The Three Types of Editing: Which One Do You Need?

By Doug Wagner

You’ve probably heard that industry professionals agree that everyone needs an editor. So let go of the idea that you may be an exception to the rule and cut right to figuring out what kind of editing you need. Generally speaking, there are three types: developmental editing, line editing and copy editing.

Start with a Professional Opinion

If you’ve just finished your first draft, you may think it’s too late for developmental editing—the development phase is over, right? Well, it depends on how good a job you’ve done, and since we’re rarely the best judges of our own work, you’d be wise to hire a developmental editor to give you some expert feedback.

That feedback will come in the form of a manuscript evaluation, which usually amounts to a lengthy editorial memo that addresses what’s working and what’s not, point by point, when it comes to the fundamentals: premise, plot, character development, setting and dialogue. Sometimes, though, it amounts to an annotation with a brief memo—the editor makes comments throughout the manuscript regarding specific passages rather than taking a more general approach. Ask the editor to provide samples of both types of evaluation so you have a better idea of which type would serve you best. (The editor may also have a recommendation about which type to go with.)

Now, you may be thinking, Of course the evaluation is going to say my manuscript needs developmental work—that’s how an editor makes a living. But here’s the thing: You always have the final say. You can compare the suggestions in his manuscript evaluation with what you see out there on the market. If you’ve chosen your editor well, you’ll see his or her suggestions reflected in publishing’s “best practices.” If you don’t, maybe you didn’t choose so well, and by all means seek a second opinion.

Whatever you do, don’t waste your own time defending your manuscript. Yes, it can be tough to take criticism, but this is about you making the most of feedback that’s been presented to you with the goal of helping you to produce the best manuscript possible. Editors don’t “have it in for you.” They’re not out to belittle your work. They’re genuinely trying to help. Nothing warms an editor’s heart more than seeing a client excel.

Okay, so now that you’ve embraced all that magnanimous feedback and revised your first draft, it may be time for a line edit.

What’s the difference between line editing and copy editing?

Besides addressing matters of clarity, syntax and flow—the domain of a copy edit—a line edit addresses the finer points. It can elevate the voice, enhance description, pick up the pace of things and ensure that your dialogue has the ring of reality. And a line editor isn’t afraid to create a scene. That is, a line editor can turn a block of after-the-fact summary into a scene that gives the reader the “you are there” experience, which is key to keeping readers reading.

Then again, these are all issues that would have been pointed out in the evaluation, and there’s every possibility that you did such a bang-up job with the revisions that you’ve done your own line edit. If that’s the case, the next step is copy editing.

And you really should let an editor handle the copy editing if for no other reason than that fresh eyes are very valuable at this point in the process. Stylistic quirks that you’ve become attached to—known in the industry as the writer’s “little darlings”—may just not be working but you’re too close to the material to see it. Being too close can also lead you to overlook the inclusion of little developments key to the reader’s understanding. You know the developments have occurred, but you’re so intimate with the story that you’re unintentionally using shorthand, leaving out minor but critical information. Likewise, as you jump from one development to another, you might forget to tell readers how we’ve made a particular leap. You know how we got there and subconsciously make the assumption that readers do, too. And sometimes the transitions are just plain jarring, calling attention to a certain lack of flow about the narrative.

A copy editor can correct all of these things, and if you chose your line editor well, there’s a good chance that all of this was addressed in the line edit and you can cut right to proofreading—the last step.

A special note for those working with traditional publishers: Your copy editor will be assigned by the publisher—you won’t get to choose—and not all copy editors have a great ear for personal style. When you get your manuscript back, you may find that some of the color has faded from your language in the name of upholding various “rules.” But know that that’s not the end of the line. You can restore those personal touches if you make a strong case with the editor overseeing the project. It can be tedious, but it’s worth the time.

So, in a nutshell, developmental editing helps design the concept and structure, line editing enhances the aesthetics and copy editing tests the nuts and bolts holding it all together. And if you’re not sure what phase of the building process you’re in, good editors will give you an honest answer, the answer that will put you in position to reach your highest potential. Remember—we genuinely want what’s best for you.

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