The Different Types of Editing Explained (With Examples)
When we think of the great authors we love, it’s sometimes easy to imagine them sitting at their writing desks, producing line upon line of pure artistic genius. However, the truth is, when you pick up your favorite novel, what you’re reading is usually the result of many written drafts of imperfection, marked up in red by the author’s editors.
In the world of book publishing, an editor can be your fiercest critic—and also your greatest supporter. But who are those mysterious people working behind the scenes? And what exactly does a standard editing process look like? In this article—itself a product of careful editing—we will walk you through the different types of book editing, and why each type has something different to offer your work.
Why Do Authors Need Editors?
The main purpose of any good editor is to improve a book’s readability by improving the writing. No matter how good your writing is, editors are trained professionals whose job is to literally make your work better. This ranges from paying attention to the details, such as cleaning up your manuscript from typos and grammatical errors, all the way to making the big decisions like restructuring sections of your work in order to enhance your ideas.
It’s never easy to have someone go through your work with the purpose of pointing out mistakes or areas of improvement. However, if you adopt an open mind, you will find that editing will almost certainly enhance your work. This doesn’t mean editors will take over your work and make it their own, but rather that they will make your writing the best version it could be.
What Are the Different Types of Editing?
In order to transform your manuscript from a rough draft to a finished work, it must go through a process of editing. This process is typically divided into five stages, each stage offering a specialized kind of editing. Let’s look at each stage in detail below, using excerpts from a novel as an example of a work to be edited.
Stage 1: Editorial Assessment
An editorial assessment is the first type of editorial feedback your manuscript should receive and is usually performed by the commissioning editor, whose main job is to acquire books for a publishing house. At this early stage in the editorial process, the editor is not concerned with grammar or syntax, but rather with the bigger picture. In fact, there is usually no “editing” being done at this stage.
An editorial assessment looks at the general ideas of your work, the way your narrative flows (or doesn’t in certain places), as well as your overall characterization, themes, and plot. In other words, think of this stage as the general report on your book; you’ll find out what works, and what needs changing.
Example of an Editorial Assessment
Let’s say you submitted a romance novel set in both Egypt and the UK. Your main character, Hana, who is an old woman, recounts—through the use of flashbacks—a love story she had with a British man, Peter, over forty years ago. Below is an example of a response the author might get from the commissioning editor:
The framing of the narrative is delicate but confident. The story is beautifully paced, as is the final shocking revelation of Hana’s mother’s role in Peter’s death. However, there are a few places where the novel could be tightened.
For example, it is relatively late in the narrative before we are introduced to Hana’s mother, who is an integral part of the story. Moreover, the early days of Hana and Peter’s relationship should be expanded upon to give readers more insight into the couple’s story. There is also inconsistency in the story’s timeline; Peter is said to have joined the war after leaving Egypt, but the dates don’t work (he left Egypt in 1946, a year after WWII ended).
Stage 2: Developmental/Structural Editing
Now that your novel has received a general assessment, it’s time to get some real editing done. The developmental editor will also look at the big picture; however, they’ll start marking up what needs changing, often giving their own suggestions.
If there is something about a particular character that just doesn’t add up, or if there’s a plot hole somewhere, a good developmental editor will pick up on it right away. Trained to spot the big inconsistencies, they will suggest changes that they think will work better with your plot and characterization. Sometimes they might ask you to rewrite a scene, place it somewhere else in the novel, or take it out entirely.
Example of Developmental/Structural Editing
Let’s look at an example of developmental editing using a scene from our same made-up romance novel:
A sea of black. I feel like I am suffocating. What am I doing here? I am insignificant on this day. Everybody is insignificant on this day.
I clench my fists, nails digging into my sweaty palms. Climbing the marble staircase, I try to avoid eye contact with the black figures I am squeezing past. My legs feel weak; I shouldn’t have skipped lunch.
I finally make it to the elaborate wooden door, halfway open and leading to the room I am supposed to be in.
I shuffle in a fast-moving queue of young and old women. When it is my turn, I bend down and hold the frail hands of a loosely veiled lady dressed in black.
“I’m so sorry.”
[Note from the editor]: This scene of Peter’s funeral should be placed at the start of Chapter 14 in order to drive home the shocking revelation of Peter’s death. Its current placement at the end of Chapter 15 is not as effective because by this point we already know that Peter has died in the war.
Stage 3: Line Editing
Line editing, also known as stylistic editing, is the kind of editing that takes your manuscript from the “big-picture” level to the “line-by-line” level. In this stage, the editor is not focused on scenes and plots, but rather on your writing style.
Note, however, that this is not the kind of editing that looks at mechanical errors (i.e. errors in spelling, grammar, and capitalization), but rather the kind that considers diction and syntax. The main purpose of a line edit is to look at how each line flows to the next. In other words, it focuses on how to make your work read in the best way, pointing out any sentences that need tightening, or any vocabulary that needs replacing.
Example of Line Editing:
Let’s look at this scene in which our protagonist Hana is describing the setting outside her apartment.
I unhook the shutters and shove them forward. It’s the third week of Ramadan and just below me I can see everything and that  Abou El Feda Street is wailing. The shutters and glass never entirely mute the clamor, but they do turn the music and shouts into a sort of  white noise that now, ironically, I can’t sleep without. It’s true that nowadays everyone who can afford to is fleeing their Cairo flats to get a piece of the trendy suburban compounds, but I could never see the appeal in trading my Zamalek apartment for a villa surrounded by desert and nothingness.
 Delete the underlined portion to tighten the sentence and therefore make it more effective: “It’s the third week of Ramadan and just below me Abou el Feda Street is wailing.”
These ‘sort ofs’ and ‘kind ofs’ can usually be taken out to make the lines flow better.
Stage 4: Copyediting
Copyediting is the “nitty gritty” aspect of editing. You know that one friend who gets on people’s nerves because they’re always fixing everyone’s grammar? Well, that’s exactly what you want in a copyeditor! A good copyeditor will go through your manuscript with a fine-tooth comb and flag every single mechanical error there is.
They will add or remove commas, ensure your spelling is consistent (either American or British), and correct any grammatical errors you’ve made. They will also look at capitalization, speech tags, and inconsistent tenses. Basically, they will work on making your manuscript free of any errors or typos. After all, it would be such a shame if your readers are put off because you keep misspelling a particular word, or because your narrative accidentally slips into the past tense when it’s mostly written in the present.
Example of Copyediting
Now let’s look at an example of a paragraph from our novel that has been copyedited, with the errors and changes marked in red.
Hana shrugged, gracefully
lifted[lifting] herself onto the railing[,] her back to the water below. Facing him in this way, she forced Peter to take note of everything he [was] trying so hard not to sea. Resigned, his eyes swam [as] they drank her in; her gentle curves so subtle underneath the soft fabric of a blue pale[pale blue] dress, the olive skin of her neck only partly visible between [the] folds of a crimson scarf. Peter helplessly turned his gaze to her face, andmarveling as he always had at how comfortably it housed such prominent features, how it embraced the intensity of each of them[—]from the unforgiving straightness of the thick brows, to the strange searching look constantly lingering in the oversized, dark–night eyes.
“Glad to see I still do it for you[,]” she smirked.
[“]I love you,[”] Peter blurted before he could stop himself.
Hana laughed. “Now is not the time. But, yes, ten years later and I love you too.”
Stage 5: Proofreading
So, now that your manuscript has been editorially assessed, examined for plot holes and inconsistencies, edited stylistically, and checked for any mechanical errors, what’s there left to do? Well, that’s where the final editing stage comes in: proofreading.
Proofreading offers the final pair of eyes that will go over your manuscript before it goes to press. A proofreader will look for any mechanical errors that have been missed during the copyediting process, or perhaps even accidentally introduced by previous editors. It’s not uncommon for a copy editor to fix hundreds of errors and end up accidentally introducing a few along the way. That’s what the proofreading stage is for: to clean up any outstanding mistakes.
In addition to that, however, a proofreader is also in charge of the page layout of your book. This means they will go over the formatting of your pages, checking your front matter, headers/footers, pagination, line spacing, paragraph breaks, etc. In fact, a proofreader will also be the final pair of eyes to check the blurb on your back cover, as well as your title, author name, and even the placement of your cover art.
Example of Proofreading:
Now let’s look at how a proofreader would handle the same scene that was copyedited above. You will note that the layout of the text has changed, with the introduction of paragraph indents as well as the correction of one minor (but glaring!) typo that was missed by the copyeditor.
Hana shrugged, gracefully lifting herself onto the railing, her back to the water below. Facing him in this way, she forced Peter to take note of everything he was trying so hard not to
seasee. Resigned, his eyes swam as they drank her in; her gentle curves so subtle underneath the soft fabric of a pale blue dress, the olive skin of her neck only partly visible between the folds of a crimson scarf.
Peter helplessly turned his gaze to her face, marveling as he always had at how comfortably it housed such prominent features, how it embraced the intensity of each of them—from the unforgiving straightness of the thick brows, to the strange searching look constantly lingering in the oversized, dark-night eyes.
“Glad to see I still do it for you,” she smirked.
“I love you,” Peter blurted before he could stop himself.
Hana laughed. “Now is not the time. But, yes, ten years later and I love you too.”
Where Can Authors Find Great Editors?
The answer to that question depends on which publishing route you’re taking: traditional publishing, or self-publishing. If you have a standard publishing contract with a publishing house, then you will be paired with an editorial team of the publisher’s choosing. They will liaise with you and get your work edited from start to finish. All you have to do is review their edits and discuss their comments and feedback.
However, if you’re opting to self-publish, then you will need to find your own editors. But don’t panic! You don’t actually need to hire an editor for each one of the types of editing covered in this article. You will find that many editors wear different editorial hats and are competent in doing different types of editing. In fact, it’s common for authors to hire only two editors: one in charge of the “big-picture” developmental and structural editing, and the other in charge of copyediting and proofreading.
So, where can you find your perfect editorial match? Well, a good place to start your search is at the Editorial Freelancers Association, one of the most renowned collectives of professional freelance editors. You should also check out the ACES Society of Editing, which have an impressive international editors directory, as well as popular platforms such as NY Book Editors.
Aside from that, we have a cheeky little tip: Pick up one of your favorite books that you think is particularly well-written, and flip to the Acknowledgements Page—chances are your author has thanked their editor by name right there. And a quick Google search on your part could lead you right to them!
As an author, being aware of all the different types of editing for books gives you a greater understanding of what to expect from the editorial process. This, in turn, helps you prepare your manuscript in a way that allows you to gain the most from your editors. By knowing what they’re looking out for, you’ll be more conscious as you write.
And while it may be scary to think of your manuscript being marked up with so many scribbles and crossings and requests to add or take out text, always bear in mind that a good editorial team just wants your work to be the best it can be.
And to that, we leave you with the poetic words of editor and author Arthur Plotnik: “You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you, and we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.”