For the novice author, trying to navigate the world of editing is a tall task. There are many different suppliers out there. Trying to choose who to work with on your project is difficult enough. Even trying to find an editor can be a challenge!

A pair of glasses and a magnifying glass sit atop an open book. It seems someone is searching for something.
Like trying to find a needle in a haystack. (Wallace Chuck /

The next task you’ll bump up against will be trying to decide what kind of editing your project needs. Different editors and publishers use different terminology, sometimes to refer to the same kind of work. The editing world has its own jargon. Anyone walking in unprepared may feel their head beginning to spin.

What kind of editing should you buy for your project? This handy guide will help you decide what you need.

What Kind of Editing to Get If You’re Just Starting …

Some authors have a very clear idea of how their manuscript is going to unfold. Others may feel a bit lost when even when it comes to getting started. You may begin to meander through your manuscript, starting a chapter here, another over there, moving this scene, that scene, until you ultimately write yourself into a corner and have no idea how to get out.

Maybe you don’t even get started. Maybe you find the blank page intimidating. You have ideas, but they feel like they’re locked inside your head. If you do try to write, everything comes out all jumbled up. You have no idea where you’re going.

If this sounds like your project, you probably want to take a look at developmental editing. This kind of editing starts early on in the process, sometimes even before the author has started writing. Maybe you signed a book deal or wrote a pitch. Maybe you have an idea, but you’re not sure how to get from “idea” to “fully fledged manuscript.”

The developmental editor is there to help you every step of the way. They can help you begin with outlining, or they can make suggestions on the organization and content of a partial manuscript. You can bounce ideas off them and use them as a sounding board as you begin the work of getting that first draft down in its entirety.

You Have a Manuscript, but You’re Concerned about Content

You’ve completed a draft of the manuscript! Maybe it’s very rough and you plan to rewrite large sections of it. Maybe you think it just needs a little polish and then it will be on its way to a copy editor.

You have one lingering concern, however, and that’s content. Did you explain this subject in enough depth? Did you forget to include an important concept? Is there a chance you went off on a tangent in Chapter 10 and include far too much information about the types of flowering plants native to San Diego?

A substantive edit can help you out. The editor will review your manuscript and give you feedback on the content. They’ll make suggestions about what to include (and what not to), where to cut, where to add, and even how to reorganize the manuscript if you so desire.

You Have a Manuscript, but You’re Concerned about Order

You’ve finished your draft. You know you’ve included all the important bits, and you’ve left out all the unimportant bobs. The content of your manuscript is solid. It tells the story, or it walks the reader through what they need to know.

But … does it flow? Is that discussion of the definition of “diet” for athletes in the right place, or does it need to come earlier in the text? Can the reader move seamlessly between chapters, each one building on the last?

If not, it may be time to consider a structural edit. Like the name implies, this kind of edit is focused on the structure of your manuscript. The editor will look at how and where information is presented and make suggestions. Maybe a shorter introduction to a topic is in order, but only if you move the lengthier discussion of another to a later chapter, where it makes more sense.

The terms structural and substantive editing are sometimes used interchangeably. Generally speaking, a substantive edit can look at factors outside structure. Some editors will say they’re doing structural editing, but they’re looking beyond the order or flow of events to think about character development and more. This makes sense; it can be tough to separate character arcs from how events unfold. Always check with your editor to see what they intend to do to your manuscript.

What Kind of Editing to Get If Your Writing Is Bumpy

Reading your manuscript back to yourself, you have to grit your teeth. Your prose bounces along, jarring you from sentence to sentence, lurching from paragraph to paragraph. It’s like driving down a dirt road after a washout rainfall.

Maybe you didn’t read your manuscript, but you had a friend or family member read it. They passed it back to you with a terse smile and an “it’s great!” Maybe someone was brave enough to offer you some constructive criticism, like, “I love the idea, but I found it a bit difficult to read at some points.”

Friends and family can be your most enthusiastic readers, but they may also pander to you. They don’t want to upset you, even if they did really think your manuscript was terrible. If you can get an honest opinion out of someone, be sure to ask them what they really thought. If they had a hard time reading it, why?

When you or your readers are struggling with your prose, it’s time for a line edit. Line editing focuses on smoothing out your writing, line by line, paragraph by paragraph. The editor works with an eye to fixing more than just spelling and grammar. They work to improve the quality of the writing as well, beyond just making sure it’s technically correct. It’s why this kind of edit may also be called a stylistic edit.

A red pen sits on top of a printed page. It looks like someone is editing--but what kind of editing is it?
“Very interesting use of interesting,” wrote the editor.

A line editor will also make sure your details stay consistent. No more character costume changes mid-scene.

Don’t be shy to admit you may need a bit of help. Many of us aren’t strong writers, and when we spend years writing emails and business documents, letting purple prose flow from our pens isn’t the most natural thing. Rest assured your writing can be improved—and you as a writer will also improve!

You’re No Grammar Whiz

Did you flunk English? Are you someone who can never remember the difference between “your” and “you’re?” It’s time to call in the copy editors.

Sometimes known as “mechanical” editing, this kind of edit is usually what people think of when they ask about editing. Most people want to fix their writing so it’s technically correct. Copy editors are the ones who complete this job. They look for spelling errors, usage errors, and grammar errors. They’re like the clean-up crew of writing.

Copy editing can, of course, become more in-depth. When some people ask about copy editing, they actually mean line editing. Some copy edits can even border on substantive editing. You want to clean up the rote errors, but you also want more expansive feedback on your manuscript.

All of this can fall under the “copy edit” umbrella and does frequently. Always be clear when you book a copy edit, however, about what you expect. Better yet, ask the editor what they plan to do and how they’ll approach your project. If the editor’s proposal doesn’t fit your expectations, you may want to ask for a different type of editing or even find a different editor.

You Have Page Proofs

We’ll start with a technical note: You can only hire a proofreader if you have page proofs. That means your manuscript has been typeset. If you do not have page proofs, if the book has not been typeset, then you cannot engage someone to proofread.

Most people use the term “proofread” to mean a mechanical-style copy edit, and in some ways, a proofread is a very mechanical edit. However, it also looks at the typography of the book, as it will appear in print or on someone’s eReader screen. If your book is already in eBook or PDF format, then you’ll want to hire a proofreader.

A set of proofreading marks on top of text that reads "The brown quick Fox jummps over the la zy dog dog."
Proofreading is actually highly specialized, including use of traditional marks.

Why can’t you hire a proofreader to look at your Word document? Quite simply, your document hasn’t been typeset. Since the proofreader looks at typography, they can’t do that until the page design is in place.

If you don’t plan on typesetting your book or you’re going to directly upload a Word document to a service like Amazon’s KDP, then you’ll want to ask about copy editing. You can indicate you want a light copy edit, looking mainly for mechanical errors like spelling mistakes.

What about if you have an eBook file? A proofreader can technically work on that as well. Since it’s been “designed,” then the proofreader can check the file for incorrectly applied styles, wrong typefaces, and more.

Get the Right Editorial Insight for Your Next Book

Use this handy guide next time you want to talk to an editor about a project! It should help you sort out the jargon and discover what your project truly needs.

Thinking about booking an editor for your next project? Get in touch with us! We’d be happy to provide a quote for the kind of editing you need.

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