Key Takeaways

  • A manuscript typically requires four levels of editing before it is ready to publish
  • Good editing takes time
  • This article will help you to determine what kind of editor you need
  • Editors can help you with other important aspects of book publishing

You did it—you wrote “the end” on your book! You’ve drafted and re-drafted, revised, self-edited, and are pretty sure it’s as done as you can make it. Your first impulse is to throw the book up onto a self-publishing site as fast as possible or to send out query letters to agents and publishers, right? Hold that thought; you first need to hire a professional editor.

While some agents offer editing services, and a publishing house will assign you an editor if they decide to contract the book, an unpolished manuscript will never make it that far. Before sending it out into the world, you want to ensure your manuscripts are tightly-written, match genre expectations, and deliver a compelling read.

How do you know what types of editing to seek when hiring a professional editor to go over your manuscript?


Once a writer has the final draft (please, not the first draft), a manuscript should undergo a minimum of four levels of editing before it is truly polished and ready to publish:

  1. Developmental or content edits
  2. Substantive or line edits
  3. Copy edits
  4. Proofreading

The reason for the “or” in the labels above is due to a lack of universal labeling of each stage of edit. A writer who has researched this at all will have already discovered this confusion in how different editors or editing services list service levels and pricing. Hopefully, the explanations below will help clear the confusion.

Different editors may specialize in one level of editing or be a “generalist,” an editor who does all levels. Your editor may combine line edits and copy edits within a developmental/content edit; this is often what I do.

1: The Developmental or Content Edit

The first level of editing is developmental, where the editor looks at the big picture content of the story to look for things that are missing or that could be improved.

This can be in the form of a critique or editorial assessment, where no changes are made in the manuscript, but you will receive feedback and advice on plot, setting, character arc, and writing technique. Reasons to seek this level of edit:

  • For early draft content advice
  • You are a self-sufficient writer who can make revisions on your own in manuscripts that are mechanically clean (grammar, style, punctuation, spelling) but want to ensure you haven’t missed plot holes or other big picture issues
  • for smaller budgets

Or you can seek a developmental edit, which means the editor makes changes to the document, often utilizing MS Word’s Track Changes tools to show what they’ve changed. The editor and author must agree upon how much monkeying with the text the editor is expected to do, and the price of the edit will be reflected in the amount of work expected. A developmental edit, sometimes called a heavy edit or moderate edit or content edit, will take a professional the most time out of all levels of editing and may include line edits and even copy edits—this is something to negotiate with the editor prior to signing the contract. Be clear what their services include, how many passes they will make through the work, and how thorough they plan to be. Expect this level of edit to be the most expensive, because doing it well requires not only time to complete, but also years of study and practice and familiarity with publishing trends.

At the development level, whether a critique or edit, the editor evaluates:

  • plot
  • setting
  • character goal, motivation, and internal and external conflicts
  • “white walls” and “talking heads”
  • consistency of point of view (POV) vs. head-hopping
  • time continuity
  • markers of emotion through physiological reaction or non-verbal communication (body language, facial expression, vocal tone)
  • helps writers find their buried power concepts and move them out where the reader can see them easier
  • points out when the text is moving too slowly to hold a reader’s interest (pace issues) and how to change that by rearranging the structure.
  • may suggest that a paragraph of summary be opened up into dialogue
  • may suggest writing a scene onstage for an event readers were told about offstage
  • points out backstory infodumping
  • where the story goes off on a tangent and forgets the direction it was headed
  • whether it begins in the right place
  • whether the manuscript has a satisfactory ending that answers the story questions raised at the beginning
  • point out if chapter lengths are too uneven or do not “hook” in a satisfying way
  • may include fact-checking or flagging questionable items for the author to research.
  • Structure will be compared to genre standards (for example, in romance making sure the hero and heroine meet as near to the beginning as possible and that the full manuscript explores their emotional conflict).

The manuscript is then returned to the author for revisions and approval of the suggested changes. After content revisions, the author will need to consider line edits.

2: The Substantive or Line Edit

The second level of editing is substantive editing or line editing, where the editor looks at paragraph and sentence-level items. The assumption here is the content as described in “developmental editing” above is not in need of major reorganization or correction.  Reasons to seek this level of editing:

  • manuscript is past the developmental phase and ready for clean-up
  • author prefers editor to make the decisions about tightening and fixing.

The editor at this level will:

  • double-check consistency of details in character descriptions and setting
  • ensure varying sentence length and style (including verb tense errors) and varying paragraph openings
  • tighten dialogue attributions
  • cull repetition
  • tighten wordiness
  • alter passive phrasing (appearances of “to be” may be targeted) and run-on sentences
  • hone POV to stamp out remaining head-hopping
  • cut clichés, junk words, unneeded qualifiers, and overused words such as “it” and “that”
  • replace –ly adverbs with stronger verbs
  • make vocabulary suggestions

The line edit can also fix English Second Language (ESL) errors if the client requires it.

The editor returns the marked-up manuscript to the author for revisions and approval of changes. At the end of this revision, the manuscript should no longer require content adjustments.

3: Copy Edit

The third level of editing is copy editing (also written copyediting). The copy editor does not challenge the content; their focus is more narrow. The copy editor is adjusting the text for the following:

  • grammar
  • punctuation
  • spelling
  • consistency of how numbers are written
  • adherence to English style rules (for fiction in the United States, this is Chicago Manual of Style)
  • capitalization
  • correct word usage such as  homonyms/homophone mistakes (words that sound alike but mean different things)
  • missing words
  • verifies consistency of headers, if the work has multiple chapters, as well as presentation of charts, graphs, illustrations, and their captions if there are any of these

The copy editor may leave notes regarding content if they detect something has gone awry in earlier editing stages that still needs your attention for reader comprehension. But this is the final vanguard of your content.

4: Proofread

The final stage of editing for a manuscript is proofreading. Traditionally, before computers, the proofreader compared the printed work with the original manuscript to be sure the typesetter did not introduce any errors. With word processing technology the job has changed somewhat, but the proofreader’s main purpose is to catch

  • typographical errors
  • misspellings
  • missing punctuation or extra punctuation

This is a specialized skill, and I cannot stress enough how important it is to proofread. Like the copy editor, the proofreader ignores content; they hold a magnifying glass to the work, looking at individual trees rather than the forest. We have all read an article or a book where an error of this kind leaps off the page at us. I cringe at book reviews where the reviewer complains about the “editing” when they actually mean the proofreading is not perfect.

No writer can proofread his or her own work effectively. The human brain is an amazing instrument. Once you are familiar with the text, the brain no longer pays attention to what the eyes take in. If a word is missing or switched for another, the brain knows what it meant to say and fills it in—you cannot see typos unless you let the work sit for a few days and go back over it. This is why a second pair of eyes, a fresh brain, to look over your work is essential.

As a developmental editor, I run into this problem as well. I do not proofread, because after I have worked with a manuscript in depth, I am just as familiar with the work as the author is, and I too can miss typos. For best results, you will want someone who has not read any earlier draft to do your proofreading.


Be prepared to wait for a good editor. Asking for a deadline of next week for an edit that likely will take three weeks to do is unrealistic even if an editor is immediately available. While freelance service providers can have unpredictable booking schedules depending on the season, it is best to assume an editor is booked three months or more in advance and query accordingly. If your chosen expert is available earlier—jackpot!

Know that the size of your book is a factor in the wait; it is easier to slip a short story into a full editing schedule than a 190,000-word epic.


Other positions in the publishing world carry the title of “editor,” which can be confusing from the outside.

Editorial assistants are often the people at a publishing house reviewing the slush pile (unsolicited manuscripts) and handing the best of the pile to the acquisitions editor. Be sure to research whether a publishing house accepts unsolicited queries or if they accept only agented submissions before you query. A publishing house may also have beta readers who review the work first before it is passed along; think of them as a standards filter. The beta readers’ notes on the good and bad aspects of the work will be taken seriously.

An acquisitions editor is the person who contracts an author’s work for the publisher. This is the editor who knows what the publisher is looking for, what they want to sell. This is the person the agent contacts at the publisher to sell their client’s work and who takes pitches at conferences.

A line editor (not to be confused with a freelance editor who does line edits) is one of several editors in a publishing house working on a “line” or division within the publishing house. For example, at the romance publisher I worked for, we had different lines for the subgenres of contemporary, Western, paranormal, suspense, historical—and a few further divisions within those groupings. The line editor works directly with the author to make the manuscript fit the publisher’s house style and finite expectations for content, and will coordinate the project with other departments such as art and marketing.

The executive editor is the manager for the line editors in each line.

The editor-in-chief is the head editor in charge of the publishing house or newspaper or magazine. Their job is to ensure all content reflects the values and standards of the company and fulfils their mission statement.

The managing editor at a newspaper or magazine oversees the production process. They manage their staff of editors and set deadlines to make sure the publication is put together on time. Think Perry White of the Daily Planet.

An associate editor, also called a section editor, is below the managing editor. They often manage a covey of writers.


Ask your editor if they can assist with your submission materials before you approach agents and publishers. You will need a blurb or sales description for the book even if you’re self-publishing, one that hooks readers and entices them to buy your product. Editors can help with query letters, synopses, blurbs, elevator pitches, BISAC code or genre classification, keywords. Some can help with formatting. They can point you in the right direction to research agents and publishers or options for self-publishing. Your editor is a vast resource of publishing knowledge—please ask what else they can do to assist in your publishing journey!

Hire an Editor

Formed in 1998 to help protect writers from self-proclaimed “editors” and “proofreaders,” Book Editing Associates exists to connect writers with highly qualified professionals.

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