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Autumn Forest

The 4 levels of editing

What level do you need?

If you’ve been browsing the Internet for an editor, you’ve likely come across a bewildering array of editorial services. Manuscript evaluation/assessment/critique. Developmental editing. Structural editing. Mentoring. Book coaching. Substantive editing. Content editing. Macro editing. Micro editing. Line editing. Copy editing. Formatting. Proofreading.

You would think that editors, of all people, would have a consistent vocabulary to describe what they do. But no – editors don’t even agree on how to spell. Is it copyediting, copy editing, or copy-editing?

Whether you plan to go with a traditional publisher or self-publish, knowing the 4 levels of editing — and the best order to follow — will help you navigate the path from manuscript to finished book.

4 levels of editing and the publishing process
The 4 levels of editing and the publishing process

Developmental editing

Developmental editing looks at the "big picture" — how a manuscript is shaped and organized to tell a story or make an argument. Developmental editing is done first because it doesn’t make sense to finetune sentences until the structure is sound.

Developmental editors may call themselves structural editors, content editors, or book doctors. Whatever their title, they look at the overall manuscript, work with you to clarify what the book is about and where it fits in the marketplace, and guide you in shaping the narrative arc or making a compelling argument.

Services under the umbrella of developmental editing range from general assessments (called manuscript evaluations or critiques) to in-depth analyses and recommendations for revision. For a general assessment, you might receive a 5-page editorial report, compared with a 15-page report plus comments in the margins for a comprehensive developmental edit.

A developmental editor should respect your voice and creativity by suggesting rather than prescribing changes. The editor is the expert on how to shape a story for readers, but you are the expert on the story or idea itself.

Line editing

A line edit can lift your writing style to the next level (it’s also called stylistic editing). This edit focuses on sentences and paragraphs “to clarify meaning, improve flow, and smooth language" (Editors Canada, Professional Editorial Standards). A good line editor is attuned to your intentions for the story, and the edited version should sound like you.

Line editing revises clunky sentences, sorts out verb tenses, sharpens word choices, adds transitions, eliminates wordiness, flags cliches, and helps you strike the right mood or tone. Line editors usually correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar as well.

In storytelling genres, much of the line edit is communicated in comments in the margins, where the editor asks questions and nudges you to flesh out characters, show emotion, add sensory details, adjust the pace, rejig a scene, or sort out the timeline.

In traditional publishing, line editing gets squeezed. The manuscript goes from the developmental editor, who is usually in-house, to the copy editor, who is usually a freelancer.

Sometimes the line edit can be combined with other levels:

  • line edit + developmental edit = substantive edit

  • line edit + copy edit = copy edit plus

If you're an indie author, a good line editor can make the difference between a "so-so" book and one that readers of the genre will recommend.

Copy editing

Copy editing is what most people mean by “editing.” Copy editors correct grammar, spelling, punctuation, and usage.

They also apply a consistent “editorial style”—often the “house” style of the publisher. Editorial style is a set of choices about things like capitalization, abbreviations, hyphens, dashes, numbers, notes and references, heading levels, and so on. If a book is inconsistent in these small matters, readers may question its overall accuracy.

If you’re self-publishing, the copy editor should consult with you about your preferences. For example, do you prefer “apples, oranges, and pears” (serial comma) or “apples, oranges and pears” (no serial comma)? The copy editor will record these decisions on a style sheet and give you a copy at the end of the project.

If you're on a limited budget, copy editing is one level of editing you should not skip.


Proofreading is the last stage of the publishing process. It occurs after the book is designed and typeset in its final form. This is your chance to see what the pages will actually look like and fix typos and other small mistakes that slipped by the copy editor or crept in during design and layout. You might be the only proofreader, or the publisher might hire a professional proofreader as well.

Before you hire an editor, ask:

  • Do they define their services on their website?

  • Does one of the services match what you're looking for?

  • Have they edited other books like yours?

  • Are they recommended by authors?

  • Do they belong to a professional editing association?

  • Are they trained and qualified?

  • Will they talk with you without asking first for payment?

  • Do you sense that the two of you will be a good fit?

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