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What Kind of Editing Do You Need?

Wait… what? There’s more than one kind?

It’s true, not all editing is equal. And if you’ve never hired an editor before, you may not have any idea how to answer the question: What type of editing are you looking for?

Do you need:

  • Structural editing (aka developmental / substantive editing)?

  • Line editing?

  • Copy editing?

  • Proofreading?

The type of editing you require largely depends on what stage of the writing process you are currently in. Have you completed a rough draft and have no idea where to go from here? Chances are, you are in need of a structural edit.

Structural Edit

(aka Developmental and/or Substantive Editing)

You don’t need someone to catch every little grammatical error and typo, yet. No, you need someone to read your manuscript and give you an overall, big picture assessment. What’s working? What isn’t? Are there parts of the plot or characters that are unclear? Undeveloped? Just plain not working? At this stage it can be difficult to look at your work objectively and see the trouble spots. If you have a writing group / partner / or can put the work away for six months and then revisit, great! You may not need a structural edit. However, if your self-editing skills are lacking and you don’t have a community of support to lean on, this would be a wise place to make an investment before moving forward with your manuscript.

So now you have the big picture issues ironed out. Your structure is sound, your characters, premise, and/or topic developed. Your manuscript is taking form and you feel confident you have cranked out a solid version. Now what?

This is where things get a bit murky in the editing world. Some people will tell you you’re ready for a line edit. Others will tell you some copy editing is in order. And yet others will tell you that you need either/or… because they are the same thing. Oy.

There are people who use the terms copy / line editing interchangeably, and there are many editors who are essentially doing both of these edits in one pass. But, what are they, exactly?

Line Edit

A line edit focuses on the writer’s prose. Their writing style. Their developed voice. Is the prose fluid, consistent, readable? Writers often have fantastic ideas, concepts, a developed structure, wonderful themes… and yet their writing struggles to convey all of this clearly. It’s a delicate balance. This is a common area for writers, especially new writers, to flounder in. A line editor will help to streamline your prose into a pleasing, consistent rhythm. They may also catch some of the technical errors along the way (and correct them if they are compelled), though this is not their job. No, now it’s time to change gears and get down to…

Copy Edit

When writers think about getting their work “edited,” what they are typically thinking of is copy editing. This is the nuts-and-bolts, catch-all-of-those-errors-and-inconsistencies phase of editing. This is where you tackle any outstanding grammatical or punctuation errors, where you notice discrepancies in details (her shoes were red on pg. 21, and now they’re pink on pg. 49), basically where all of the technical flaws in your manuscript are identified. This is not the time or place to work through major structural / content issues.

After every last copy edit has been made and addressed, your manuscript is laid out, and you are confident you are not going to make one more change… CONGRATS! You are finally ready for a proofread of your manuscript. Many writers make the mistake of thinking a copy edit is a proofread. It’s not. Your copy editor will catch many of the errors your proofreader would find, but they are still going to miss some of the little glitches that try so hard to make it through to the end. Plus, errors are often introduced during the layout stage of your manuscript.


At this stage there should be minimal mistakes. You want this final pass to be done by someone who has never laid eyes on your manuscript. Fresh eyes are key. Someone who has read your work is likely to miss these minor mistakes, but your readers won’t. If you’ve already spent money on editing in other areas, I understand that you’ll want to skimp here. Don’t. Again, if you are on a budget, then I would suggest getting no less than three of your nit-pickiest reader friends (they should not have been beta readers) to read your manuscript. It won’t replace a professional proofreader, but it’s better than you thinking you are going to catch every last mistake. You won’t. You are too entangled in your own material.

And that’s it! The various types of editing, de-mystified.

“But, but, but…” you sputter. “I don’t want to pay for all of those types of editing.”

I get it. It’s a lot. Depending on your skill level, you may be able to tackle the structural edit, or even the line edit. If you can’t afford an editor at this stage by all means have a few beta readers you trust who can give you some honest, constructive feedback.

You may also find an editor willing to do a blend of these edits, though I must point out that combining edits can ultimately create more work in the long haul. Doing a copy edit when you haven’t addressed structural issues may leave you with a stronger draft, but if much of the content is changing you’re still going to need another round of copy editing once those changes are complete. Some food for thought.

The good news is now that you are armed with this fresh knowledge, when you decide it’s time to hire an editor, you’ll know exactly what type of help you need and where to best spend your editing budget.

Any questions? Ask away in the comments…

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