• What Kind of Editing Do I Need? 5 Easy Editing Terms to Remember

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in ABCs of Writing     Comments 10 comments
    One of our editors hard at work

    One of our editors hard at work

    Here at WriteByNight we aim to please. An expression, by the way, that always reminds me of those framed bathroom tchotchkes, the ones that read, “We aim to please. You aim too, please.” Translation: Don’t pee on the seat! Which makes me want to pee on the seat. Not that this always requires intent, because sometimes, well…

    And oh, look! I’ve already gone off the rails. Clearly I need an editor.

    But what kind? In our recent post on manuscript preparation, WriteByNighter Sid K. made the following request: “I hope you will follow up on this post by writing about all those different types of editing, what each one is used for, and how to know which one(s) we need.”

    It’s a question we’re asked often, so today I want to dig into it a little. Or a lot. Depends on how well I can keep my logorrhea in check. Again, need an editor.

    As Sid mentions, there are many types of editing. But not all of them have strict definitions, and there’s a whole lot of annoying overlap between them. Writers have a lot of editorial terms thrown at them — top or top-down, big picture, line, front, stylistic, substantive — but some of these are redundant, and a few are even supremely unhelpful. So how is a writer supposed to know what type of editing he or she needs? Confusion about these terms can lead to choosing the wrong kind of editor, and choosing the wrong kind of editor can lead to paying money for the kind of work your writing doesn’t even need.

    Keeping it simple helps. So we’ve narrowed it down to five types of editing, and we’ll take a chronological approach to make it even easier:


    Developmental Editing

    And so, let’s begin with the developmental edit. In essence, if you’re in the beginning stages of your manuscript and need guidance on its structure, organization and/or ideas, a developmental edit is what you’re looking for. For nonfiction, a developmental editor may, for example, help you create an outline or suggest the most logical way to arrange your argument or your chapters. If you’re writing a novel, a developmental editor might examine your plot outline for clarity and believability, or make suggestions related to character arcs, plot points, setting and tone.


    Substantive Editing

    A substantive edit is similar to a developmental edit. In fact, some use these terms interchangeably. The main difference is this: you can request a developmental edit even if you haven’t written your manuscript yet, but a substantive edit requires pages. Keep the two clear simply by examining the words: a developmental edit can help you develop that which you don’t yet have; a substantive edit deals with the existing substance, the pages you’ve already written. A substantive editor will look at what you’ve written and help you tighten the scope, and make sure it’s organized well and flows logically.

    With WBN, you’d tackle the developmental and/or substantive work during the coaching process (either book coaching or accelerated coaching), which offers writers like you the opportunity to collaborate on an ongoing basis with a professional writer for support and guidance throughout the book-writing process.


    Content Editing

    Once you’ve accomplished all of the work related to structure and organization, and you’ve written a draft of your manuscript, it’s a good time to request a content edit. Another fairly self-explanatory term: the content editor will address the contents of your book. She’ll target inconsistencies in tone, style, dialogue, character. She’ll look for plot holes in your novel, contradictions in your memoir, or inaccuracies in your history. You can ask her to do your fact-checking or to make sure your writing is appropriate for your target audience.

    WBN’s manuscript critique service covers content editing and more.

    “Good golly,” you might be wondering, “when in the hell does someone fix my comma splices?” Well maybe you shouldn’t have included any comma splices, comma splices are naughty.


    Line Editing

    And also, hold your horses. Because next we have the line edit, or what for memory’s sake you can call a line-by-line edit, which is exactly what it sounds like. The line editor will go through your manuscript line by line, interacting with your writing at the sentence and paragraph level, looking for and addressing issues in clarity, flow, and word choice — the way in which your language is communicating your thesis or your story. In a word, readability. Is your manuscript readable? Is your prose fluid and precise?

    It is?! That’s great! Because that means you’re ready for …



    … a copyedit, or copy edit. This is where you’ll nab those pesky comma splices (or my preferred plural form, comma spli). A copyeditor will go through your manuscript word by word looking for goofs in punctuation, tense, spelling, grammar and the like. In other words, she will edit your copy. Because she’s a copyeditor. A copyeditor also fixes errors in style — for example, if you’re using AP and should be using Chicago, she’ll make those changes — and will make sure your citations and references and bibliographies and so on are all properly formatted and consistent. In other words, all of those naggy little details that we writers don’t always have the time, or desire, to address ourselves.

    [Note: a copyedit and a proofread are not the same! A proofreader fixes only errors in spelling and punctuation, etc., and will not address issues in flow, clarity, or style. Read this fun post on proofing for more.]


    Falling Action and Denouement

    That’s about it, y’all. You now know as much about editing as I do!

    Now, not all writers will need all of the above during the manuscript process. If you’ve done your own developmental and substantive and content and line editing, then maybe all you need is a copyedit. Or maybe you’re fully confident in your writing and proofing abilities, but struggle with structure or ideas, in which case maybe the only editing you need is developmental. Either way, at some point between idea and publication, it’s imperative that you use some brand of editor.

    IMG_0561If your manuscript is ready for some editorial attention, request a free consult, tell us about your project and we’ll lay out all of your options. OK? OK.

    (Because “okay” was never intended to be a word. An editor taught me that.)

    0 0 votes
    Article Rating
    Notify of

    Newest Most Voted
    Inline Feedbacks
    View all comments
    Glynis Jolly

    It would be stupendous if I could afford the last three. Developing, fleshing, and tightening are things I think I can handle through the course of multiply drafts. Regrettably, I’m going to have to rely on fellow writers who are willing to do the content editing for free. Right now, I have two of these people in mind for this and one has intentively agreed to help. I have a way to go before I’ll be ready though. I’ll probably have to go with this same idea for line editing, but I’m hoping to find the money for a professional.… Read more »

    Ken Harris

    Good to see a stalwart member of the “Bomb Squad” hard at work.


    Sid K. here. Thanks for answering my question, and making this a fun read, too. This is all really useful information. But what the heck is a “comma splice”? And wouldn’t the Latin plural be “comma splii” with a double i?


    Thanks, David. (Gotta love Google “define [item]” plus Wikipedia A comma splice is the use of a comma to join two independent clauses. For example: It is nearly half past five, we cannot reach town before dark. Although acceptable in some languages and compulsory in others (e.g., Bulgarian or French), comma splices are usually considered style errors in English. Comma splice – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia On another note, I’d love to see a follow-up post related to this one where you define synonyms for the terms you use here and also other editing terms that might be more rarely… Read more »


    On the conflicting terms in editing: I’d be happy to ask, I’d enjoy it even more if you wrote a post. (Feel free to edit this post to removed the spliced comma.)

    […] What Kind of Editing Do I Need?: […]

    Would love your thoughts, please comment.x