Kelsey Bryant edits professionally, and she's also the author of two books. A sweet girl. I'm really happy to have her here with us today.
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Different Levels of Editing
Editing. It can sound like the nemesis of joyous, flowing writing, when imagination runs wild and free through the meadow of your empty pages, leaving tracks of carefree, effortless words. Editing fences you in to the straight and narrow, doesn’t it? Stifles your style, curbs your creativity? Surely editing is a necessary evil!
Not at all. Editing is necessary, but it’s far from evil. Editing is just making your writing better. It’s a polishing that makes what you put down in the heat of the moment into the shining prose that readers gush over in a published book.
The term “editing” is actually hard to define because there are so many different types of editing. But they all have a single purpose: to improve writing.
So let’s look at the different tossed-around terms that you should be aware of. Hopefully this will also help you determine what type of editing your manuscript needs to become a publishable work. We’ll start with the largest task and dwindle down to the smallest.
Developmental editing is also known as content editing and rewriting. In the case of nonfiction, this typically happens before a manuscript is finished, because a developmental editor helps an author develop the content of their book and write it. For fiction, the manuscript is typically finished but in need of something. Maybe the protagonist is abominable, or the plot is Swiss cheese, or the ending is threadbare. Maybe the novel is too long and convoluted or too short and sparse. Developmental editing fixes the story on a structural level.
Line editing is all about the prose – making sure it’s clear, flowing, and delicious like spring water. It polishes the author’s voice to be the best it can be, getting meticulous about word choice, sentence structure, clarity of meaning, and other literary issues that affect style and readability. Reading aloud really helps here. Did you use that unusual word five times in the last two pages? Is that phrase a cliché? Do all those sentences sound the same? Does that description really help the reader see? Line editing should make your writing sing.
Copy editing (or copyediting; both are correct) is technical. It focuses on rules of grammar and punctuation and hunts out obvious errors that would trip a reader. It catches formatting issues and inconsistencies within the book. It can be done on various levels – light (pretty close to proofreading; see below); medium (pretty close to line editing, in that it can suggest tweaks in wording, but it’s not as extensive); and heavy (also called substantive; this dips more into rewriting and deep line editing). Some copy editors don’t get into those different levels, so unless otherwise noted, you can probably assume a copy editor will give you a medium copy edit fixing all mistakes and consistency issues. Basically, if this type of editor sees a glaring problem with the manuscript, they’ll point it out to you.
Proofreading is the last touch. It should catch blemishes on an otherwise clean manuscript, such as typos, misused homonyms, unruly punctuation, and formatting errors. A proofreader doesn’t look for defects in story structure or make improving suggestions on writing style. If they see an obvious inconsistency or factual mistake, though, they should alert you.
All of these types of editing can be done by you, the writer. Often when you’re writing a second draft, you’ll fix problems in the content, think of a better way to write a sentence, or zap typos. But if you’re going to self-publish, you’ll need outside help. It’s difficult for the creator of a work to see everything that’s wrong with it.
So, when looking for an editor, decide what you need:
- Developmental editors fix story.
- Line editors fix writing.
- Copy editors fix technical mistakes.
- Proofreaders fix whatever mistakes still exist in the final copy.
Note: In addition to these, there are other kinds of editors: the person who is chief of a journalism paper or a publishing company; the person who collects writing pieces from many different sources to put all in one book; and the person who decides what a publishing company will publish (acquisitions editor).