

In a perfect world, we would. But we don’t live in a perfect world. Few of us have the money to pay for all the levels of editing.

Take an honest assessment of where your natural skills lie. Focus your money on bolstering your weaker areas.

I’ve also written a post for Janice Hardy about How to Save Money on Editing Your Book, and Jami Gold has a great post on her site about how to find beta readers.

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

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.

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 or to let a book with great potential fall short.

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. 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 have a question you’d like me to answer here, make sure to send me an email!

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Internal Dialogue is now available. (You might also want to check out Description or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

I’d love to have you sign up to receive my posts by email. All you need to do is enter your email address below and hit the “Follow” botton.

Enter your email address to follow this blog: