In my last blog post, I explained why every writer needs an editor. But actually, you might need even more than one editor. There are different types of editing, and they are all very different skill sets, so it’s rare that one person can do all types of editing—and do them well.
Ideally, your manuscript will undergo each type of editing in the following order:
Content editors – plot, characters, and the writing craft
The content editor (sometimes called substantive editor or developmental editor) deals with substantive revisions of the manuscript’s content and points out things such as plot holes, flat characters, pacing issues, unrealistic dialogue, point of view errors, too much “telling,” sagging middles, info dumps, or lack of conflict. Content editors look at the big picture of a story, the structure, not the words. They don’t correct spelling and grammar mistakes. The substantive editor reads the entire manuscript and then writes an in-depth analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of plot and characters. They also make comments in the manuscripts, but most of them don’t make any changes in the manuscript. Many traditional publishers nowadays don’t supply content editing; they expect writers (or agents) to send them manuscripts that don’t require much work anymore.
Line editors – prose, style, and flow
A line editor makes a line-by-line review of the manuscript and points out things such as passive voice, wordiness, weak words, overused words, redundancies, awkward phrasing, repetitive sentence or paragraph structures (e.g., too many sentences starting with a participle).
Line editing has some overlap with copy editing, and the boundaries are not set in stone, but there’s a difference. Line editing focuses not on content, but on the prose itself—paragraph structure, sentence flow, and word choice. Line editors most often use editorial comments and MS Word’s “track changes” to suggest rewrites.
Copy editors – grammar, spelling, punctuation, and small inconsistencies
The copy editor checks for grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes. They might also comment on continuity errors, e.g., the character having brown eyes in chapter 1 and blue eyes in chapter 17 or do some minor rewriting for the sake of clarity, but they don’t do any major revisions of style or content. For the most part, copy editing is just following the rules; very little of it is a judgment call. Most copy editors make their changes in the manuscript, using the “track changes” feature if they do onscreen editing.
Proofreaders – formatting, typographical errors, and any missed mistakes
Proofreading is often confused with copy editing, but a proofreader is not an editor. I’ll still include proofreading to complete the picture. Proofreaders check the PDF file that will be sent to the printer to make sure that no errors were introduced during the formatting process. They look at the formatting, end-of-line breaks, paragraph and sentence spacing, missing italics, and other typographical errors. They also point out any misspelled words or punctuation mistakes the copy editor might have missed.
Nowadays, proofreaders might also check to see how the e-book looks on the small-screen device and whether the e-book conversion created any problems.
Know what types of editing your manuscript needs before you hire an editor
Before you hire an editor, decide what type of editing your manuscript needs and look for a person who specializes in that kind of editing.
If you need someone who will help you find the weaknesses in your plot, don’t hire a copy editor and expect her to fix the plot along with the comma mistakes.
Also, be aware that different people use different terms for these types of editing. So if you pay one editor to copy edit, what you get might actually be closer to a line edit, while the next copy editor will focus only on the things I described in the copy editing section. Some editors also include line editing in their substantive editing service.
Just ask before you start working with an editor to make sure you’re getting exactly the kind of help your manuscript needs.