If you’ve got your finger on the pulse of the book world on any level, you already know that a professional edit can be enormously beneficial in polishing your story and getting it ready for whichever publishing path you choose: traditional, small press, indie publishing.
But even a cursory search for editing options will reveal a bewildering array of definitions—and to add to the confusion, there’s often disparity in how different people use different terms to describe various types of edit. What’s the difference? And which one(s) do you actually need?
Here’s a breakdown of the most commonly used terms you’ll see relative to editing, what each entails, and how to determine which—if any—you need.
Types of Edit
- Developmental/substantive edit: This is the deepest-dive edit you can get, a wide-ranging and comprehensive edit that considers and evaluates all aspects of the story: characterization, stakes, plot, structure, momentum, suspense and tension, point of view, and much more.
A developmental edit usually comprises both an in-depth overview of your story as well as detailed and specific notes embedded in the manuscript to offer you a clear, thorough picture of what’s working, what might benefit from a bit more development, clarification, or polish, and useful suggestions for how to approach revisions. A good developmental edit is like having a comprehensive satellite view of your story, as well as the nitty-gritty street view.
Many editors offer this type of edit in either single or multiple passes; the latter allows you to make revisions and get further feedback on the story with each subsequent revision you do, often the way publishers work with their authors.
- Overview Edit: Similar to the dev edit, this usually comprises only the big-picture overview of an in-depth editorial letter without the detailed, specific embedded notes. It’s like having a map of your road trip, but not turn-by-turn GPS directions.
- Line edit: This type of edit addresses sentence by sentence the author’s style, consistency, tone, echoed words/phrases, awkward or clunky narrative or dialogue, organization, syntax, extraneous words, etc. It takes a microscope to your prose to help you make it elegant, eloquent, streamlined, and polished—and as effective as possible—but it doesn’t address the elements of the story itself or how well it holds together.
Sometimes you’ll see this term misused to refer to in-line edits—meaning the embedded comments a developmental editor will make within an author’s manuscript itself (usually in comment bubbles in Track Changes), mentioned above. That’s not what a line edit technically refers to—though you may find a number of editors who do call this type of in-line feedback as a “line edit.” (Ask exactly what they mean before you decide to hire an editor.)
- Copy edit: This edit checks basic linguistic mechanics—grammar, punctuation, spelling, tense agreement, hyphenation, etc.—as well as correct usage and fact-checking (including all names, dates, locations, and trademarks), using industry-standard style (not MLA or AP) and reference books (the most recent editions of the Chicago Manual of Style and Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary).
Copyeditors also point out any story inconsistencies (e.g., with character, plot, time line); echoed (repeated) or overused words; factual or historical inaccuracies (for instance, with slang usage or whether a hotel would have indoor plumbing in a Regency romance); and potential legal concerns like copyright infringement.
- Proofread: Once upon a time, kids, when I started in the industry waaaaay back in the early nineties and the industry used typesetters who created print galleys from raw manuscript pages, proofreading was the line-by-line comparison of the copyedited manuscript against the typeset galley pages (tedious work, but necessary).
Now proofreading generally refers to checking the final formatted file against the copyedited manuscript, including chapter titles/numbering, headers and footers, and page numbers.
You may also see the term “proofreading” used to refer simply to a final read that checks for errors and accidental omissions.
- Sensitivity read: Not quite an edit, this is a broadly defined term (and fast-growing specialty service) that helps authors avoid inaccuracies or biases that might be potentially offensive to some readers: race, sexuality, and gender biases or stereotypes; offensive terms or descriptions; cultural appropriation, etc. A sensitivity read may also help an author more accurately portray a character or setting outside the author’s own background.
How do you know which one you need?
- Developmental/overview edit: Let me just say this out of the gate: No matter what anyone tries to make you believe, you don’t have to hire a story editor.
While a professional edit is a fantastic tool that may give you an edge in the competitive publishing world, and often makes the work of objectively evaluating the specific strengths and weaknesses of your manuscript—and knowing how to tackle any areas that could use shoring up—infinitely easier, please don’t think that not having thousands of discretionary dollars to invest in this type of edit will sideline you from the publishing game.
There are other options for getting the objective input that can be so useful in steering you in making effective revisions—you can find some suggestions in the “Frugal Author’s Guide to Getting Feedback” chapter in my book Intuitive Editing, and I’ll update this post with a link in the near future to a future post I intend to write on this subject.
But if you’ve gotten your story as polished as you can make it and still know it’s not as strong as it could be; are consistently getting feedback that suggests the story isn’t quite working; or have been submitting to agents and/or publishers with no nibbles, or rejections following partial or full requests, often a good dev edit can offer the extra burst of power that helps get you over the finish line.
Whether you want a full dev edit or just an overview edit depends on many factors: what kind of shape your story is in, your particular preferences for how you like to work or what’s most helpful to you, your experience and skill level as a writer, etc. An overview edit is often a good choice if an author just wants to make sure the story holds together overall, or for those who may have a limited budget (overview edits are generally less pricey than full dev edits; you can get a general idea what each type of edit should cost here, and I’ll update this post with a link to a post on the subject soon).
- Line edit: This is another in the nice-to-have column, but usually not necessary. A traditional line edit (closely examining the prose itself at a paragraph and sentence level) can be useful for authors who have polished the story in a developmental edit already, whether on their own or with an outside editor, and want to make sure the prose is as solid as the story itself.
Some developmental editors incorporate line edits within their work, especially in multiple-pass edits; and some copyeditors also incorporate light line editing (redundancy, overused phrases or words, effective word choice, etc.) into their passes of a manuscript.
- Copyedit: If you are self-publishing, you need a copyeditor, full stop. Want to know how to lose a reader within a single page? Have typos, misused punctuation, or misspelled or misused words. The authority and professionalism of the writer is called into question no matter how good the story itself may be, and smart, demanding readers with literally millions of other options will put your book down and move on.
But for submitting to agents and publishers, don’t worry about hiring a copyeditor unless you know your manuscript is riddled with egregious errors—and if it is, then take a step back and expand your knowledge of grammar, punctuation, and spelling; they’re the most basic tools in an author’s toolbox, and ones you should know how to wield fairly knowledgeably. The industry-standard reference books in publishing are Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (the most recent edition; they really are updated regularly) and the Chicago Manual of Style (ditto on recent edition).
- Proofread: If you’re self-publishing, you might want to hire a fresh set of experienced eyes to take one last proofing pass over your formatted pages and make sure nothing has been dropped or changed, but you can also do a careful read yourself.
- Sensitivity read: Err on the side of caution here—publishers and readers are increasingly mindful of not perpetuating harmful stereotypes, and standards for accuracy and sensitivity are extremely high. If you’re writing a character significantly outside your own lived experience (for instance, of a different race, sexual orientation, cultural heritage, etc.), it’s worth it to find sensitivity readers (professional or otherwise) who do share those backgrounds—and will make your story stronger and more realistic.
The democratization of publishing through the small- and indie-pub markets offers authors more opportunities to publish than ever before—but keep in mind that you’re competing with every single title put out by the major publishing houses, and readers are discerning. Editing is more important than ever.
Luckily the editing field is growing hand in hand with the publishing industry, and authors have access to top professionals that would have been available mostly only within a traditional publishing contract even a decade ago. Knowing what each type of edit entails will help you find the best resources for your story—and keep you from wasting time and money on services you may not need.[I offer new subscribers a free 13-page guide—“Get It Edited!”—to finding and vetting editors, avoiding “red flags,” and a long list of specific places to find good, reputable, experienced editors here.]