What level of editing do I need?

You’ve written your first draft. You’ve even revised your manuscript following feedback from beta readers. And you know you need an editor before you self-publish. But what you don’t know, is the level of editing do you need.

This blog post aims to explain the different levels of editing so you can confidently choose the level of editing that’s right for you.

The stages of editing start with developmental, followed by line, then copy, and lastly proofreading. Therefore, I’ll discuss them in that order.

Developmental editing

Also known as structural editing, developmental editing focuses on exactly that; the structure of your manuscript.

Think of writing a novel of a mix between art and craft. The art is your writing, the words on the page. The craft is the structural elements that make up good storytelling.

Novel writing is storytelling in written form. We’ve been telling stories for centuries and there’s always a common theme; there’s a character, a goal, and there’s conflict.

But what does that really mean? And why doesn’t including those three things automatically make a good story? Because there’s a lot more to it than that.

Firstly, your story needs to hook the reader. But more than that, it needs to keep them hooked. It needs to keep them turning the pages until the very end. And, once they get to the end, they need to feel satisfied.

To really make an impact and have your readers leaving glowing reviews, it needs to leave a lasting impression. And to achieve this, it needs to elicit an emotional response.

With me so far? Good.

So how does developmental editing help with this?

A lot of what’s discussed above comes down to character development and tension. But even those alone aren’t quite enough. You also need a plot that ties up all loose ends. And you need to answer any questions that are raised throughout the novel, whether raised intentionally or unintentionally. You also need a theme(s), and the right pacing. 

If characters are what your readers resonate with and plot is the events that happen, then theme is a novel’s soul. It’s what your novel’s really about.

A developmental edit does as its name suggests. It helps you develop all of these elements so that each one is strong in its own right. Because as soon as you improve one, they all improve. Character development, plot, and theme are so intricately interwoven, that changing one changes the others.

In short, a developmental edit looks at big picture issues and ensures the structure of your story is working. Then, the next levels of editing look more closely at the actual writing itself.

Developmental editing will look at areas such as, but not limited to:
  • Character development
  • Character arcs
  • Plot — structure, inconsistencies, and plot holes
  • Pacing
  • Theme
  • Show v tell
  • Info dumping and unnecessary exposition
  • Head hopping and POV issues
  • Tense issues
  • Conflict and tension

If you’re new to novel writing or know you have weaknesses in certain areas, a developmental edit is highly recommended. While beta readers can help with some of these issues, they are not a replacement for a professional edit.

Line editing

Following a developmental edit, you should expect a fair amount of revision and rewriting. But once that’s complete, it’s time to start looking at your manuscript on a sentence level.

Line editing is often used interchangeably with ‘copy-editing’. But I like to keep them separate and treat them as entirely separate forms of editing.

If you’re in the UK, chances are a lot of copy-editors will refer to line editing as a ‘heavy copy-edit’.

Line editing, as the name suggests, looks at your manuscript line by line and evaluates your language use. Line editing, by my definition, still falls under content editing. That’s because it’s suggesting, looking at rewrites, and revising rather than correcting.

By my definition, line editing doesn’t worry about being ‘correct’. It looks at the actual words and language choice. Are they being used to full effect?

For instance, some common problems a line editor might find are awkward sentences, point of view errors, repetitive words, and inconsistent verb tenses. A line edit will also help smooth out dialogue tags and passive voice.

What it won’t focus on is correct comma placement or other grammatical errors. It focuses on word choice and sentence structure to ensure that each word is doing its job. However, most line editors do fix obvious grammatical and spelling errors during a line edit, it’s just not the primary focus.

Once a line edit’s complete, it’s still important to have a copy-edit afterwards.


As mentioned earlier, you may hear the terms ‘light copy-edit, copy-edit, and heavy copy-edit’. Figuring out which each one entails takes communication with each individual editor. Every editor seems to have a different definition.

Generally speaking, a ‘heavy copy-edit’ includes everything listed under Line Editing, as well as everything under a ‘light copy-edit’.

So, what are some of the typical things you can expect from a copy edit?

Once you get to the copy-editing stage, it’s more about rules and being correct. It stops looking at language and messaging and starts looking at correct use of grammar, punctuation, and spelling. It also ensures sentences are clear and there are no inconsistencies. For example, Alice’s eyes were blue in Ch.1 but in Ch.6 they’re green.

A copy-edit is almost entirely about correcting, not revising. So, for example, if you have an awkward sentence that could have its wording improved but grammatically, it’s correct, a copy-edit would leave it alone. A line edit would give suggestions on ways to improve it. Sentences and words are almost never changed just so that they sound better during a copy-edit. 

As well as checking grammar, punctuation, spelling and consistencies, a copy-edit will also see the creation of a style sheet. If you spell a character’s name several different ways, the most common is added to the style sheet. Whether you hyphenate certain words or use an uppercase, it will go in a style sheet. Whether to use the Oxford comma or not, you guessed it, goes in the style sheet.

This style sheet will then also be provided to the proofreader so that when they carry out the final proofread, they know what these words and choices should be, rather than making that decision and making the necessary changes. The copy-edit is the last chance to make any such changes.


Proofreading is often what authors look for when really, they want a copy-edit. There’s a common misconception about what proofreading actually entails. Proofreading is not the stage where you expect to see huge amounts of red pen all over the page, that’s copy-editing.

Proofreading is the very last stage of checking over the manuscript. It will look for for spelling errors, grammatical errors, punctuation errors, typos, and formatting errors. And this all comes after the manuscript is formatted. In other words, proofreading does not happen in Microsoft Word, but when the manuscript no longer looks like a manuscript and looks like an actual book — so the correct page size, font, indentation, and chapter breaks etc.

A proofread will fix orphan lines but it will not change a word in a sentence because another one sounds better. And while a proofread will add a missing comma, it won’t rewrite a clunky sentence. A proofread aims to change as little as possible but fix and correct any errors left over from the copy-editing stage, or any errors that crop up during the formatting process.

The proofreader compares the formatted manuscript to the copy-edited version and ensures all changes have been made. They also compare against the style guide to ensure that all choices are adhered to.

Key takeaways

While I’ve tried to explain the best I can the different levels of editing, it’s vital that when you’re looking for an editor, you know exactly what you’re getting.

Each editor will have their own take on what each level of editing means, although the general principle should be the same. It’s a pain for authors, but it’s an excuse to open up the communication channel and to get a first impression of the editor. 

Regardless of how each editor defines their level of editing, one of the most important things is that you choose the right editor for you and your manuscript. And you cannot do that without any form of communication.

Before you agree to hire an editor, ensure that you understand without a shadow of a doubt what you are and are not getting.

Published by Stacey


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