Once upon a time, working with a professional editor was a pretty straightforward affair. If your book was accepted by a publishing house, their editing team ushered your book from draft to printed volume. While authors didn’t have much control over the process, their book was guaranteed to pass through the hands of professionals invested in making it the best it could be.
These days, authors have more choice and power - but also more decisions to make about editing their work. Even if your goal is a traditional publishing deal, the in-house editorial process is often less involved than in ye olden times. Agents and publishers also expect a higher level of polish upfront. For indie authors, a solid editing process is obviously even more vital.
The first step to figuring out what kind of editing you need is figuring out what the pros are actually talking about when we say “editing.” The range of terms and options can be a little daunting. But at heart, the editing process breaks down into three main phases or types of editing: developmental editing, copyediting, and proofreading.
This type of editing looks at your book as a whole, identifying what’s working and what needs to be developed more (hence the name!). Your editor will consider all the big-picture stuff: structure, story, voice. For fiction, worldbuilding and characters are other likely points of focus, while a nonfiction edit might look closely at logical flow and conceptual clarity.
If there are language strengths and weaknesses that pop up throughout your prose, your editor will make note of them - but this level of edit doesn’t dig down sentence-by-sentence.
A full developmental edit includes a highly detailed document (the “editorial letter”) to help you get the bones of your book as strong as possible. Editorial letters can range from about 10 to 20 pages, depending on your book and the style of your editor. After this kind of edit, you’ll want to allow yourself plenty of time to fully digest the feedback and do revisions.
Developmental editing is typically the most expensive type of service. There are some other kinds of feedback you can go for if it’s out of your budget. More informal feedback from writing partners or beta readers will help you work on big-picture revisions.
Many freelance editors also offer manuscript critiques, which are essentially an abbreviated developmental edit with a shorter editorial letter. A good budget-friendly choice is to get feedback from beta readers first, make revisions, and then move on to a pro manuscript critique.
Other names you’ll see for developmental editing: story editing, structural editing, conceptual editing.
This is the detail-level editing people usually think of editors doing - finding grammar errors, strengthening troublesome phrases, ensuring good flow. It’s all the redline stuff. Copyediting should always be done after the overall structure and content of the book has been fully revised. Otherwise, you’ll end up paying to polish words that ultimately get cut, or you’ll add words later that won’t get edited.
There are several different types of copyediting, and unfortunately there’s not much standardization when it comes to terminology (yeah, it bugs me, too). Different publishers use different in-house terms, which are also different from journalism terms. So freelancers just have to go with what makes sense to them.
Basically, the type of copyediting you get will depend on what your prose needs to become its best self. A heavier edit could include moving paragraphs around for clarity, or suggesting rewrites for the trickiest prose. A lighter edit might focus mostly on voice consistency and word choice. Heavy edits cost a bit more than light edits.
Take note, though - needing a heavier copyedit doesn’t mean your book is worse, or that you’re a crappy writer. Some writers churn out very clean sentences but need substantial help on structural issues. So their revision efforts (and dollars) may go to more developmental feedback.
For my part, I just describe all my copyediting services as copyediting, and I quote my fee based on the work needed. But here are some other terms you’ll see: substantive editing, line editing, stylistic editing.
After the big-picture and sentence-by-sentence editing comes the final stage of revision. Proofreading should always be done after copyediting, again to ensure your effort and money is spent efficiently. A good copyedit will catch most of the punctation errors and typos in your prose - but if possible, you should still get a proofread after a copyedit.
Chalk this frustrating reality up to the way brains work: it’s really difficult to focus on the macro and the micro at the same time. Copyediting requires keeping track of the story and the meaning of each sentence, to identify what might confuse readers or pull them out of the flow. Proofreading requires looking at every individual mark on the page and ensuring it’s correct; to do it well, the proofreader can’t pay attention to anything bigger.
Proofreading is generally the least expensive part of the editing process. Some freelancers include proofreading in a package with their copyediting. Others don’t do proofreading at all. (I only proofread books I haven't done any previous work on - otherwise I have trouble seeing the manuscript with fresh eyes and narrowing my focus down to the minutiae.)
This kind of editing is always called the same thing. You’re welcome.
Okay, but what type of editing should you get?
In an ideal world, every book would get all three kinds of editing. But in reality, authors usually have to choose what to pay for. What’s most important for you will depend on your strengths as a writer and on your resources.
If you’ve been getting critique from a writing group while drafting your book, you may feel confident that your structure and content is in good shape - so you might jump to copyediting. Or you may have someone in your life with a good eye for detail who could help with proofreading.
One way to get some objective feedback on what kind of editing you need is to ask for a sample edit from a pro. Some freelancers charge a small fee, but most editors provide some kind of sample to new clients (mine are free). Samples generally run a few pages and give you a sense of what shape your prose is in. They also provide a preview of that editor’s style.
An editor may ask to see a larger portion of your book, or even the full manuscript. This is standard practice for giving an accurate price estimate for services. It also helps make sure you’re not spending money on a copyedit when a developmental edit would be better for your book.
No matter what kind of editing you decide on, working with an editor will help your book reach its full potential. And beyond that, it will give you powerful, personalized feedback to improve your skills as a writer. Editors may describe our services with different terms - but we’re all in the business of enabling authors and helping you on your journey. That’s a job worth doing under any name!