The Five Types of Editing: How to Choose the Right One for Your Book

Before self-publishing exploded and transformed the book industry, most authors published their books by traditional means. You either got an agent who sold your book to a publisher, or you worked with a publisher directly. Once your book was in the publisher’s hands, they took care of the editing, which was mostly done behind closed doors. You didn’t have to worry about persnickety things like misplaced modifiers, Oxford commas, and bad breaks—and I don’t mean the dating kind.

Nowadays, the publishing process has become more transparent, and you have access to freelance editing services that can help give your book a fighting chance in the marketplace. So, let’s cover what these services are and determine which type of edit would most benefit your book.

As the owner of a book editing company, I receive many inquiries from writers seeking an editor. Most people request copyediting or proofreading services. One of the first questions I ask is, “Has anyone read your book and given you constructive feedback?” If the answer is no, then I recommend that they start with a big-picture edit before fixing the small stuff.

So, what is a big-picture edit? Well, there are two types: a manuscript critique and developmental editing.

1) Manuscript Critique

A manuscript critique, also called a manuscript assessment, is when an editor carefully reads your manuscript and writes an in-depth letter, or report, on your book. In the letter, the editor will address what is and isn’t working and suggest ways to revise. The editorial critique is usually five to ten pages long (or longer), and will cover all the important elements in your book: the opening, structure, plot, voice, style, characterization, dialogue, and ending.

There will also be feedback on specific chapters and pages, where the editor zeroes in on problem areas. The biggest question your editor will be asking is, Does this work? Is this compelling? If not, what are the issues and how to fix them?

One of the benefits of a critique is that you can get feedback on your book in a relatively short time. Depending on how long your book is and the editor’s availability, it could take a mere three to four weeks, whereas if you’re sharing your manuscript with a writing group or workshop, it could take six months to a year.

When you hire an editor, he or she is going to focus their attention on your story and do the utmost to help you improve your book. You will not only save time, you will also get professional feedback from an expert who knows your genre (for example, science fiction or memoir) and the publishing business.

2) Developmental Editing

The next step up from the manuscript critique is developmental editing. Think of a critique like a 5K run and developmental editing like a marathon. Instead of a 5K run, it’s a 26K run. Not only is the editor going to write a detailed report, he or she is also going to comment on and edit every single page of your book.

The editor is going to cross out words and sentences, ask probing questions, make suggestions, move pieces around, or simply say, “Great job here.” This is all gold for a writer. Developmental editing is best for manuscripts that are fairly advanced and do not require a major rewrite.

Both the manuscript critique and developmental edit include coaching on the craft of writing, tips on revising, and an assessment of your book’s marketability. I often tell writers that a big-picture edit is the most valuable edit you can get. After that, it’s line editing and copyediting. Which brings me to the next two types of editing.

3) Line Editing

Line editing is when the editor looks at every sentence in your book and determines if it belongs, reads well, and is correct. (Note: line editing may include some developmental editing, but the primary focus is on words and sentences. It may also include correcting errors, but it is not a full copyedit. More on this later.)

In a line edit, your editor is going to identify and fix any problems or suggest ways you can revise a word, sentence, or paragraph. Some common problems an editor might find are awkward sentence constructions, wordiness, overused words and phrases, inconsistent verb tenses, and purple prose (flowery language).

The goal of line editing is to make sure that each sentence in your book is necessary, uses fresh language, uses appropriate words (if you’re writing for children, for example), and keeps the reader reading.

So, what’s the difference between line editing and copyediting? Is copyediting the same as proofreading? These are good questions. Let’s cover that next.

4) Copyediting

When it comes to writing, there is an artistic aspect and a technical aspect, much like when you’re building a house. Copyediting focuses on the technical aspect of your writing (the nails and screws). Is this sentence grammatically correct? Is there a comma missing? Should this compound word be hyphenated? Are Jane’s eyes blue or green? How many islands are there in the state of Hawaii?

Professional copyeditors are trained in various style manuals, such as The Chicago Manual of StyleAPA, and MLA. It takes years of study and practice to copyedit like a pro.

Whether you’re self-publishing or taking the traditional publishing route, copyediting is a required step in the editorial process. Copyediting is what elevates your book from error-ridden to polished and refined.

But be aware: one round of copyediting is not enough to catch all the errors. Copyeditors aim to catch at least 95 percent of errors.

So, how is copyediting different from proofreading? Aren’t they the same thing? Well, the answer is, not quite.

5) Proofreading

Proofreading happens after your book has been formatted in a book design program, such as Adobe InDesign, in preparation for publication. Now your book has a fancy title page, copyright page, dedication page, table of contents, and a stunning book cover.

But book design (aka typesetting) is not a foolproof process. Formatting errors can slip in. And there could be residual errors that the copyeditor missed or that you accidentally added when you made changes to your book at the last minute (it’s now or never, right?).

A proofreader will give your book a final line-by-line scan to catch unsightly errors, formatting issues such as bad breaks (a break in a sentence that looks wrong or doesn’t make sense), extra or missing paragraph returns, missing page numbers, and more.

What I Recommend for Your Book

Ideally, you will want to utilize all five types of editing to get your book in publishable shape. If you’ve already got a publisher, they will take care of the copyediting and proofreading. If you’re self-publishing, you will need to hire pros to help you, because in addition to being an author, you are also a publisher. If funds are limited, make friends with writers and exchange work with them.

Also, don’t rush the publishing process; take time to revise. Print out your pages and read them aloud to yourself, or listen to your book being read back to you (using a PDF-to-speech app). It’s amazing what you can find on your own.

Remember, creating a book is a collaborative process. You’re not alone. We’re all in this together, because stories matter. Your story matters.

Originally published in SPAWN: Small Publishers, Writers, & Artists Network's blog

About the Author

Naomi Kim Eagleson is the founder of The Artful Editor and has been editing professionally for over fifteen years. She began her career as an assistant editor at a literary journal, then as a manuscript reviewer for a publishing company. Since launching The Artful Editor in 2010, she and her team have helped hundreds of authors with their manuscripts.