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Types of editing

February 2, 2013

Yesterday, I explained why even great writers need an editor. But actually, you might need even more than one editor. There are different kinds of editing, and they are all very different skill sets, so it’s rare that one person can do all types of editing–and do them well.

Ideally, your manuscript will undergo each type of editing in the following order:

  • If you submit your manuscript to a traditional publisher, it’ll land on the desk of the acquisition editor first. He or she decides whether the manuscript is worth publishing and whether it fits into the company’s publishing concept. Some acquisition editors won’t edit or even read your whole manuscript, while others will do content editing. They will never copyedit, though.
  • The content editor (sometimes called substantive editor or developmental editor) deals with substantive revisions of the manuscript’s content and points out things such as unrealistic dialogue, point of view errors, too much “telling,” flat characters, inconsistent character behavior, sagging middles, info dumps, plot holes, or lack of conflict. Content editors look at the big picture of a story, the structure, not the words. They don’t correct spelling and grammar mistakes. The substantive editor reads the entire manuscript and then writes an in-depth analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of plot and characters. They also make comments in the manuscripts, but most of them don’t make any changes in the manuscript. Many traditional publishers nowadays don’t supply content editing; they expect writers (or agents) to send them manuscripts that don’t require much work anymore.
  • A line editor makes a line-by-line review of the manuscript and points out things such as passive voice, wordiness, weak words, overused words, redundancies, repetitive sentence or paragraph structures (e.g., too many sentences starting with a participle). Line editing has some overlap with copy editing, and the boundaries are not clear, but there’s a difference. Line editing focuses not on content, but on the prose itself—paragraph structure, sentence flow, and word choice. Line editors most often use editorial comments and MS Word’s “track changes” to suggest rewrites.
  • The copy editor checks for grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes. They might also comment on continuity errors (“Didn’t she have blue eyes in chapter one?”) or do some minor rewriting for the sake of clarity, but they don’t do any major revisions of style or content. For the most part, copy editing is just following the rules; very little of it is a judgment call. Most copy editors make their changes in the manuscript, using the “track changes” feature if they do onscreen editing.
  • Proofreading is often confused with copy editing, but a proofreader is not an editor. I’ll still include proofreading to complete the picture. Proofreaders compare the copyedited manuscript to the printer’s proof to make sure that no errors were introduced during the publishing process. They look at the formatting, end-of-line breaks, paragraph and sentence spacing, and typographical errors, but of course they also point out misspelled words or punctuation mistakes if they find any. Nowadays, proofreaders might also check to see how the e-book looks on the small-screen device and whether the e-book conversion created any problems.

So if you need someone who will help you find the weaknesses in your plot, don’t hire a copy editor and expect her to fix the plot along with the comma mistakes.

Also, be aware that different people use different terms for these types of editing. So if you pay one editor to copyedit, what you get might actually be closer to a line edit, while the next copy editor will focus only on the things I described in the copy editing section. Some editors also include line editing in their substantive editing service.

Just ask before you start working with an editor to make sure you’re getting exactly the kind of help your manuscript needs.

Happy writing!

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