You’ve finished writing your novel and you're ready to take the next steps towards self-publishing. You decide you need an editor. A lot of inexperienced writers can get very tangled up in the differences between proofreading and editing, not to mention copy-editing, line editing, developmental editing. And what about stylistic editing, substantive editing, proof editing …
It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin. To make things even more confusing, different editors will often use these terms slightly differently (one editor’s copy-editing might include more heavy line edits, and to another a copy-edit is more of a clean-up, akin to a heavy proofread). That’s why it’s so important to check with your editor what they offer and to clarify how they define the terms.
Also known as: structural editing/substantive editing
This is the big picture stuff:
A developmental editor will read through your manuscript, making notes as they go, usually leaving comments directly in the file, and written up as a long, in-depth report broken down into the sections listed above, which they’ll then send to you. What a developmental editor WON’T do is make changes to the text of your manuscript.
You should be prepared for a developmental editor to suggest some pretty radical changes to your manuscript, such as scrapping subplots that don’t add anything, getting rid of or consolidating characters, deleting or switching the order of scenes, suggesting extra scenes, tweaking the ending to make it more impactful.
Developmental editing can be expensive, so a lot of authors opt for manuscript critiques instead, which are a less intensive version of a developmental edit, and one that won’t offer direct suggestions but will rather point out the strengths and weaknesses of your novel and leave you to deal with them as you see fit. If you aren’t confident in your storytelling abilities and are on a budget, a manuscript critique (or a manuscript assessment) can be an invaluable service. Alternatively, many authors choose to hire beta readers, whose feedback they then use to rework their story according to the feedback they receive.
Also known as: stylistic editing
Once you’ve dealt with the structural issues in your book, you’ll be wanting a sentence-level edit. A line edit focuses on style and flow, with a view to making your sentences as impactful as they can be, all while respecting your author voice and style. A line edit will look at:
Clarity, readability & style
Pacing & flow
Dialogue (focusing on style & realism, as well as the mechanics of dialogue formatting)
Word choice: in particular cliched or awkward language
Overused phrases & repetition
Telling vs. showing
Changes will be made directly to your manuscript using track changes. Your book will be returned to you covered in scary-looking red additions and deletions, along with comments and queries that may need addressing.
Most editors (including me) who offer line editing will also include copy-editing as well, which is why the lines can get a little blurred sometimes. But a copy-edit on its own will address the technical side of things, such as:
Spelling & grammar
Applying style decisions, e.g. UK vs. US English, -ize/-ise endings, capitalisation, en/em dashes
Consistency in character, setting, timeline etc.
Drawing attention to obvious plot holes
Punctuation: commas, ellipses, dialogue formatting, etc.
Accuracy (including basic fact checking)
Plenty of authors skip the developmental and line editing stage, but if there’s any stage of editing that should not be skipped it’s copy-editing.
You should receive two copies of your manuscript once a copy-edit is done: one with the edits shown with track changes on, and a clean file with the edits accepted. You’ll also receive a style sheet (or style guide), which will detail the editorial decisions made and the punctuation, grammar and spelling styles that were applied.
Proofreading is the final pass before publishing, and is a last check for spelling, grammar and punctuation, but also for things such as checking the accuracy of chapter headings and numbers, formatting issues, and consistency. Many authors will think they need just a quick proofread when what they really need is a copy-edit. Ideally you, the author, will have a style sheet from your copy-editor for the proofreader to work from.
It’s not uncommon for errors to be introduced during the copy-editing process (for instance when the author is making revisions), so this is a crucial step to making sure your book is as flawless as can be* for your readers.
Occasionally you’ll see editors offering a proof-edit. I don’t use this phrase, as the number of terms is confusing enough as it is. But a proof-edit is essentially a proofread; the term exists because historically in the traditional publishing world, proofreading was done on typeset pages, usually on paper but also on PDFs, and the edits were not made to the text itself. The term proof-editing is an attempt to distinguish between traditional proofreading and proofreading as it's done today (generally in Word using track changes and possibly including some copy-editing tasks).
*No proofreader can promise perfection. Even in traditionally published books, you’ll often find the odd typo that managed to sneak past the army of people who’ve worked on it.
Melanie Kirk is a line editor, copyeditor and proofreader and an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP). If you are interested in her editing services, you can get in touch with her at firstname.lastname@example.org