At least a few times a month, I get an email from a new writer looking for an editor. When I ask what type of editing they need, they inevitably respond with, “What do you mean?”
Most new authors don’t realize there are several different types of editing available. And when I explain the differences to them, they’ll often say, “Great, I need it all—can you do that?”
While I do provide different types of editing services, my answer to providing them all on the same manuscript is always no.
But I’ll get to that.
First, let’s go over what those different types of editing entail.
Developmental editing (also called substantive or content editing) is admittedly my favorite type of editing. This is where I believe I shine—and where most of my clients would tell you I’m invaluable. In fact, I have several clients who have me provide developmental editing services on each and every book they write.
This type of editing is big picture. It’s often the most time-consuming edit, and it’s the first type of editing you should pursue—ideally after finishing your first draft.
When I complete a developmental edit, I like to go into the manuscript blind, without a lot of background from the author about what to expect. The goal here is to get a true reader perspective, so I don’t want to know about what issues you think the book currently has—I want a chance to read it for myself so that I can make those determinations along the way.
A developmental edit focuses on things like plot holes, character and plot development issues, timing, inconsistencies and problems with dialogue. I also tend to highlight writing quirks an author may have, and sentence structuring issues that may need some attention.
As I complete a developmental edit, I take notes throughout the manuscript drawing attention to some of my in-the-moment thoughts. These notes often number in the hundreds by the time I’m done, and the author has access to all of them when I return the manuscript (this is one of the reasons I prefer to edit in Word, as it makes this note-taking seamless). I then also compile an editorial letter which is often several pages long highlighting the main issues and providing the author with guidance on how to resolve those issues.
Think of a developmental edit as the opportunity to have your blind spots (when it comes to your manuscript) pointed out for you.
Keeping that in mind, it’s fair to say that a developmental edit is the hardest part of the process. Most people send me their manuscripts feeling pretty confident in what they’ve got, and most of the time I have to disappoint them by telling them there’s still a fair amount of work to go. I pride myself on being gentle but honest in that delivery, though, and 90 percent of my clients are thankful and manage to use that criticism to improve their work (the remaining 10 percent were always going to be defensive against any kind of criticism at all, and probably never should have hired me in the first place—because a developmental edit is all about having the flaws in your work pointed out to you.)
I have some clients who want me to do a new developmental edit every time they make changes to their manuscript, and I do offer a discount on additional developmental edits for work I’ve already seen. Other clients feel good after just one round, and are able to make substantial changes based on that. I personally had three rounds of developmental editing done on my own book, if that helps to provide some perspective.
One thing to keep in mind is that you will absolutely still have work to do after a developmental edit. The developmental editor doesn’t fix those issues for you (and if you’re looking for someone who will, what you really want is a ghost writer—I do that as well). They simply point out the issues to you and provide ideas on how to fix those issues. The rest is up to you.
If developmental editing is big picture, line editing is the fine detail stuff. This is the edit you want to pursue once you are fairly confident in the content of your work. A line editor focuses on punctuation, spelling, grammar issues and some sentence structuring. Unlike a developmental edit, there shouldn’t be much more work for you to do after a line edit.
This is the last line of defense edit you should get done after formatting and just before publication. It’s the quickest and cheapest form of editing, mostly because by the time you send your manuscript to a proofreader, it should have already been edited several times over. A proofreader’s main goal is to catch any final “ooops!” mistakes that others may have missed.
As I mentioned, while I do provide both developmental editing and line editing, I never provide both on the same manuscript. This is because a good line edit requires a fresh eye. Once someone has already read your manuscript, they are more tuned into what you were trying to say, and more likely to miss smaller errors that a fresh set of eyes would catch. So I only provide one or the other, but I do have a great line editor I am always happy to recommend to my developmental editing clients.