The different types of editing: finding the one you need

I’ve been working in the field of editing and proofreading for two years now, and I still have problems when it comes to what the different types of editing are.

Unfortunately, one person’s proofreading is another person’s copyediting, and one person’s structural edit is another person’s manuscript critique. But alas, I’m going to (attempt to) write down exactly what they all mean, which will hopefully help you in figuring out which type of editing you currently need, and knowing what to ask for if and when you get an editor for your work.

Proofreading

By far the most common term bandied around, but often, in my experience, the one that can get the most confused, is proofreading. I’ve found that proofreading is often used interchangeably with editing, but this isn’t the case.

Proofreading is the very last stage in the editing chain, and should be a more objective type of editing, whereby the focus is on picking up on any final errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar before the piece is published in whatever capacity. Proofreading also flags up repetition of words.

Proofreading does not involve editing the piece to improve its readability, flow and tone. Unless there is a key issue within the work or a sentence that the proofreader deems inappropriate or wrong (e.g. there are comments that could be insensitive to a group of people or there are characters in a scene where they couldn’t possibly be. I recently proofread a manuscript where a character ran up a flight of stairs to answer their phone, but they were in a bungalow at the time), a proofreader will not make changes or flag it up, even if they believe it could be improved from a readability standpoint.

The reason for making so little changes is to avoid adding any errors at this stage. The more issues that are flagged up and changed, the more likely a few errors will slip through the net. Proofreading is therefore there to really ensure a clean piece of work before it is released to the scrutiny of the big wide world.

Proof-editing

Proof-editing is a relatively new branch of editing that bridges copyediting and proofreading, and is often a favourite for those on a limited budget. Proof-editing takes proofreading and adds a little extra, usually commenting on weaker areas of the text, flagging up repetitiveness of points, picking up on areas that the proof-editor feels could be improved.

However, a proof-editor won’t recommend significant changes, as again, their objective is to make sure the text is ready for publication.

Copyediting/Line editing

Copyediting takes place after a developmental edit, but before proofreading. With this editing, your editor will help you take your text to the next level, focusing on ironing out the work line by line.

A copyeditor will still check your story for errors that a proofreader checks for, such as spelling, grammar, punctuation and inconsistency in style, but they will also look at the flow and tone of the piece of writing, highlighting awkward sentences that make grammatical sense but detract from the readability of the work.

Overarching themes and parts of the story (if it’s a manuscript) won’t be changed, but a copyeditor will let you know if a character says something that sounds unnatural, they will help you refine your sentences and paragraphs to make them more of a pleasure for a reader to consume.

A copyeditor will help you craft a style guide too, if you require it. When I work with authors, I generally work to Oxford’s New Hart’s Rules. If you’re a UK based author, I would highly recommend getting your hands on a copy as it helps with the formatting of dialogue, quoting text, how to format your book, when to use capitals for certain words, how to use ellipses and a lot of other things. It’s a lifesaver!

Note: I use line editing and copyediting interchangeably, but not everyone does. Some people think of line editing as solely focusing on the flow and tone, and paying less heed to styling and proofreading errors.

Developmental editing

A developmental edit is a broad term that could mean a variety of things, but it is the first stage of editing for most manuscripts. A developmental editor will look at the overarching elements of a story and make sure they work. They will not focus on spelling and grammar issues, or even sentence level problems with flow.

A developmental edit (in a fiction story) is concerned with the structure, plot, characters, point of view, pacing etc. There might be a chapter that completely disrupts the flow of the book, or a character that has a ten page history but who never appears again. A developmental editor will flag these up and provide comments on what you are doing wrong, what you are doing right, and how you can improve the foundation of your story.

The most common types of developmental edit are a manuscript critique or a structural edit and essentially, the main difference is the level of changes the editor makes. 

A manuscript critique will often provide extensive comments throughout the manuscript on the elements I’ve mentioned above, as well as a comprehensive report alongside, outlining exactly what needs work and what works well.

A structural edit looks at the very same things, but instead of making comments and writing a report, a structural editor will do the rewriting and cutting for you, adding extensive suggestions as well as making extensive edits. When looking for a structural editor, you will need someone who truly understands and recognises your voice, your aims and someone who is a strong creative writer themselves.


If you're still unsure about what exactly each one involves and therefore what's best for you, feel free to get in touch here. I currently offer proofreading, copyediting and manuscript critique services.

Until the next time,

Candida