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5 Levels of editing

Updated: Apr 22

Or What are all these editors doing?

(We’re not sitting around having coffee and cake all day, unfortunately.)

coffee, cake and a book on a table

You have been working diligently on your manuscript for months. You think it’s nearly ready, but you know it will benefit from a professional giving it a polish. After some research, you find copy editors, developmental editors, proofreaders... Who are all these people, and do you need them all?

What is editing?

Editing is preparing a piece of writing for publication in its intended form, be it a blog post, a self-published novel or a short story to be included in a collection.

You can handle some of the editing tasks yourself if you understand what needs to be done. The feedback from a few beta readers can put you on the right path.

But it is usually a good idea to get the assistance of at least one editor because they will be able to see the problems that you, as the writer, have gotten so accustomed to that you keep missing them.

The trick is working out what kind of editing you need. To make life interesting, some editorial terms can mean different things in different industries, so you may see different definitions elsewhere. These are the editorial steps as they are likely to be accessed by a self-publishing author:

Developmental edit

A developmental editor does not worry about stray commas, dangling participles and other little details. They are looking at the big picture. A developmental edit examines structure, flow, pacing and point of view. It asks if the characters work and if they all even need to be there. The developmental editor will let you know if your story is fundamentally sound, complete and properly structured, and they will give you suggestions to improve these areas.

Line edit

A line edit focuses on your writing at a sentence and paragraph level. It is concerned with improving flow, sense and writing style. The main focus is on making the writing engaging and interesting and ensuring that it performs as intended (is that exciting fight scene actually exciting?).


Copy-editing focuses on your writing at a sentence level. The aim is correctness, accuracy, style consistency and completeness. The edit will address poor grammar, punctuation, misused words and confusing sentences. It will also consider the subject matter – are character descriptions consistent, are there any factual inaccuracies, and does the timeline make sense? Is the writing appropriate for the intended audience? The copy-edit should eliminate any bumps that distract the reader and lessen their enjoyment of your writing.


Traditionally, a proofreader works with a document that has been typeset and formatted. More frequently today, a proofreader works as the final quality check on a document before publication, whether in Word, PDF or some other format.

Proofreading aims to remove spelling, grammar and punctuation errors. It also ensures consistency of style and formatting while being alert to those last few misused words and accidentally ambiguous sentences.


Sorry, there is another one, and it is becoming increasingly popular for self-publishing authors. A proof-edit is a combination of copy-editing and proofreading, carried out at the same time. If you have done several self-editing passes and the text is now in a good, but not perfect state, it may need a proof-edit. This is essentially a proofread with additional intervention if required to smooth out awkward sentences, distracting repetitions and internal inconsistencies.

What if I am not sure what the work needs?

You can approach some editors and ask their opinion. Most editors will carry out a sample edit (often free) to assess what level of intervention the work needs, how long it will take them and how much they will charge. If they are conscientious and know what they are doing, they will quickly let you know if they think you have asked for the wrong level of editing.

It is in both parties' interest for this to be agreed upon before any work starts to prevent problems later – and to ensure that you are not paying for a level of editing that is inappropriate for your work in its current state.


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