So you’re looking for an editor. You know roughly what you want, but every editor you look at seems to offer a whole catalogue of different editing services: copy-editing, line editing, structural editing, and more. Some editors even seem to use different names for the same thing. How can you make sure you’re buying the right one?
The dilemma you’re facing is a common one, but don’t be put off – I’m here to help! To begin with, it’s useful to understand a bit about how editing fits into the traditional publishing process.
The publishing process
Under traditional publishing, a book isn’t edited all at once. There’s usually quite a lot of back and forth, with the editor making suggestions and the book returning to the author so they can implement them.
To avoid wasted effort, this editing process is broken into stages. We start by looking at ‘big-picture’ things like plot and characters. These are the areas where, if we decided to change something, it would have the greatest number of knock-on effects.
Next we look at slightly lower-level changes such as individual scenes, before moving on to language and grammar. Once everything else is complete, we finish off with a proofread to eliminate any remaining errors.
The reason we do it this way, rather than just tackling everything at once, is simple. If we spent time polishing the language in a chapter only to later decide that chapter needed to be rewritten, that time (and your money that paid for it) would be wasted.
To help publishers and editors work together, we’ve developed terms for these different stages of editing. The boundaries between them can be blurry and may vary from editor to editor, but this should give you a broad understanding of what each term means:
Types of editing
Also known as a manuscript critique or editorial letter, this is a high-level assessment of your book’s condition – where it’s strong and where it needs a little more love.
A manuscript assessment is not designed to solve problems for you, so much as to show you where they are and help you understand how to fix them yourself. It tends to be one of the cheaper forms of editing and is great for gauging whether your text is ready for the next step.
Unlike with the other services in this list, an editor performing a manuscript assessment probably won’t make changes or insert comments directly into your text (known as ‘marking up’). Instead, they’ll usually provide a short report containing their feedback and suggestions.
This is a broad category that goes by many names, including structural editing, heavy editing, substantive editing, and book doctoring.
Developmental editors help you solve the kind of big-picture issues that a manuscript assessment might flag up – things like structure and pacing.
A developmental edit can be very wide or very specific. It could be a quick pass through to make sure your chapters flow together properly, or longer-term help turning a difficult work-in-progress into a finished product.
Developmental editing is the most intensive kind of editing available, and so tends to be the most expensive. When hiring a developmental editor, it’s very important to be clear about the kind of help you’re looking for and anything in particular you’d like them to focus on.
A line edit or stylistic edit gets down into the language. Line editing polishes things like clarity, flow, and word choice to make sure you’re communicating your story as effectively as possible, while preserving your unique voice.
Line editing will probably be the first time that your editor makes changes to your text directly, rather than simply providing comments or suggestions. Don’t worry though – you always get the final say over whether or not a particular change makes it through.
Unlike copy-editing below, line editing is still primarily about improving and polishing the text, rather than correcting mistakes. Because they operate on a similar level, many editors offer line editing and copy-editing as a single package.
Copy-editing is an editor’s bread and butter. Unlike line editing, copy-editing aims to correct technical errors rather than improve style. A copy-edit will iron out any mistakes in grammar, spelling, and syntax, while also checking the text for inconsistencies.
While copy-editing a longer text, your editor will might also crease a ‘style sheet’. This is a handy reference for any stylistic decisions such as preferred spellings and formatting. In some cases, fiction editors might expand this style sheet to include character and timeline information too.
Your copy-editor will make their changes directly on your manuscript, but as always, you’ll get the final say. As I mentioned above, copy-editing is often offered together with line editing and the distinction between the two can sometimes be blurry.
Proofreading is similar to copy-editing, except that it’s more limited in scope and happens later in the process. Errors have a way of slipping through even after multiple rounds of editing, or simply being introduced while you’re implementing the last round of changes. Proofreading aims to catch those errors before your book is published.
Proofreading is done after the book has already been copy-edited and all changes have been implemented. A proofreader will check broadly the same things as a copy-editor, except that they’ll only make corrections where it’s absolutely necessary – any larger changes at this stage could potentially introduce further errors.
Just like how writers can get so close to their work that errors begin to slip through unnoticed, an editor who’s already carried out multiple passes is more likely to miss things during a proofread. For that reason, it’s a good idea to hire a proofreader who isn’t your normal editor.
Choosing the right editing service
If you’re publishing a book trough a traditional publishing house, everything other than a manuscript assessment and developmental editing will be organised for you by your agent and publisher after you’ve signed a deal. Whether you want to arrange either of those two services is entirely up to you, and will probably depend on your experience and confidence as an author. While developmental editing can be quite expensive, manuscript assessments tend to be relatively cheap and can be a good way to test whether your book is ready before you send it out.
As an independent (self-publishing) author, you’ll need to decide for yourself which services are most worth your money. Independent authors aren’t likely to have the same budget as a publishing house, so you’ll probably need to be more selective when it comes to the editorial input that you look for.
My personal view is that if you can only afford one round of editing, a copy-edit is the one to go for – it’ll help eradicate those pesky errors and inconsistencies that could otherwise leave your book feeling unprofessional. If your budget reaches further, go for a manuscript assessment first – it’s a cost-effective way of getting high-level feedback, and will help you direct your own efforts before you move on to the copy-edit.
Ultimately, the point of all of these different terms is to make sure you and your editor are on the same page, and can both be confident that the service they’re delivering is the right one for you. If it all feels a bit much, or if you’re simply not sure which type of editing your text needs – just ask!