Types of Editing

Nassau Hedron,—Updated 15 September 2014


A properly edited manuscript is essential to meeting readers’ expectations of professionalism and quality. While some authors choose to rely entirely on self-editing (see our series on Self-Editing), others will refine their manuscript further by working with a professional editor.

To get the most out of working with an editor, you need to define your goals and communicate them clearly, which means understanding some basic editing terminology. This article describes the types of editing used by indie authors along with the names editors typically use for each type of work.

What is Proofreading?

In print publishing, proofreading means reviewing a “proof,” which is a test version of a book that’s printed in one or two copies before printing thousands of commercial copies to sell to the public.

When an editor proofreads, they compare the author’s original manuscript against the printed proof in order to make sure that no mistakes have crept into the book as it was prepared for publication by the publisher, for instance when it was typeset.

In professional e-book publishing, proofreading is typically part of the e-book production process, rather than being a separate paid service. Proofreading usually takes place during a larger QA (quality assurance) phase when other features of the e-book (such as links) are also tested.

It’s important to know that copy editing (see below) is sometimes referred to as proofreading. As far as professional terminology goes this isn’t right, but authors and editors often use the term proofreading in this way, so you should be aware of it.

What is Copy Editing?

When an editor copy edits your work, for the most part they’re doing three things: making corrections, ensuring that your writing has a consistent style, and flagging items to be checked for accuracy.

Making Corrections

The first element is pretty much what it sounds like. If you have spelling errors, or if you’ve misused punctuation or made some other mistake, the editor will fix it. Even the pickiest writer can miss errors in their own work, and one job of the editor is to take a fresh look at the text in order to ensure that mistakes are caught and corrected.

Applying a Style

The second element may be less obvious. When we talk about ensuring a consistent style, the word “style” doesn’t refer to the artistic way in which a writer expresses themselves, but to a technical kind of consistency.

In many cases there’s more than one correct way to write something. When there’s a choice between two or more equally correct options, the important thing is to ensure that you’re consistent, rather than doing something one way in Chapter One and another way—just as correct, but different—in Chapter Two. Being inconsistent is distracting for the reader and can make it look like you’re making mistakes even when you’re not.

When a copy editor applies a style, they use a style guide or style manual, like the Chicago Manual of Style or the Associated Press Style Guide. You may want to get the editor’s help in choosing which style to follow, but ultimately the decision will be yours and the editor will apply the style that you specify.

What sort of issues do the style guides deal with? There are hundreds, but let’s take one famous example: the serial comma (or Oxford comma).

When you have a list that includes more than two items, there are two ways you can punctuate your list. One is “A, B, and C.” In this version the comma just before the “and” is the serial comma. The other way is “A, B and C.” In this version there is no serial comma.

Whether you include a comma or not may seem like a small, fairly unimportant point, until you see the difference in action. For instance, here’s a typical example, taken to absurd lengths, that demonstrates the advantages of using the serial comma.

With:We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin.
Without:We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.

With the serial comma in place, it’s clear that there were at least four people invited: some strippers, as well as John F. Kennedy and Joseph Stalin. Without the serial comma, what the sentence says is that the strippers were John F. Kennedy and Joseph Stalin. The absurd contents of the sentence make the difference funny, but the exercise makes the serious point that choices about small matters like punctuation can have a profound effect on whether or not you’re saying what you actually mean.

Demonstrations of the shortcomings of the serial comma tend to be less dramatic, but here’s an example. In this scenario, “the donor of the cup” is not one of the people who is named in the sentence—his name isn’t given.

With:Those at the ceremony were the commodore, the fleet captain, the donor of the cup, Mr. Smith, and Mr. Jones.
Without:Those at the ceremony were the commodore, the fleet captain, the donor of the cup, Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones.

When a serial comma is used between “the donor of the cup” and “Mr. Smith,” it seems as if Mr. Smith is the donor of the cup, which he isn’t. Without the serial comma, it’s clearer that the donor of the cup is someone else, whose name isn’t given.

Grammatically neither using a serial comma nor omitting it is more correct, despite the fact that each style has passionate advocates. The Chicago Manual of Style says to include the serial comma, while the AP Guide says to leave it out.

As an author you’re free to choose which style (or style guide) you want to use. If you go with serial commas, then the copy editor will make sure that it’s serial commas from beginning to end with no variation. If you banish them, the copy editor will make sure no stray serial commas make it into the text.

Flagging Items To Be Checked

Finally, the third thing a copy editor will do is identify things that should be checked for accuracy and either check them (if possible) or send you a query about them (if the editor can’t check on their own).

What sorts of things? Common examples include the spelling of place names, the titles of artistic works (like books, movies, and paintings), and the wording of quotations from notable people.

More About Copy Editing

If you want to get a more detailed idea of what’s involved in copy editing, I recommend taking a look at the professional editorial standards for copy editing set out by the Editor’s Association of Canada. There’s no one body in the world that defines the different types of editing and decides what components go into each type, but this is a good example of the kinds of things a copy editor must be competent to do.

What is Stylistic Editing (or Substantive Editing)?

When an editor edits content, this means that they get right into the meat of the writing. They may suggest changes in wording within a sentence, or moving a paragraph from one spot to another, or even restructuring the book by changing the order of the chapters. There are two main types of content editing: stylistic editing and developmental editing (see below).

Stylistic editing (sometimes called substantive editing) involves going beyond the technical issues addressed by copy editing and looking at some of the artistic choices made by the writer with regard to clarity, flow, and overall language use. The editor is not just looking at using language correctly, but at using it effectively.

Stylistic editing is often carried out at the same time as copy editing (at for instance, our stylistic edit automatically includes a copy edit).


Editing for clarity touches on many aspects of writing. For instance, is it obvious who’s saying and doing what, or are there places where the reader might have to stop and figure this out? Do we easily see how the characters get from place to place, or do they seem to pop up here and there without explanation? If there are fictional elements that don’t have a real world counterpart—like a magic ring or a faster-than-light spaceship—are these things presented in a way that allows us to understand what they do and how they’re supposed to work? These are just a few examples of the types of issues an editor looks at regarding clarity.


With regard to flow, the editor will ask themselves whether or not the sentences run together in a natural way, and whether the paragraphs and chapters follow smoothly from one to the next, looking for places where the flow is interrupted or the pace changes unexpectedly.

Editing for flow involves assessing sentence structure and word choice to make sure the pace of the writing is appropriate. For instance, the beginning of Chapter One might be made up of fast-paced, short, choppy sentences, while the second half is written in a slower, more poetic style. If this is done for effect, and done well, it can be effective, but if done unintentionally it can be disorienting for the reader and the editor will recommend a change.


Finally, is the overall use of language appropriate for the likely readers of the work? This can involve different considerations, but the goal is always to make sure that the reader is at ease with the writing.

For instance, with a young adult or children’s book, the editor would help to ensure that the vocabulary is at the right level for the age of the readers. With a non-fiction book written by an expert for a general reader, the editor will check to be sure that technical jargon is kept to a minimum, or might suggest adding a glossary so that readers can look up terms they don’t understand.

More About Stylistic Editing

As with copy editing, I recommend taking a look at the professional editorial standards for stylistic editing set out by the Editor’s Association of Canada. This is a good examination of the issues that come up in this type of edit.

What is Developmental Editing (or Structural Editing)?

Finally, there’s developmental editing (also called structural editing). The name comes from the fact that the editor is involved in the development of the final version of the story itself, rather than making refinements to the writing while leaving the story intact.

Developmental editing should not be done at the same time as copy editing or stylistic editing, because developmental editing generally involves a degree of rewriting and copy editing and stylistic editing should, as much as possible, be done after any major rewrites have been completed.

For example, if your editor suggests moving Chapter Seven of your book to a spot earlier in the story, so that it now becomes Chapter Three, then you may well have to rewrite the end of Chapter Two so that it and the new Chapter Three will flow naturally together. When you do that rewriting, you’re creating fresh text that needs to be copy edited (and, if you choose, stylistically edited), so there’s no point in doing these edits before the developmental editing is done—they should be done afterward.

A developmental edit can work in a number of ways, depending on the author’s needs.

Examples of Developmental Edits

Sometimes you’ll finish a draft of a book and you can tell it could be better, but you don’t know exactly what it needs. In this case, you might want to invite an editor to look for anything they think might improve it.

Or you might not have the draft completely finished. You have most of the book done, but you’re not sure how to get from the big climax halfway through to the resolution in the final chapter—something has to happen in there, but you’re not sure what would work best. You might have several ideas, or you might have run into a wall and you have no idea at all. Either way, a developmental editor may be able to help.

Or you might imagine that the story would work better if it didn’t simply go from point “A” to point “B” to point “C” and so on to the end. You think it might be a good idea to start with a dramatic point from partway through the story, and then flash back to the start and work your way forward, but you’re not sure whether this would work or exactly how to go about it. A developmental editor can’t write your book for you, but they may be able to make suggestions about which point would be good for the opening, and about how to tie that opening back into the flow of events.

One more possibility is that you’ve written the book in the third person past tense (“Peter walked down the hall and a man stepped out of the shadows”), but you think it might be more dramatic in the first person past tense (“As I walked down the hall, a man stepped out of the shadows”) or in the first person present tense (“As I walk down the hall a man steps out of the shadows”). Each possibility has certain strengths and weaknesses, but maybe you’re not sure which is best. Or maybe you’ve decided on a change but aren’t sure how to make the transition in the most effective way possible.

All of these are examples of situations in which a developmental edit can help you create the strongest version of your book.

More About Developmental Editing

As with the previous types of editing, I recommend taking a look at the professional editorial standards for structural editing set out by the Editor’s Association of Canada to help you get an idea of how this type of editing works.

Specialty Editing

All the services listed above are fairly standard and, under one name or another, they’re offered by most editors. At the same time, there’s nothing preventing you from asking for a custom service if you think it will help your book.

For instance, if you’re great at writing plot but not as good at writing realistic dialogue, you might ask your editor to make suggestions that will help bring the dialogue to life. If you’ve written a story set in a particular historical period, you might seek out an editor familiar with the period and ask for their input on the historical details.


This brief summary should orient you to the main types of editing used by indie authors, as well as some of the relevant terminology. If you encounter an editing term you don’t understand, try checking our Indie Publishing and E-Publishing Glossary. If you still have a question after checking the glossary, don’t hesitate to contact us.

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