Editing can vary from deciding if the writer’s assembled content actually constitutes a book to spotting that last small typo before publishing. Because editors can’t find and fix every kind of problem in one pass, they work in phases, beginning with a macro view of the manuscript and then narrowing the focus to individual words. The earlier phases are the most labor-intensive and costly, and editors may specialize in some kinds of editing and not others.
Developmental editing evaluates the whole manuscript. You may also hear the terms “book doctoring” or “manuscript assessment.” (Some editors consider developmental and substantive editing the same, but I disagree.) A developmental editor looks at what you’ve written and asks if there’s a book there yet. For nonfiction, is the content complete? Is more research needed? Does the writer understand the audience for the book? Is there a tight focus? In fiction, multiple problems may call for developmental editing, such as too many characters or confusion about which character is the protagonist. Perhaps the plot or the narrative voice needs a lot of work. Some editors want to see a complete manuscript, while others will look at a work-in-progress. Some will even consult with you to decide how best take your content and turn it into a book.
Substantive or content editors also focus on the manuscript at a macro level, but they usually look at your best final draft. Is the content organized? Readable? Logical? For nonfiction, especially manuscripts with multiple authors, is there a consistent voice and tone throughout? In fiction, are there plot holes? Do the characters act in believable ways? Does the dialogue match with the characters? Is the narrative voice consistent?
The next type of editing is called line or copy editing. The editor examines the book at a micro level, focusing on sentences or paragraphs. This editing polishes your work, eliminating wordiness and smoothing awkward sentence constructions. The editor checks for repetition or errors in grammar, punctuation, and usage. The editor may also look for consistency in headings, numbers, and captions, along with adherence to a style guide. In historical fiction, the editor checks for anachronistic words and dialogue.
After the writer revises the manuscript and formatting is complete, the last step before publication is proofreading. A proofreader checks for minor errors or typos that were either missed in line editing or introduced during formatting. These mistakes may include errors in capitalization, spelling, and style.
Understanding the different kinds of editing allows you to talk knowledgeably with editors about what they offer and use your resources wisely.