Editing: How Do You Know Which Type You Need?

authors header image

Explore Author Services

As author Michael Lee wrote, “The first draft reveals the art; the revision reveals the artist.” Editing isn’t optional—every book you’ve ever read has undergone an intensive revision process, with multiple rounds of editing. Even the world’s best authors rely on editors to polish their works. Using the services of a professional editor is nothing to be ashamed of. 

There’s actually more than one kind of editing, and each has its unique art. Knowing the differences and the time for each will greatly help you in understanding the revising process. In any case, talented editors can always elevate your book. 

Initial editorial assessment

The first professional assistance with a manuscript is often an editorial assessment. This is much quicker than the typical editorial deep-dive and creates a foundation for the revision process. The editor will provide general but illuminating feedback on the key strengths and shortcomings of your story's structure, characters, and plot. It may be brief and brutal but will get to the heart of the matter. 

Don’t expect rewrites or revisions—at this stage, that’s your job. The editor simply offers professional feedback on the strength of your plot and characters. For example, here’s what one may tell you: “The story starts strong, but ultimately, Lady Arabella’s arrogance and pessimism were never fully explored and did not develop into a compelling arc.” 

If you have major parts to rewrite, it’s better to tackle them now than to jump ahead to more specific editing—you’ll save a lot of time and money. Getting an editorial assessment is like preparing your manuscript for editing. Also, it’s a good measure of whether your story is at the stage where you can start querying agents

Content editing

This is still the big picture, hence the other names for content editing: “developmental,” “substantive,” or, indeed, “big-picture editing.” You’ll receive substantial feedback about your plot points, consistency, narrative, and world-building but also about more intangible facets, such as theme, character motivations, and whatever the editor thinks doesn’t work. 

Typically, you’ll receive a marked-up copy of your story with helpful suggestions, lots of annotations, and an editorial report summing up the feedback. Grammar, sentence structure, and linguistic issues don’t come up in a developmental edit unless your writing is so unclear that it obstructs the plot. However, you don’t need to worry about grammar at this stage—your developmental editor is here to help you patch up any plot holes and polish your characters’ development.

Copy editing

Once your book’s foundational problems are fixed, it’s time to move on to copy editing. Here’s where we get into grammar and structure. Your editor will evaluate the writing for clarity, tackling problems such as incoherency, overused phrases, and textual consistency. You might hear this called line or mechanical editing. 

Mechanical editing includes spelling and grammar, as well as dialogue tags, shifts in POV or tense, inclusive language, and other descriptive inconsistencies (locales, blocking, etc.) A copy editor will address awkward wording, ambiguous statements, inconsistencies, and more, ensuring a smooth, coherent, and clear read throughout the manuscript. Ultimately, the goal is to craft the best version of your book and eloquently express your ideas on the page. 

Copy editing vs. line editing

Although sometimes used synonymously, these terms have a slight difference. Line editing centers on the structure and substance of your prose and deals less with technical issues like spelling or grammar. Essentially, line editing concentrates on issues that aren’t necessarily mistakes but disrupt the reading experience and muddy the narrative. It’s a more focused branch of copy editing. A line edit enhances the prose by working on POV/tense, word usage, and description errors, offering specific ideas for improved style and writing. A thorough copy edit examines everything.

You might ask your copy editor to concentrate on just line editing if your biggest concerns aren’t mechanics and grammar but making the writing more fluid and stylish. A proofreader will be able to catch small mechanical errors as well although they aren’t as thorough as a copy editor, so make sure you enlist sufficient support for your manuscript.


Factual errors happen even when you diligently research. Since it’s not your regular editors’ job, consider hiring a dedicated fact-checker if your book contains a lot of specialized knowledge, especially if it’s somewhat new to you as well. A regular editor will flag information they know or suspect to be inaccurate, but you can’t expect them to catch all the factual mistakes—they’re here to help you with linguistic issues. 

However, since inaccuracies can bring your entire book crumbling down, no matter how well written it is, fact-checking is vital. This is especially true for nonfiction writing, but it’s also important for all genres, particularly sci-fi, historical fiction, and fantasy. A fact-checker will meticulously examine the facts and figures in your story and sound the alarm if they find anything like George Washington living in the White House. 


Proofreaders are like sharpshooters. These vigilant outriders ensure no grammar or spelling mistakes appear in your published work. This is the last stage in the editing process, and since proofreaders only focus on mechanical spelling and grammar mistakes, it’s up to you to ensure your text is smooth and coherent at the structural level. Proofreading has existed since before the 1600s, when the “galley proof” was a meticulous handmade impression. This took extensive work, but it’s how publishers didn't print wagonfuls of Tess of the Goobervilles or misprints of the Bible.

Even with contemporary digital typesetting, proofreaders frequently start with physical proofs and their own language of markups. On their radar will be more spelling and grammar, incoherent captions and page numbering, typographic or layout oddities, rogue page breaks, and anything editors might have missed earlier. 

For a fruitful proofreader-author relationship, supply a style sheet with any special phrases or spellings appearing in your story. This is necessary if, for example, you’re writing a fantasy novel, and the world’s magic is powered by apostrophes. Otherwise, you’ll have to go with their blind reading. 

Ultimately, if you want to become a successful author, self-editing won't cut it. You will, however, be able to establish a strong foundation by asking for an editorial professional's perspective. 

Explore Author Services