In my experience, many writers don’t know the difference between developmental editing, copy editing, and proofreading. To further muddy things, a developmental edit may also be called a content edit, or a substantive edit, or even a full edit or a deep edit. So where to start? Before we get into what these terms mean, I say, start with how you feel about your manuscript.
Do you want to make the story as compelling as possible? Let’s talk about a developmental edit. This is the level of editing where the editor will likely ask questions that bring up major opportunities in how you’ve told your story. It might mean significant revision, or it might mean tweaks that fit in the existing story. This is not the right edit for someone who feels their manuscript is done, but in my experience this is the only level of editing that can make the difference between a book that shows potential and a book that truly has a chance to catch and keep the attention of readers.
On the other hand, if your book is already pretty polished, you’re likely more interested in a copy edit or a proofread. What’s the difference? A copy edit goes deeper. The copy editor looks at the story’s language and may keep an eye out for story inconsistencies, place names or character names that accidentally change, mistakes in geography or historical details, or other problems. Proofreading is the lightest edit, and focuses on language, grammar, and punctuation. The difference between copy editing and proofreading can vary somewhat between editors, so ask your editor what her services are.
And for any writer who isn’t sure what they want, I recommend asking for a professional’s recommendation. Here’s the other thing I think many writers feel as they try to decide what level of editing to get. Maybe they’re tired of looking at their manuscript–hence the goal of getting someone else to look at it. The idea of going back in and spending more time might make a writer want to run for the hills. This experience is entirely normal. It’s very common to feel fatigue and uncertainty when you complete a draft, whether it’s the first draft or the umpteenth revision draft.
Whether or not you choose to work with an editor, consider taking a few weeks or a few months away. Work on something else in the meantime. When you come back to your manuscript, you’ll bring a fresh perspective. This is also an option for any writer who feels unsure about their next steps.