Types of Editing: An Inside Look at What Editors Do
Literary editors are a writer's best friend — they have the skills, experience, and knowledge to take your manuscript to the next level. However, not all editors do the same job and it's important to understand what type of editing your project needs at any given stage.
In this guide, we’ll take you through the different types of editing and offer insights from Reedsy's deep roster of expert manuscript editors.
5 common types of editing in publishing:
1. Editorial assessment
An editorial assessment is often the first piece of professional help a manuscript will receive. Your editor will offer you some broad, insightful feedback on major strengths and weaknesses in your plot, characters, or structure.
“In an editorial assessment, the author wouldn’t receive comments and example rewrites in the manuscript,” says genre fiction editor Leah Brown. “Instead, they would receive a letter that focuses on the broad strokes. An editorial assessment is best for an author who is early in the process and whose manuscript may be messier.”
Seeking out an editorial assessment early on will make the job of a developmental and copy edit later down the line much easier. Similarly, they can help you determine whether your work is ready for querying before you contact any literary agents.
What kind of editing does your book need?
2. Developmental editing
Developmental editing — also called content or substantive editing — involves an editor providing detailed feedback on “big-picture” issues. They’ll refine your ideas, shape your narrative, and help you fix any major plot or character inconsistencies to tell you if any elements of your story just don’t work. It’s similar to an editorial assessment but contains much more detail.
“For a developmental edit, I look at some of the larger questions,” says editor Mary-Theresa Hussey. “Why are the characters behaving as they do? What are their motivations? Do these scenes add to the overall story? What is your underlying theme, and how does it change?”
Your editor will return an annotated manuscript, a marked-up version of the original manuscript with specific suggestions for each issue, and an editorial report. This is essentially a summary of the raw feedback left on the manuscript.
3. Copy editing
Copy editing is the next step after you're certain you've solved your book's big-picture issues. An editor will read your work on the lookout for anything that makes it less readable, like word repetition or character inconsistencies. This type is also known as mechanical or line editing, depending on its particular application.
“A copy editor’s job is to bring the author’s completed manuscript to a more professional level,” says editor Chersti Nieveen. “A copy edit helps create the most readable version of your book, improving clarity, coherency, consistency, and correctness. The goal is to bridge any remaining gaps between the author’s intent and the reader’s understanding.”
What elements do copy editors consider?
A copy editor examines and corrects the following elements in your work:
- Word usage and repetition
- Dialogue tags
- Usage of numbers or numerals
- POV/tense (to fix any unintentional shifts)
- Descriptive inconsistencies (character descriptions, locations, blocking, etc.)
It’d be pretty distracting to your reader if you constantly misuse dialogue tags or misspell the word “restaurant.” Copy editing ensures that errors like these don’t happen, so your writing is as strong as possible, and your reader remains 100% focused on the story. They can also help make sure that you’re using the right terminology and that you’re using inclusive language in your writing.
Is line editing the same as copy editing?
People often use "line editing" and "copy editing" interchangeably — but they’re not exactly the same thing. To clarify: line editing focuses specifically on the content and flow of your prose. It’s also called 'stylistic editing' since it concentrates on style rather than mechanics.
In other words, it still falls under the umbrella of copy editing but is more precise. While a full copy edit looks at all of the elements listed in the bullets above, a line edit would only consider word usage, POV/tense, and descriptive inconsistencies and provide more detailed suggestions on strengthening the prose.
If you feel incredibly confident about the mechanics of your prose but less so about its flow and style, you might request that your copy editor focus their energy on line editing alone. After all, a proofreader can always catch any minor errors that slip through the cracks.
And speaking of proofreaders...
Proofreading is the last major stage of the editing process. Proofreaders are eagle-eyed inspectors who ensure no spelling or grammar errors make it to the final version of your work.
Back in the day, an impression of a metal plate would be created as “proof” of a typeset book. But before that happened, it would be triple-checked by the proofreader, who made sure the publisher didn’t churn out thousands of copies of a novel called A Tale of Tow Cities.
Even with modern digital typesetting, proofreaders still often work from physical proofs, often using a language of their own, as they go. They’ll watch out for:
- Inconsistencies in spelling and style;
- Inconsistencies in layout and typography;
- Confusing or awkward page and word breaks;
- Incorrect captioning on any illustrations and page numbers in the contents.
Although most issues will be resolved by this stage, proofreaders still scrutinize the text for anything previous edits might have missed. Hopefully, they don’t find much, but better safe than sorry!
The style sheet
When working with a proofreader, you should provide them with a style sheet that notifies them of any unusual spellings or styles in your manuscript — for example, if you’ve written a fantasy novel and have invented some words. Otherwise, they’ll read your manuscript “blind,” which is still pretty effective but may not incorporate every little detail of your work.
Once they’re done, your proofreader will return a marked-up document for you to revise one final time. After making those changes, you should be ready to send your manuscript into production, either by working with a typesetter or using a free tool like the Reedsy Book Editor to export your ebook.
No matter how thoroughly you research your book, it can still end up with informational inconsistencies — and that's a fact (pun fully intended). Developmental and copy editors can help with this, but at the end of the day, it’s not their responsibility to fact-check.
If you have a lot of niche information in your book, and especially if it’s a topic you’ve never written on before — you might consider getting a designated fact-checker to comb through it. They’ll note all the factual references in your book, then carefully confirm them via external sources; if they find any inaccuracies, they’ll alert you immediately.
This type of editing is particularly crucial if you’re writing nonfiction (and dedicated nonfiction editors are often experienced fact-checkers too). But getting a trained eye on your manuscript can also be very helpful for historical fiction and hard sci-fi works.
Of course, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and your book is the same — a quick self-edit won’t be enough if you want to be a successful author (whatever that means to you). An outside perspective from a professional editor, will help you lay the foundation the right way. With that in mind, you’re ready to go forth and conquer the world — the world of editing!
To learn how to find an editor to work on your book, proceed to the next post in this series.