How many times have you asked someone, “Hey, can you proofread this?” Maybe you’ve heard someone else ask this. Maybe someone has asked you to “proofread” something yourself. Very few people would ask you if you could “copy edit” their sales presentation or their paper before they turn it in to the professor.
When you go to hire a professional editor, the terminology around types of editing can become quite confusing! What’s a substantive edit or a structural edit? Is there a difference between line editing, copy editing, and proofreading? Can’t you just ask someone to “edit”?
While the terminology can be confusing, these tips will help you keep the types of editing straight. You’ll know exactly what to ask for when you book your next edit.
A Word of Warning
Before we dive into the different types of editing, you should be aware that different editors and publishing houses will use different terminology and definitions. Always be sure to check what an editor or publisher means when they say “developmental editing” or “copy editing.”
The variation in definitions is part of the problem when it comes to trying to book an editor. One editor may define copy editing as “fixing spelling and grammar errors.” Another may believe it should include some fact-checking. Still others will provide you with a more expansive definition of what a “copy edit” entails. These definitions sometimes overlap with other types of editing, such as line editing or substantive editing.
If you’re not sure, ask! Most editors will be happy to outline what they’ll do on a project.
We’ll start at the beginning. A developmental edit helps you develop your manuscript. Say you’ve just signed a contract with a publisher and you now need to begin the work of putting the book together. A developmental edit will help you through this stage.
The developmental editor is there to give you constructive feedback on the information you include, the structure of the book, and more. It’s very common in academic publishing, and it’s useful for authors working on non-fiction books, particularly in the self-help or how-to genre.
The developmental editor will make suggestions about what you should include (or maybe what information to cut), along with the structure and format of the book. Would this information be easier to understand as an illustration or a list? Maybe your self-help book should include planning documents the reader can use to adapt your program to their own lives, along with examples of how to fill it out.
Substantive and Structural Editing
Substantive and structural editing often get lumped in together, although they can be understood as separate things. Both are actually included in a developmental edit. The key different between either a substantive edit or a structural edit and a developmental edit is that the former usually happen after you have a complete draft of the manuscript, while the latter happens while you create the manuscript.
A substantive editor goes through the information you’ve presented and comments on it. Do you need to spend five paragraphs explaining the concept of gender? It will depend on your audience; you could need to cut or expand the discussion. The substantive editor looks to improve the information in the book.
A structural edit looks at the structure of the book. Does the chapter division make sense? Are the chapters presented in the correct order, or would it make sense to move Chapter 17 to Chapter 1? Is information in the right place? If gender is central to your discussion, you need to present these concepts in Chapter 1, not Chapter 10.
A substantive edit can sometimes overlap with a structural edit, since both deal with fine-tuning the delivery of information. Some people will simply call this combined edit a “substantive” edit, while others may call it a “developmental edit.”
Line editing isn’t a term much-used in the book publishing world anymore, but it is still one of the types of editing you could book. This type of editing looks a bit more at the actual words you’re using and works to smooth out the bumps and ruts in your usage. It can dive into the technical much more than the substantive, structural, or developmental edit usually do. It also looks for factual inconsistencies, such as mix-ups with dates or names.
Some people think line editing is the same as “copy editing,” although some people do make a distinction between the two. The purpose of the line edit is to fix larger, overarching issues with language usage or style, facts, and narrative itself. It can include editing for things like punctuation and incorrect spellings, but that’s not the primary focus. You may also see it called “stylistic editing,” since it deals so much with style.
This is sort of the holy grail of editing. No matter where you go, most publishers and editors will talk about “copy editing.” If a book goes through one stage of editing, it’s a copy edit.
The term can be used more or less restrictively, depending on where you stand. Copy editing might mean strictly fixing errors: punctuation, spelling mistakes, grammar errors. Some people refer to this as a “mechanical edit” or even a “mechanical copy edit.” The editor focuses strictly on fixing grammar and spelling errors and not much more.
However, since a book often only goes through one stage of editing—copy editing—the term becomes a sort of catch-all for every kind of editing. Unless a publisher or author engages the editor to do a “strict copy edit” or a “mechanical edit,” copy editing can be interpreted to mean a combination of mechanical editing, line editing, and even some substantive or structural editing.
Always be clear about what you expect from a copy edit or what the editor or publisher means by the term. If you’re unsure of what you need or want, don’t hesitate to ask. Since definitions vary between publishers and editors, it’s never a bad idea to ask a few people for their thoughts on what copy editing entails!
This is maybe one of the most abused terms in the publishing world. As mentioned, you’ll often hear people saying, “Hey, can you give this a quick proofread?” or something similar. Then they’ll send a Word document or hand you a print-out of their Word document to read over.
Technically, you can’t proofread any document that isn’t typeset. If the document isn’t typeset, you don’t have page proofs. You can edit these documents, but you can’t actually proofread.
When people employ this term, they most often mean “can you fix my spelling and punctuation?” They want a very light-handed and mechanical edit. Proofreading often is this kind of edit. In the past, it was expensive to make corrections to page proofs; typesetters would charge per correction. You definitely didn’t want to rewrite the book at this stage!
As a result, proofreading evolved as a light-handed check to verify the correctness of the typeset proof. It also includes looking at typographical things, such as line-endings, bad breaks, and even spacing between letters and lines. (Word doesn’t include this kind of precision, which is a major reason you can’t proofread a Word document—the means to fix the typography are too limited.)
The mantra of a proofreader is “do no harm.” While they want to fix errors and impose consistency, the proofreader needs to be sure that what they’re “fixing” is actually an error! As a result, proofreaders try to make only necessary changes.
What Types of Editing Do I Need?
This is a tough question to answer. Obviously, if you’re just starting out on your manuscript and you have no idea how to go about putting it together, a developmental edit might be right. If you’re sitting at the other end of the process with typeset page proofs in hand, you’re after a good proofread.
The stuff in the middle—structural, substantive, line, and copy editing—is a little more nebulous. Take a critical look at your manuscript. Did you struggle with the structure and organization? Do you know you have a tendency to go off on tangents? Then you may be looking for a structural or substantive edit.
If you’re more concerned about the quality of your writing or proper usage and grammatically correctness, line editing, copy editing, or even mechanical editing could be right.
If you’re not sure, talk to an editor! Most editors will happily review your project and give you their opinion on what the manuscript needs. If you’re still not sure, shop it around to a few different people; just be aware you may get a number of different answers back!