Kinds of Editing

You’ve probably seen terms like copy editing and proofreading but not known the difference between them. Knowing the different kinds of editing will help you get more out of your relationship with your editor.

If you email an editor, inquiring about the cost of editing your writing, the first thing they’ll probably ask is what kind of editing you’re looking for.

Kinds of Editing

Editing isn’t simply a generalized set of tasks which editors do all at once. Editors do certain kinds of editing in a certain order, depending on the current needs of a manuscript.

A manuscript should go through stages of editing, with the larger elements addressed before the smaller ones (It doesn’t make much sense to edit grammar when you need to change the plot.). There are four kinds of editing:

  • Developmental editing

  • Substantive editing

  • Line/Copy editing

  • Proofreading

Developmental Editing

Developmental editing is the first editing stage, focusing on content and structure. It will look different, depending on the kind of writing you do (i.e., fiction, nonfiction, academic, etc.).

Typically, a developmental editor will not make direct changes to the document. Instead, they will provide a lengthy, in-depth written assessment of the work, addressing:

  • Structure

  • Narrative/plot

  • Arc

  • Voice

  • Characters

  • Dialogue

  • Theme

Developmental editing gets to the heart of your piece to consolidate its vision and execution. Because developmental editing often requires significant revisions, it is not for the fainthearted.

It may require you to reconsider parts of your manuscript on a fundamental level. You may need to add chapters, remove others, and rethink characters or approaches. It may also involve some soul searching. Your piece (and you, as a writer), though, will be better for it!

Substantive Editing

Substantive editing is halfway between developmental and copy editing. It looks at the overall organization of a manuscript. Here, the editor will make substantial (and sometimes alarming) changes to the manuscript.

Working to reorganize the material so that it demonstrates a clearer execution, the editor will reorganize chapters, paragraphs, and sentences, moving them, altering them, and adding new material.

Sometimes, because of the significance of changes, substantive editing can border on ghostwriting, with the editor taking on a more central role in the purposing of the piece.

For writers, this too can be a bit difficult and you might sense you’ve lost control of your manuscript. Just remember, every great literary masterpiece was a collaboration between at least two people! The editorial process is essential to well-crafted writing.

Line and Copy Editing

Copy editing and line editing are the kinds of editing you’re probably used to thinking about. They work at the level of the sentence: the minutia of a manuscript. 

Copy editing and line editing are for works whose larger elements have been addressed and now needs its sentences clarified.

Line editing focuses on style and voice, while copy editing inspects grammar, phrasing, diction, and other errors. While some editors specialize in one or the other, most editors will do both kinds at the same time.

A copy editor will make track changes to your document (Read here to learn about track changes). Your returned document will have all kinds of additions, deletions, and relocations in it. It may also include editor comments and queries.

This too can be a bit difficult to face, but, if you’ve already gone through the earlier editing stages, your manuscript will now begin to feel complete. Be proud of yourself—you’ve put in significant and difficult work to better your writing. This isn't easy!


Proofreading constitutes the final pass of a manuscript and addresses any remaining errors—including spelling, typographical, mechanical, punctuation, and formatting.

Don’t be surprised if a few errors remain in your manuscript after a copy edit. You’ve just had your manuscript worked through on a deep level. Now it just needs to be tidied up.

And don't worry—this stage is easy to take! This stage affirms all the hard work you’ve done. When all that’s left is a few lingering spelling errors (which proofreading will quickly take care of), you can be assured, your job is done!