Everyone needs an editor. But what kind of editor? Many first-time or self-published authors acknowledge the value of editing, but remain confused about the nature of editing. Online, it’s an unorganized world. Posters mix up proofreading, editing, and copy editing with abandon. This post will outline the most popular forms of editing to help you choose the right type of editor for your work.


     Proofreading is the most basic form of editing. It’s debatable that proofreading even is a form of editing.

     Proofreading comes from the term “galley proof” (sometimes just called “proof”). Proofreaders read proofs. Easy enough.

      Historically, galley proofs have been one of the last steps in the publishing process. Proofreaders would check galley proofs against the previous version of the text in order to catch any errors introduced in the publishing process. Proofreaders concerned themselves solely with basic errors such as incorrect punctuation, misspellings, random capitalization, and, more recently, blocks of garbled text introduced by computer error (“</P > < P>&nbsp;< /P> <P >”, anyone?).

     With the dawn of word processors, self-publishing, ebooks, and independent authors, proofreading has come to take on a different meaning. For self-publishers, it’s uncommon to perform traditional proofreading with multiple copies of the same document. Now, when people talk informally about proofreading, they usually mean the process of checking a single text file for basic technical errors. A proofreader will change “suPine” to “supine”, but a proofreader will not replace “supine” if you really mean “prone”. That falls under the category of…

Copy Editing & Line Editing

      It might seem a little strange to group these terms together. After all, many freelance editors specifically list both copy editing and line editing services. There’s definitely overlap between the two. Copy editing and line editing responsibilities are like a Venn diagram. The problem is, there’s no consensus on the boundaries. However, they share enough responsibilities to include both under the same umbrella, and in practice, these types of editing are nearly identical. 

      Let’s look at copy editing first. The term “copy editing” is used mostly by the newspaper industry. Copy editors review each story before publication. Their goal is to create clear, correct, concise, complete, and consistent copy. Those five adjectives are the Five C’s of copy editing. Sometimes “coherent” and “coordinated” replace “correct” in an alternate version known as the Seven C’s (which also adds “creative”). Though copy editor duties may vary by company, the list of Five (or Seven) C’s is a guiding philosophy for copy editors.

      “Line editing” is a term used mostly by the book industry. There is no universal definition of line editing. Worse, some definitions directly contradict each other. To get a good idea of daily copy editing responsibilities, we asked an expert.

      We spoke to Mark Allen, veteran journalist and board member of the American Copy Editors Society, about his definitions and views of copy editing.

      On the most basic level, Allen says that the copy editor must be the bridge between the author’s vision and the reader’s understanding. “A copy editor must be an advocate for the reader. A copy editor approaches the task by putting himself or herself in the position of the reader and works to make sure the writer’s thoughts are clearly conveyed.”

      His list of copy editor responsibilities seems very much in line with the 5 C’s: “Spelling and grammar, punctuation, consistency. [Copy editing] also deals with clarity and readability, tone, usage, construction. Oh, and fact checking. It’s very important that what’s written is factual, even fiction deals in truth.”

      You’ll notice that there’s nothing about the ideas in the story in Allen’s description of copy editing. Line editing and copy editing might be less confusing if they were called sentence editing. But how do you edit the essence of the story? The characters, the dialogue, the pacing, the plot. Story editing is the realm of…

Developmental Editing

      Developmental editing has been called many things. Big-picture editing, structural editing, and book doctoring. We very much like the idea of story editing contrasted to sentence editing.

      Developmental editing deals with everything that’s unique about your book. Your characters are unique, your dialogue is unique, your plot might not be unique but you’ve hopefully expressed an old idea in a new way. The developmental editor helps you best express the unique elements of your book. By contrast, the copy editor will help you with the standardized elements of your book, like correct comma placement.

      However, some things may fall in both domains. Either a copy editor or developmental editor might point out a spell which doesn’t make sense according to your story’s rules of magic. Despite the overlap, a book doctor or developmental editor is a worthy investment.

      Your book may look entirely different after a round of developmental editing. A book doctor might point out a major plothole, suggest merging two minor characters into one, or change the pacing and order of major plot points. The fresh eyes of a developmental editor can point out major or minor story edits which can completely change your novel for the better.

      When looking for a developmental editor, you’ll want to narrow your search to include dev. editors who specialize in your genre. A romance-focused developmental editor will know what works within the context of romance stories. More importantly, he will be able to point out romance cliches and tropes in a way that horror-focused developmental editors simply can’t.

Order of Operations

      It’s funny that we’ve listed the various types of editing in this way, because you should go through these stages in the opposite order. Developmental editing should come first. Fix all the big-picture problems before you go to a copy editor. Otherwise, you might end up rewriting a copy-edited chapter, then sending it back to the copy editor for another round of edits (and another round of billing!)

      After the developmental editor has helped you with the story’s structure, bring your work to a copy editor for sentence editing. Once your story is solid and your sentences are tight, bring in a proofreader to make sure that your final draft looks perfect.

      Long process? Yes. Worth it? Most definitely.

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