Traditionally, a book goes through four levels of editing, sometimes multiple rounds at each level. It’s important to understand what is done at each level so that you know how to hire the right editor. Whether you are revising a manuscript to prepare it for agents and publishers or for self-publishing, take some time to learn the different levels of editing and which type of editor you need.
Different freelance editors structure their businesses differently. Some offer all levels of editing, some specialize, and there is even variation among editors as to the definition of each level. Some editors combine editing tasks as well. It is possible to do substantive editing at the same time as line editing, or line editing at the same time as copyediting.
Whatever your editing needs are, make sure you and your editor communicate clearly about what is going to be done. Better yet, get a sample edit.
I use examples here from fiction writing, but much of this applies to nonfiction as well.
This is the big-picture editing. It’s sometimes also called content, developmental, or structural editing. An editor doing this type of editing looks at the major revisions that need to be done before getting into the nitty-gritty details of grammar, punctuation, and word choice, though if there are grammar or punctuation mistakes made repeatedly throughout the manuscript, a substantive editor will point them out. But that’s not the main focus. The focus is on the organization of the content.
For fiction, character and plot are key. This means looking at each important character’s goals, motivations, and conflicts; consistency in character traits and voice; pacing; and plot structure. Is there unavoidable internal and external conflict? Does each scene move the plot forward? Are there moments of irrelevant backstory or information dumps? Does the beginning of each chapter hook the reader and the end of each chapter prompt the reader to keep going? Are the promises made at the beginning of the story fulfilled by the end?
A substantive editor also looks for problems in fiction writing techniques such as point-of-view slips (head hopping), impossible dialogue tags (no one can actually hiss, shrug, or chuckle words), filter words that tell instead of show the reader what characters are experiencing (seemed, looked, felt, etc.), and prose that overexplains. Whole books have been written on the craft of fiction writing, and substantive editors have studied (or written) many of them.
Line editing focuses on the language used at the sentence and paragraph level. Clarity, flow, and tone are key. A line editor sifts line by line to make sure the author is making the most of every sentence to connect with the target audience. This turns writing that may be technically correct into content that is effective and engaging. It eliminates wordiness, redundancies, unnecessary modifiers, passive voice (unless that is the most effective choice), and ambiguity.
For fiction, a line editor also looks at some of the same fiction writing techniques that are covered by substantive editing. For example, a line editor would correct inappropriate dialogue tags, point out filter words that can be removed, and flag point-of-view slips, information dumps, floating body parts, and many other awkward issues that can trip up or distance readers. A line editor may point out character inconsistencies and plot holes, but the focus is more on the details—using pronouns where useful, avoiding clichés, and using appropriate comparisons, for example.
Copy editors are the grammar gurus. They’re the ones who can spot misplaced modifiers, awkward syntax, tense problems, words used out of context, or pronoun agreement mistakes in their sleep. Well, not really, but you get the idea.
They also point out items that may require permission from copyright holders and do basic fact checking. They know whether numbers should be spelled out, how to handle hyphenation, and whether serial commas should be used (or they can look it up in the appropriate style guide). Punctuation, word choice, grammar, and spelling are the focus. Consistency is key.
Proofreading got its name from the proofs that are the last version of a document before publication. Proofreaders look at punctuation, word choice, grammar, spelling, layout, and formatting, but they don’t rewrite sentences. They are the last set of eyes to catch any errors and typos that slip past the copyediting stage.
The biggest takeaway here is to do editing in order. During the substantive editing stage, you will be rewriting or deleting whole passages. There’s no point to wasting time and money paying a copy editor to correct grammar and style if there are still big-picture issues that need to be addressed.