Line editing. Format editing. Light or heavy, hard or soft editing. The terms used to describe editing vary and what is meant by different terms can easily get complicated—but it doesn’t have to.
Here’s a quick overview of what most editors consider the primary types of editing. Though the names may change from editor to editor, the work involved at each stage is usually the same.
Many editors offer flexible services that focus on a writer’s particular needs, so what an editor and a client decide to do for a project may be a custom combination of these various types of editing. (This is how my nonfiction editing services work.)
These types of editing correspond to different stages of the writing process and will help a writer plan, revise, correct, polish, and critique his or her writing.
Developmental edit | plan
A developmental edit comes early in the writing process, sometimes even before you’ve started writing. This in-depth, comprehensive service helps you develop your ideas or, if you’re further along, improve your roughest draft. Request a developmental edit when you need help thinking through, organizing, or digging into your manuscript. This service can help you brainstorm, build an outline, clarify and flesh out your main ideas, and consider your work and its direction as a whole. Your editor will read what you have and provide feedback and recommendations for big-picture revisions and things to consider—similar to a manuscript evaluation, but very early on.
Substantive edit | revise
Once you have a complete draft, it’s time for a substantive edit. This type of editing encompasses three subcategories: content editing, structural editing, and stylistic editing. They’re all designed to get your project in its final form through careful revision of its material. In a substantive edit, your editor will consider the manuscript as a whole, with overall effectiveness in mind and an eye for big-picture issues like consistency, readability, word choice, voice, and more. He or she will also edit each of the manuscript’s parts, from sections and chapters down to paragraphs and sentences. The two of you will work together to add, cut, rearrange, and rewrite text, and together you’ll solidify your message with your target audience in mind.
Copy edit | correct
A copy edit takes place once you feel major revisions are complete and your text is in its final or nearly final form. It’s a meticulous process that gets rid of errors at the sentence and word level, but it’s not just about cleaning up commas. You’d request a copy edit when you’re still looking to make your manuscript better, because this type of editing often involves some rewriting. A copy edit will correct larger issues, like gaps in your arguments or plot, as well as basics like spelling, punctuation, grammar, and mechanics. This service is a special favorite of ELL writers, since it will key you in to unnatural phrasing or expression. In most cases, the copy edit stage is where your editor makes sure your manuscript conforms to the style guide of your choice, as dependent on the discipline in which you’re writing (for example, in-house, MLA, APA, AP, or Chicago style guides).
Proofread | polish
Proofreading falls below copy editing in the editing hierarchy, and it comes right after it in the writing process. In a proofread, your editor will just be looking for mistakes. A proofreader focuses on mechanics and formatting, and instead of providing any necessary rephrasing or rearranging as an editor would in a copy edit, he or she will indicate where such changes are needed and leave the rest to you. A proofread is best for very well-written or previously reviewed manuscripts and often is reserved for print-ready (or camera-ready) copy—the final proofs you’d send to a printer. Your editor will catch any errors introduced during last-minute revisions, typesetting, or the design process. As the final stage in the editorial process, a proofread will give you the don’t-touch-it-again copy that you’d submit to a publisher or a professor. Request a proofread if you feel confident about big-picture issues and are just looking to polish the finished product.
Manuscript evaluation | critique
A manuscript evaluation is a comprehensive critique of your work that you can request at any stage of the writing process. It’s most useful while your draft is still open to major revisions. Your editor will read your draft and provide a thoughtful, in-depth written review. He or she will point out overall strengths and weaknesses and offer tips and suggestions for improving the piece. They may also be happy to customize an evaluation to target key areas of concern to you (for example, Is it organized? or Is it believable? or Is it marketable?). This service is especially popular with book authors, who find an expert opinion helpful both while their work is in progress and before they begin marketing it.
I specialize in copy editing and proofreading, but sometimes a manuscript evaluation can be fun, too. Check out The Encourager for an upbeat service featuring aspects of a manuscript evaluation. The Professional Opinion also has some aspects of a manuscript critique.