Types of Book Editing

Editing help needed. Photo by Dmitry Ratushny on Unsplash

Photo by Dmitry Ratushny on Unsplash

Authors and writers need editors for a variety of reasons. If you’ve found this blog post, you probably know you need an editor, and maybe you even know why–but do you know what level of editing your project needs? (Don’t fret if the answer is no. This post will help you find the answer.)

Freelance editors provide different kinds of editing for different phases of a project. These different types of editing are priced differently, and they provide different results.

Types of Book Editing (Nonfiction Books)

Manuscript critique

If you have finished writing a book but you genuinely aren’t sure what kind of book editing you need, a critique is a great place to start. Most independent editors offer this assessment service (for a fee).

The editor will read your manuscript 1-2 times, then write you a brief report outlining a list of issues or concerns. This report is broad, pointing out consistent weaknesses or big picture structural issues that need fixing. (For example: “You use almost exclusively passive voice” or “What you’re calling Chapter 1 right now is actually an Introduction, and your Introduction is really a Preface.”)

Manuscript critiques give you a blueprint for where to go next. You can then work independently to fix your manuscript’s biggest issues, based on this blueprint.

Developmental edit (content edit)

This edit helps to improve the meaning and structure of your content. In journalism or the business world, many people refer to this as substantive editing.

The goal of a content edit is to elevate the quality of your work on a fundamental level by asking the question, “Does it make sense?” (Or, “Are you making your point as clearly as possible?”) If not, what needs to be changed to improve the work? Is there anything missing that would make your project better? Are your chapters in the right order, and do you have enough of them? Are chapters and sections balanced for length? Have you backed up your claims with research or case studies?

Normally, you’d hire a developmental editor after you’ve written a draft (or at least a few ideas on a napkin) and before you hire a line editor.

Some content editors are willing to work with you one chapter at a time, while others prefer to wait for a finished draft before they give feedback on your work. (I offer both approaches.)

Line edit

A line edit is a more detailed pass through your document–usually through a completed draft.

It’s focused less on big picture or chapter-level structural thinking, and more on your paragraphs and sentences: are they in the best possible sequence? How’s your prose? Are you choosing the right words? Using the right punctuation?

Typically, a line edit will have more “red marks,” or Track Changes comments, than a developmental edit.

Copy edit

A copy edit happens near the end of the process, close to publication. At this point, you’ve probably done a developmental edit, or at least had your work read by beta readers, your writing group, or an agent.

A good copy editor is a fiercely dedicated perfectionist who goes through your manuscript with a red pen and a maniacal devotion to (and expert-level knowledge of) whatever style guide best applies to your book or document. Are your paragraph breaks appropriate? How’s the formatting on your end notes? Are you formatting according to the Chicago Manual of Style? The APA style guide? The MLA? The AP?

Are you not sure what any of that means? Then you need a copy editor to tell you.


Finally, just prior to publication, a proofreader looks at your copy edited manuscript to check for mistakes other rounds of editing may have missed.

No matter how great your copy editor is, she’ll miss at least one thing somewhere in the document–she’s only human, after all. A proofreader will also check for formatting and layout issues.

Gray Areas in Editing

Keep in mind, sometimes a book’s needs fall into a gray area, requiring an editor to blend styles.

For example, often I will take on a client for content editing and find that light line editing is also needed to help the author understand a few basic grammar, punctuation, or style rules. I make a few sample edits, in that case, so the author can then address these issues on his own when he spots them.

Similarly, some line editors read very closely and provide something more like a true copy edit; they go over every line of your book to make sure you’re adhering to punctuation and grammar rules.

But what if you haven’t written a book at all?

What if the material you need edited is something else entirely, like a speech, a keynote presentation, an op-ed for a newspaper, or a fellowship application essay?

Can other types of writing still benefit from an independent editor?

Of course! Any written project can benefit from each of these phases of editing. I’ve offered content edits, manuscript critiques, and line edits to numerous small businesses and corporate clients. I’ve worked on blog posts, LinkedIn summaries, website About pages, executive bios, and even grad school application essays and artists’ statements.

However, in my experience and in today’s market, most business writing moves too rapidly to take full advantage of each phase the way traditional publishing does. Freelance writers and editors who work for corporate clients are often doing double or triple duty: drafting, editing, and even proofreading their own work. It’s not ideal, but it’s a reality when time and budgets are constrained.

This is where book authors have a leg up on everyone else: your book probably isn’t on a severe deadline (as in “I need it in three days!”). You have the luxury of more time to do it right.

Does your project need a critique or edit?

Contact me to discuss your goals. If I can’t help you, I may be able to refer you to copy editors, proofreaders, or other professionals who can.