Types of Editing For Books: What Are They and Which Do You Need?

There comes a time when every writer has to reckon with editing. It may be about as fun as a jog through a field of cactuses with a sunburn, but it’s necessary.

Developing a thick skin is part of being a writer, and gracefully accepting feedback in the form of edits is the best way to do this. But, chances are you don’t need every type of editing under the sun. Because, let’s face it, there are many types of editing.

Read on to find out which is which. I’ll tell you the best uses and times for each type of editing, so you can publish the best book possible.

By the way, this is part of a series of posts all about editing and finding a good editor.

In this article, you will learn about each of these editing processes:
  1. Developmental Editing
  2. Structural Editing
  3. Editorial Assessment
  4. Line Editing
  5. Copy Editing
  6. Proofreading
  7. Substantive Editing
  8. Fact-checking Editing

1. Developmental Editing

A developmental edit is often the first step in editing a novel. Often called a manuscript appraisal, content editing, or substantive editing (I know, too many names, right?). This type of editing takes a broad strokes look at the overall structure of the manuscript.

Some people struggling with their story seek help from a developmental editor, since this is one kind of editing that can be done before the entire book has been written.

A developmental editor will read the entire manuscript and present to you an overall summary (called an editorial report) of what is working and what’s not. Things like flat characters, plot holes, confusing scenes, not enough tension, and unclear character motivations are all things a developmental editor will look for. The editorial report will also mention what’s working well so you know what to keep!

You’ll also get an annotated manuscript back, which includes notes of the developmental edit, giving you a more detailed view of their suggestions listed in the report.

When Do You Need Developmental Editing?

Not every author needs this high-level editing. If you’re confident that the overall plot, character development, and clarity of your story all work well, you may not need a developmental edit.

That said, if you feel that something is not working, you keep moving scenes around, or you can’t seem to determine what the story is about, you could benefit from this kind of editorial feedback.

Additionally, if you’re just starting out as a writer, a developmental editor can be a huge help, becoming as much a coach of good writing techniques as an editor.

2. Structural Editing

Like developmental editing, structural editing takes a broad look at the structure of your manuscript. Structure and flow go hand-in-hand and are kind of hard to pin down. And every book (both fiction and nonfiction) needs a good flow to pull the readers along, either entertaining or providing information.

This is what structural editing is all about. Also called a manuscript critique or an evaluation edit, you usually need a finished manuscript to turn into the editor, unlike developmental editing. Once again, you’ll get a summary of the suggested changes (what works and what doesn’t) and you’ll get a marked manuscript so you can see the detailed notes.

When Do You Need Structural Editing?

Books that jump back and forth in time a lot, those that utilize flashbacks, and those with many points of view are all great candidates for structural editing. If you have a finished manuscript and you find that you’re worried about clarity, flow, or structure, you may need the help of one of these editors.

Pro Tip: Many developmental editors offer structural editing services, as well! These services often go well together.

3. Editorial Assessment

An editorial assessment is a way to help you determine if you need editing. Or, rather, what kind of editing you may need. This may seem confusing, so let me clarify. Let’s say you have your manuscript done, but you know it needs some professional editing (99% of manuscripts do). You just don’t know what kind of editing would benefit your book the most.

Enter an editorial assessment, sometimes called a manuscript assessment. A professional editor will look at various parts of your manuscript and suggest what kind of editing would best serve your content.

The structure looks good but there are grammar issues? You could use line editing/copy editing.

Grammar is fine but there’s some big picture problems? You could benefit from a developmental/structural edit.

When Do You Need an Editorial Assessment?

Your first and second books are prime candidates for editorial assessments. They can help you see your own blind spots, helping you clean up your writing in the future.

This is an investment in your writing career and skills. If you don’t have a clue what kind of editing you need, consider an editorial assessment! We also have a great article about choosing the right editor that you can read here!

4. Line Editing

Line editing is all about the style of your manuscript. In fact, it’s often called stylistic editing. A line editor will look at your prose, the flow of your writing, tense, description, and other stylistic matters that can make or break an enjoyable reading experience.

A line edit differs from a structural edit in that the editor will take a deeper look at your manuscript. Structural editing takes a wide-angle view of the style and structure of your novel, whereas line editing goes line-by-line to edit the stylistic choices you’ve made while writing.

When Do You Need Line Editing?

Line editors try to get to the meat of each sentence. They ask what you’re trying to convey with each line of the manuscript and whether you’ve done the best job possible for your voice and writing style.

So, the best candidates for line edits are those authors who aren’t sure of the stylistic choices they’ve made during the initial writing. Perhaps there are some paragraphs or sentences throughout the book that don’t sing like you want them to. If so, a line editor can help!

5. Copy Editing

A copy edit (sometimes spelled copyedit) is all about getting the mechanics of your story right. In this instance, copy means the words on the page. So, a copy editor (or copyeditor) is down in the weeds, combing through the details to make sure your writing meets overall standards for correctness.

A copy editor isn’t concerned with stylistic choices; they’re looking for spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes.

But copy editors also do more. They look for proper capitalization, subject-verb agreement, dialogue tags, and consistency. Did you write one character’s name when you really meant another? A copy editor will catch it. Did you use one word when another one would work better? Leave it to a copy editor to suggest a more suitable word.

When Do You Need a Copy Edit?

Every book should go through copyediting. This is one form of editing that is incredibly useful to all authors and writers. We may think that we make no mistakes (or that we catch them all on our fourth, fifth, or tenth draft) but this is rarely the case. We don’t know what we don’t know. So before you publish, copyediting is always a great idea.

6. Proofreading

A proofreading edit is often the last part of the editing process. It’s designed to make sure that no mistakes slip through before finally hitting publish. Like copy editors, proofreaders are looking at all the little things that make up a book. Each word, comma, period, page number, and even each space and scene break are all under a proofreader's purview.

A proofreader will be able to point out inconsistent use of italics that may confuse a reader. They’ll also look at any captions, footnotes, and formatting errors. This is why it’s important to have your book formatted before sending it to a proofreader. You can think of the proofreading process as the very last line of defense against those little things that may turn readers off.

P.S. Formatting doesn’t have to be a drag. In fact, it’s super easy and fast in Atticus!

When Do You Need a Proofreader?

Like copy editing, proofreading is a must for 99% of authors. You’ll hear about those authors that successfully proofread and edit their own stuff, but these people are few and far between. You’re simply too close to the book to be an objective judge, so it’s best to leave this up to a proofreader.

Many indie authors offer a small group of their readers a free copy (digital or print) of the book in exchange for proofreading. This is a cheap way to do it. And, although most readers aren’t professional editors, they’ll still be able to catch most mistakes – especially if you use more than one person!

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7. Substantive Editing

A substantive edit is an all-around editing process. For this reason, it's also often called a content edit. Substantive editing deals with sentence structure, grammar, content, word usage, and overall writing style. A content editor is kind of like each different editing type above all rolled into one.

When you bring your manuscript to a substantive editor, you can expect sentence-level critiques, overall structure critiques, and everything in between. This is one editing service that covers all the manuscript editing bases.

When Do You Need a Substantive Edit?

If you're not sure what type of editing you'll need for your manuscript, keep this type of editor in mind during the writing process. A substantive editor will charge more overall for the service, but it's also likely to be cheaper than going to each different editing service separately. So if you know you may need multiple editing types, contact an editor that does it all!

8. Fact-checking Editing

I also like to call this the “expert witness” edit. Let’s say your book deals with a topic that you are not an expert in. And let’s face it, most of us write about a wide variety of topics, and we can’t possibly know everything there is to know about all of it. That is why a fact-checking expert can be a real help.

You can get a designated fact-checking editor, though they are more rare than the other editors on this list, but often the best people to consult are the experts themselves.

That is why fact checkers are often lumped together with beta readers, but in this case they are somewhere in-between.

When Do You Need a Fact-checker?

Is your book historical? Then it might be good to consult a historian. Are you writing military sci-fi but never served in the military yourself? Then it might be best for someone who did to read your book.

Put simply, anytime a specific topic is important to your book, and you are not an expert in that thing, it’s wise to hire an expert.

Sensitivity readers are very similar, and should be consulted whenever your book deals with potentially sensitive topics. Once again, we would almost categorize these as beta readers, but a very special subgroup that should be given as much weight as an editor.

Types of Editing: Conclusion

There’s a lot of overlap with editing services. Some people use the terms copy editing and line editing interchangeably. Others say proofreading when they mean copy editing. It can all be pretty confusing. So it’s important to be absolutely clear on the services of an editor when you hire one.

Most editors will do a small sample edit for free (or a minimal fee). This is always a good idea. You can examine the sample edit and see if you and the editor are on the same page (both literally and figuratively). After all, you probably want to stay true to your writing style even if the editor doesn't seem to “get it.”

Editing software is a must-have for any author, but a good editor will help your writing in the long run. At the very least, have a professional perform copyediting on your book and then have some readers proofread it. Quality books attract readers, which then turn into fans. And fans make for a successful indie author career!

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