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The Four Stages of Editing (and why they're REALLY important)

There’s a lot of confusion among writers and editors (if we’re being completely honest) about the different types of editing stages that a manuscript goes through. So here I am, ready to dispel some of that misinformation (or to cause more misinformation, I guess you never know). The problem with naming different types of editing is that no one can quite agree on what to call the four stages. Is it line or substantive? Copyedit or proofread? Developmental or manuscript assessment?

Believe me. I know. It’s even confusing to editors. Look at any editor’s website and you’ll see the terms vary from site to site.

So let’s go through the four stages, the different terms they might be called, and what each entails. And hopefully by the end of this post, your head isn’t spinning as much as mine is writing this thing.

Developmental Editing

The first type of editing is called Developmental because it focuses on, well . . . development.

Before we get started, let’s make one thing clear: you should make sure your manuscript has been beta-read (preferably multiple times) before hiring a developmental editor.

Okay, now that we got that out of the way. There are many reasons why you might want to hire a developmental editor. Maybe you didn’t get good feedback from beta readers, and there are a lot of problems you don’t know how to fix. Maybe you’re getting ready to query, and you want to make sure you have a solid story. Or maybe, your story has lost its way, and you’re hoping an editor can help you fix the issues.

Developmental editing can be referred to as manuscript assessments or substantive edits. In reality, those are three different things. But the main thing to understand is what developmental editing focuses on: big picture items. The point of developmental editing is to look at your manuscript as a whole and evaluate the many pieces that make up that whole. Below are a few things a developmental editor might focus on:

—Plot holes


—Story inconsistencies

—Inconsistent timelines

—Chapters & scenes as a whole (i.e., does it move the story forward? Is this the best place for this scene to happen?)

—POVs (is this POV necessary? Can this chapter be strengthened by being told from a different POV)

—Chapter and scene length

—Genre conventions (does this story keep in line with genre expectations?)



Line Editing

Line editing is what should come after a developmental edit and before a copyedit. Line editing, also called substantive editing (I know, I know, you’re thinking, wait . . . I thought developmental editing was also called substantive editing . . . I told you, this can be complicated), focuses on sentence- and paragraph-level edits. The point of line editing is to improve the flow and readability of your story. A few things a line editor might focus on:

—Showing vs. telling

—Passive voice

—Filler words

—Appropriateness of voice and dialogue (i.e., is it right for the age of your characters, the genre of the novel, the target audience)

—Awkward phrasing

—Word choice

—Crutch words

—Transitions from sentence to sentence & paragraph to paragraph

As you can see, line editing is REALLY important. A good line editor can tighten up your story and writing in ways you couldn’t even imagine. That’s why if you can afford it, I absolutely recommend paying for both line editing and copyediting.


Talk about a great segue. Copyediting is one of the final (but not the final) stages your manuscript should go through before publication. The purpose of copyediting is to look at the smaller details of your words and sentences according to specific style guides. Publishing houses will often have their own style guides, but most editors refer to Chicago Manual of Style when it comes to copyediting and proofreading.

Because copyediting is something that requires deep knowledge of grammar, punctuation, etc., I do recommend you do your due diligence when finding a copyeditor. There are a lot of great editors out there (cough, me included, cough cough), but there are also editors out there who decide they have a pretty good grasp on grammar, so they can offer copyediting! Then, they make mistakes that you won’t even recognize because you don’t know the rules of copyediting. Worse, there are editors who are new to editing, and so they decide that in order to get experience, they’ll offer their services cheap or for free. So, you think you’ve gotten a great deal, but really, you end up with a worse-off manuscript. Most editors are well-intentioned and don’t realize how much they don’t know.

And even if you do know the rules of copyediting, you still hire an editor, because you are not distanced enough from your writing to be able to edit it.


So what does copyediting entail?




—Chapter/scene length

—Word length




EDIT: As a commenter pointed out, for most traditional publishing, the proofreader will receive a PDF copy of the manuscript (a proof) and will look for consistency of many different things as well as proper grammar, spelling, etc. The proofreader annotates on the document and makes sure it is ready for publication. Authors who self-publish can hire a proofreader to do this for their manuscript. It’s all about doing due diligence and making sure you know what you want when you hire a proofreader because proofreading means different things to different editors.

The proofreading I’m talking about here (once again, this is another example of how terms vary among editors) is what Louise Harnby describes as proof-editing in this article where she breaks down what proofreading means to different associations.

The last step you’ll encounter is proofreading. I, and other editors I know, always encourage clients to hire a proofreader after copyediting. This is because in traditional publishing, books will go through three rounds of edits, and still are generally only ninety to ninety-five percent error free. Plus, depending on how many errors are in your manuscript, you can’t expect copyeditors to catch all of them. This is why proofreading is important. Proofreaders aren’t doing the deep reading copyeditors have to do; their job is final cleanup, to catch any leftover mistakes the copyeditor missed.

Katie Madsen of Beacon Point Services quotes proofreader Danielle Decker in explaining why proofreaders are important:

Even proofreaders ask their colleagues to check their work. The reason we bother to do this, despite being professionally trained ourselves, is the number one reason for hiring a proofreader: our brains trick us.

When our brains know what to expect in a text, they automatically fill in missing information or correct things that are wrong. We are essentially blind to our own errors.

Our faulty brains are the real reason everyone who writes for an audience needs a proofreader. Your proofreader is the person who safeguards that precious first impression by making sure nothing embarrassing is published for the entire world to see. Any time you write, you create an impression about your work ethic and who you are. Your proofreader protects your reputation.

The point? Proofreaders should be different from your copyeditor, and they’re an important final step in the editing process.

That’s it on the four stages of editing. Hopefully you learned something and can now go forward in understanding what types of edits might be needed for your story.

What do you think, readers? Have you ever hired a proofreader, and do you think it was worth it?