April 14, 2015

Picking Editors: What Kind Do We Need?

Wooden poseable figure looking at color swatches with text: What Kind of Editor Do We Need?

Whether we follow the traditional publishing path or the self-publishing path, if we want our writing to be the best it can be, we need our work edited. No matter how good we are at self-editing, we can’t catch every unclear meaning or typo in our own work.

Maybe we missed explaining a character’s motivation, or maybe we’re missing a “the” somewhere in our work. Outside eyes can help us see our writing the way a reader would see it.

But there are different kinds of editors, and we might not know the type we need. Or if we’re self-publishing and have a limited budget, we might not know what kind of editors are most important for our success.

Unfortunately, we can’t simply follow the first piece of advice we come across because the right answer is going to be different for everyone. Like many things in writing, there’s not one “always right” answer.

We each have different strengths and weaknesses, and we each have different options for non-professional help. Let’s take a closer look at the types of editing, when we might (or might not) need that type of editing, and how we should go about finding the help we need.

Overview of Editing Types

There are four types of editing:

  • Developmental Editing: This type of editing focuses on the big picture to strengthen the storytelling. (Also called Content Editing or Structural Editing.)
  • Line Editing: This type of editing focuses on each paragraph and sentence to strengthen the writing itself.
  • Copyediting: This type of editing focuses on strengthening each of our sentences for grammar and usage.
  • Proofreading: This type of editing is our last chance to clean up typos and errors.

In an ideal world, our story would go through all these editing steps with a professional editor. In the real world, many stories—traditionally published or self-published—don’t receive this many editing passes.

It’s important for our story to be examined for the problems uncovered during each of these stages, however. So whether our stories pass through four separate editing passes with a specialist editor or not, we do want to make sure that we’re looking for all of the relevant issues.

(In fact, traditionally published authors might want to consider which types of editing they’re receiving before judging whether a publisher’s editing is “good” or “bad.” Or authors might want to ask questions about the type of editing offered by the publisher before signing a contract.)

It’s also important that our story pass through these stages in the following order. It does us no good to check the grammar of a scene if our developmental edits reveal that we need to rewrite the whole thing.

Developmental Editing

For fiction books, it doesn’t matter how perfect our grammar is if our story isn’t any good. On some level, the story is all that matters, as we can probably all name bestsellers with crappy writing that managed to suck readers into the story anyway.

Yet developmental (content/structural) editing is too often skipped by traditional publishers and self-published authors alike. Too many publishers (especially small and digital-first publishers) and authors consider a book “edited” even if it’s only been through copyediting. Whether we pay for a professional developmental editor or not, we need the big picture perspective from someone to ensure our story is the best it can be.

Issues developmental editors look for include:

  • Does everything make sense, or are there plot holes?
  • Are the motivations clear?
  • Can the stakes be made stronger?
  • Are the characters all necessary?
  • Is the protagonist likeable or compelling enough?
  • Are there story issues which will affect marketability?
  • Does the story keep the reader’s interest?

Most people aren’t able to see these issues within their own story, so outside eyes are usually essential. However, even if we decide to pay an editor, it’s hard to find good developmental editors because one of the most common techniques for “testing” the quality of an editor—asking for a sample edit—doesn’t work for the big picture issues. It takes far more than a handful of pages to answer the above questions.

Budgeting Tip: Depending on our natural storytelling strengths and on the story itself (and on the strengths of our readers), we might be able to use beta readers or critique partners for this step rather than paying for a professional developmental edit.

Before relying on non-professionals for this stage, ensure they’re able to give feedback beyond a superficial “I didn’t like this part.” We need comments with a why, such as being able to explain slow pacing due to repetition: “This part felt slow. We know this information already.”

Professional Editor Tip: Look for developmental editors who know story structure and goal/conflict/motivation forward and backward, have an analytical mind, and are at least somewhat familiar with your genre. (Different genres have different expectations of character likeability, stakes, pacing, etc.)

Get recommendations from authors by asking about the kind of feedback their editor provided—how deeply did their editor dig?

Line Editing

Line editing is the bread and butter of editing. Line editing focuses on clarity and strength in our writing.

Issues line editors look for include:

  • Are any sentences clunky or confusing?
  • Do any motivations need to be made clearer?
  • Are any phrases too cliché?
  • Do any sentences or paragraphs need to be tightened?
  • Are any sentences or paragraphs too repetitive?
  • Would different words make a stronger emotional impact?

A good edit at this stage can make our words sing. Unfortunately, it’s rare for a beta reader or critique partner—or even an English teacher—to have the necessary skills to be a good line editor. The skills go far beyond knowing grammar and into becoming deeply in tune with an author’s voice.

The difficulty in finding non-professionals with the necessary line editing skills determines the “default” recommendation for writers:

For most writers,
if we can afford to pay only one professional editor,
we should get a professional line edit.

(Note that we’d still need to go through these other stages, but they’re often easier to find non-professional help for. So this isn’t advice not to worry about the other stages, but rather to spend our money on whatever stage we can’t get others to help us with. In many cases, that’s going to be line editing, but that’s not always the case. “Default” advice doesn’t always apply. *smile*)

Budgeting Tip: Some line editors provide a discount for clean writing or charge by the hour, so we should strive to improve our self-editing skills as much as possible. (As a bonus, the better our skills, the better we’ll be able to judge the skills of an editor through a sample edit.)

Books like Revision and Self-Editing for Publication can help us learn how to spot these problems. However, unless we’re super-skilled at self-editing for the above issues, a line edit isn’t something we should attempt strictly on our own.

Professional Editor Tip: Note that many editors who call themselves line editors actually perform more of a copyedit. It’s essential to get a sample edit to see what kind of changes they’re suggesting—and whether or not their changes are good for our voice, etc.

Some line editors will overlap with the other stages as well, providing developmental feedback as well as some copyediting suggestions. I dig deeper into sample edits and what to look for in this post.


Copyeditors dissect each sentence for errors and make sure we didn’t introduce any new problems with our line editing changes. They’re nitpicky, and we love them for it. They give our words the polish they need to shine.

Issues copyeditors look for include:

  • awkward phrasing and tense errors,
  • comma and grammar errors,
  • misused homonyms and words,
  • missing words and typos,
  • consistency and continuity errors,
  • punctuation and formatting conforming to the style guide, etc.

Copyeditors save us from making bloopers with the written word. When readers say “this book needed more editing,” they’re usually talking about this level because this is the easiest one for people to “armchair edit” (although sometimes those readers are wrong about grammar rules).

Budgeting Tip: Other than the ability to find consistency/continuity issues, it’s possible for a friend or relative who’s knowledgeable enough (English teacher, etc.) to help us with this stage. (Make sure they’re familiar with the rules for fiction, as non-fiction’s rules are very different.)

Like line editing, we can also save money by self-editing our way to cleaner writing for a discount or fewer hours necessary for an edit. Online editing programs can point out some of these issues as well.

Professional Editor Tips: Sample edits are also essential here, and if anything strikes us as wrong or questionable, we should look up the rule ourselves to check the editor’s knowledge. I share more tips about sample edits in this post.


Proofreaders originally focused on checking the proof of a printed book, but with the proliferation of ebooks, we might check a digital file instead. Whether for ebooks or print, proofreading can be a final post-formatting check, our last chance to fix mistakes.

Issues proofreaders look for include:

  • spelling or punctuation errors,
  • typos,
  • formatting problems, etc.

Many self-published authors proofread their own work, especially because the print version of our books are often less relevant than the ebook versions, so the typesetting rules of the proofreading stage aren’t something many worry about. In addition, we’re the one who knows best what the story should look like with formatting.

Budgeting Tip: Unless we plan on print making up a substantial portion of our sales, we probably don’t need to pay a professional proofreader to check our print version. (Sift through The Book Designer site to learn best practices.)

For print or ebook, friends or family can help us with this stage, as the main issues to look out for are problems most can identify. Some professional proofreaders charge by the number of errors found, so a clean document saves money once again.

Professional Editor Tip: Some proofreaders are expanding their services to help authors who might not need proofreading-only help. Some also offer copyediting, and many proofreaders offer a story bible service, putting together a document of character, setting, worldbuilding, etc. details to help authors writing a series.

Sample edits usually aren’t appropriate for proofreaders (there may not be any errors on the sample pages), so recommendations can be helpful. If you select a proofreader who charges by the error, include a style guide so they’re not charging you for stylistic choices that aren’t errors.

Final Tips

Our Strengths and Weaknesses Affect Our Choices

While all of those editing levels are needed, we might find one type of editing easier to self-edit on than others. Or maybe our beta readers or critique partners seem to be able to point out certain issues more than others. Or maybe we’re strong in showing and tend to write tight, so we’re not too worried about line editing. Etc., etc.

Editing Styles Can Overlap

Some developmental editors will point out issues that overlap with other editors (like sentence-level telling vs. showing, repetition, grammar issues, etc.). Many line editors and copyeditors overlap their skills as well.

If we have a strong line editor who also touches on copyediting, we may have less need for a copyeditor. Or if our developmental editor also touches on line editing aspects, we may want to look for a copyeditor who overlaps with line editing and skip a dedicated line editor.

Don’t Rely on Titles to Know the Type of Edit

Not everyone uses the same terms for the same kinds of editing, or an editor might call themselves one type of editor but really do another type of editing. (In my experience, at least half of those who call themselves line editors are actually stronger in copyediting.)

It’s important to know what type of feedback and suggestions we’re looking for and verify that the editor can and will provide that information. Check their website for a bullet list of what they look for, ask them directly, and/or get a sample edit to make sure they do what they say they’re going to do.

For my stories, I have a couple of beta readers and three editors. I have a developmental editor, a line editor who’s also very strong in copyediting, and a copyeditor to catch the stragglers. Between the fact that I write clean drafts and that both my line editor and copyeditor are great at catching my errors, I do the proofreading pass myself. Yay for slow-but-clean drafting! *grin*

Whether we’re on the traditional publishing path and want to know how to judge our publisher’s editing or we’re on the self-publishing path and need to prioritize our limited budget, hopefully this information is helpful for us all. *smile* And check out more about what we should expect from our editors.

Do you have different thoughts about the goals of each editing stage? Which stages have you decided to skip or not skip—and why?Do you agree or disagree with my thoughts for which stages we could compromise or save money on? Have you run into editors who call themselves a different title than their skill set? Do you have other suggestions for editing on a budget?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Great stuff here. Thanks.

Anne R. Allen

Great, very thorough piece, Jami! Sharing.

Taurean J. Watkins (@Taurean_Watkins)

Thanks for doing this post, Jami, it made me understand this so much better. I wish I still didn’t shiver thinking about all those editing stages (limited budget talking), as I’m not sure what I’m decent enough at to gauge. Well, I KNOW I’ll need copyediting and line-editing, how I’ll get that is still up the air, but I don’t want to cry today so I’ll leave it at that. (Smile) But that’s my problem: you at least made it clear to understand, other blogs I’ve talk about editing just say “Do it!” they don’t explain why, and assume everyone who wants this badly enough automattically has the money for EVERY STAGE, thanks for making the point that limited or nonexistent budget does get in the way, which isn’t the same as saying, “I’m so great, won’t need that.” That’s the tone a lot of entrepnurs give off and it can make people like me feel like I can’t even START because I can only invest so much, so thanks for acknowledging that side of it. Copyediting and line-editing will matter A LOT in my case, since the majoirty of the children’s book market is still print, so for those in the Childrens’s/YA field will want to keep that ni mind. Though more YA readers prefer ebooks, readers below YA still consume more print books overall. I used to have many beta-readers. I haven’t used them in awhile in large because finding people who get my genre (and aren’t “paralyzed”…  — Read More »

Glynis Jolly

Do you have any articles explaining the difference between the rules for fiction and non-fiction? The reason I ask is that my mother (of all people) is well-skilled with the details of the written English language. So much so that she has a tendency to copyedit as she reads a novel. Still, much of her prior experience with this has been in non-fiction. I trust her judgement but I want to make sure she’s aware of the difference in rules.


What type of non-fiction does your mother have experience with? That can make a huge difference in how many differences there are betwixt fiction and non-fiction.

And then fiction has areas where technically wrong things can actually be a correct option for the context.

—someone who works with both non-fiction & fiction 🙂

Lara Gallin
Lara Gallin

Fabulous post, it makes things so much clearer! Can’t wait until the next one 🙂

Faith Freewoman

Terrific article, Jami. Comprehensive and detailed and specific enough to be of real value.

I’m going to put it as a resource on my editing site and tweet it for starters. Maybe a couple of times.

Appreciate all your hard work!




[…] time we talked about how to know what type of editing we need for our strengths and weaknesses. Depending on our situation, we might be able to find others to […]


As a note, when you boil things down, there are really only two types of editing, broadly speaking, and thinking of it in those terms can help in narrowing what kind of editor you need most, because writers have the two types (“big picture” and “little picture”), too. A “big picture” writer will need more “little picture” editing, and vice versa, even though everyone can learn to improve their perception of the other side of things.


Great post, Jami. Recently I decided to go back into writing more short stories, and since then I realized that I’d need a plan for editing….This definitely helps, thank you again.

Julie Glover

Love the breakdown here! And it’s a great point that titles don’t tell you enough–you have to ask what services an editor performs.

I also agree it’s important to know your strengths and weaknesses. I feel good about my skills and my fabulous critique partner’s skills for line editing, but development editing is something I need. After hours upon hours of being in my book, I lose objectivity to see the story and characters the way a quality content editor can.


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Tahlia Newland

A very comprehensive post, as usual. This kind of information is what authors really need to know. Having an editor, doesn’t just mean that someone corrects your grammar. Sometimes I get clients who want just that and when I start work, I realise that what they need is some structural editing first. That’s why I prefer to start with a manuscript appraisal before doing any other kind of editing. It’s pointless checking grammar if the plot isn’t in place.


[…] line editing is all about our writing, we can also struggle to find good line editors because—more than any other phase of editing—line editors must be a good match for our […]

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