When authors email me to ask about getting their work edited, they’re often not sure what kind of editing they need. And no wonder… not only are there many different types of editing, but editors and the publishing industry don’t always use a consistent naming convention!
This can get really confusing—even for those of us within the trade—and it’s why I always try to establish exactly what your needs and expectations are when I take on a project.
Sometimes, even though the basic function and focus of the edit might be similar, it’s called something different because of where you are in the production process. Other times, depending on an editor’s strengths and the author’s budget, different types of editing might be combined, which can make it even more confusing.
If your head is spinning when it comes to the difference between a developmental and a story edit, or you’re wondering why it’s called a light copy edit before layout and a proofread after layout… this post is for you.
The Developmental Edit
This is also sometimes called a “story” edit (or a “structural” edit if you’ve written a nonfiction piece)—but the important thing to keep in mind here is that regardless of what it’s called, the developmental edit is taking a high-level macro view of the entire work.
In fiction, a developmental edit looks at the different elements of your story, such as setting, timeline, plot points and pacing, character development, and dialogue, to evaluate what works well and what could be tweaked to improve the overall flow and reader experience.
In nonfiction, a developmental or structural edit looks at how the information flows from one chapter or section to another, if the progression makes sense, and if there are logic or informational gaps that need to be filled in for the reader.
This kind of edit usually comes back to you with plenty of comments in the manuscript and an extensive editorial letter that takes a deep dive into your writing and summarizes the editor’s thoughts and suggestions.
Occasionally, editors will offer a “light” developmental read in the form of a manuscript assessment or a beta read, which can be a little easier on your pocket book. They usually offer overall impressions of the writing and offer guidance on what you should pay attention to and work on, so it can be very valuable for someone who wants guidance but may not be able to afford a full developmental edit.
The Line/Copy Edit
When it comes to understanding line editing and copy editing, I think it’s easiest to think about them as a spectrum of editing intensity.
On one end, there’s line editing (sometimes also called “substantive” editing), which looks at the writing on a line-by-line and paragraph-by-paragraph basis. In line editing, I’m not only making suggestions on grammar, spelling, word usage, syntax, and punctuation, but also making suggestions on how to reorganize the flow of information, tighten up sentences and eliminate redundancies, heighten the impact of details and dialogue, and improve the overall clarity, readability, and flow of the writing.
Light copy editing lives on the other end of the spectrum. For this type of editing, I correct for all the “normal” grammatical issues, punctuation, spelling, and the like, but generally leave the rest of the writing alone. (Light copy editing sometimes gets mixed up with proofreading, but more about that below!)
In between these two extremes, you have “heavy” copy editing, which is very much like line editing but takes fewer liberties when suggesting rewrites, and “medium” copy editing, which makes fewer changes still.
Confused yet? I don’t blame you. That’s why editors usually try to keep it simple, refer to it as just line or copy editing, and work with clients on a case-by-case basis to determine what their writing needs.
All of these types of editing include using “Track Changes” (usually in Word or Google Docs) to show how things might be rewritten and to insert missing punctuation and the like. Overall, the big takeaway here is that line or copy editing is much more concerned with sentence flow and proper grammar, and much less with the conceptual elements that developmental editing tackles.
Proofreading usually happens after the manuscript has gone to layout (if it is being printed) and is the final step before your writing is released into the world. The edits are usually made in a pdf file that shows the final design, and I annotate with comments and pdf editing marks.
At this stage, I’m really looking for “small” things like missed punctuation, inconsistent formatting, odd indents, font style changes that shouldn’t be there, and basic spelling and grammar.
This is not the time to make big sentence-level changes because the book will either have to be reimported into the layout software and formatted again, or every change will have to be added in by hand. As you can imagine, this extra work eats up a lot of time and money, so if you haven’t had your manuscript reviewed at a copy editing level, I’d highly recommend backtracking and doing that before sending it to layout.
Occasionally I am asked to “proofread” manuscripts, blog posts, or other written pieces immediately prior to the layout stage. I prefer to call this a light copy edit because while there are some similarities at both stages, there’s a little more flexibility for changes with light copy editing. And it’s still a good idea to do a final proofread to review your laid-out pages for the little anomalies I mentioned above.
Still wondering what kind of editing your manuscript needs? Feel free to get in touch! I’d love to talk to you about your project and how I can help.