Demystifying the Levels of Fiction Editing (a bit) 

Traditional publishing

We can all agree that traditional publishing has helped to create a massive amount of lovely, polished novels, and it’s worth understanding that any manuscript that gets published through this system receives several levels of editing—developmental, line, and copy until it reaches proofreading—and that these levels are performed by different editors. (You’ll note that the more famous the author—I’m looking at you, Stephen—the denser and voluminous the novel becomes!) There are two major sides to writing and editing a solid novel: one is prose and the other is story structure.

Disclaimer, my own definitions will vary from others and I won’t be explaining them exactly in the correct order of actual editing practice. Read at your own risk!

The editing levels of prose explained (and possibly oversimplified)

  • Proofreading: This is the term most people know—and believe they have an accurate definition for. Here is what a traditional proofreading actually means: for the love of God, DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING. Just make sure that the punctuation, spelling, and grammar are okay and get the f**k out, cause making changes usually introduces more errors. So, basically a proofreading is the last and final edit that your manuscript should receive, and it’s only about minor details. 

  • Proof-editing: this is the love-child of a copy edit and proofread, which might occur when the manuscript needs more work than the editor or author originally expected. Or sometimes it’s just the type of edit some editors actually mean when they offer a proofreading service.

  • Copy editing: the rules of grammar and punctuation are generally applied, or purposefully ignored, and consistency is the number one priority, and these consistency choices are recorded on a style sheet. For example, is the spelling choice whiskey or whisky? Numbers—spelled out or numerals? Should certain words be hyphenated, open or closed?  Oxford comma? (Some editors may give you the style sheet and an editorial report along with your edited manuscript—I do!—and others don’t.)

  • Light, medium, heavy copy editing: I don’t know. I really don’t. My guess is it has something to do with how far an individual editor is prepared to take an edit, and also how much work a manuscript actually needs.

  • Line or stylistic edit: these two terms are synonymous. This edit is all about communicating clearly with your reader while retaining your voice. Sometimes the editor will make the changes herself and sometimes she’ll only comment or make suggestions. The types of issues addressed at this level are wordiness, deleting/revising repeated words and phrases, clarifying scenes if, for example, at the beginning a new location isn’t stated or perhaps not all characters present are mentioned. Sometimes an editor will even go a step further and offer comments about character development or even plot, as long as it can be revised within the scene with a line or two.

  • Line and copy editing: many freelance editors provide this service together. You’ll find some editors who swear that both these services could never possibly be performed at the same time and done properly, while others always mean both with their offer of a “copy edit.” Check out my line/copy editing approach if you’d like to know about how I personally handle this type of edit.

The editing levels of story structure explained (and possibly oversimplified)

  • Book doctoring, developmental editing, content editing, structural editing, substantive editing: all these terms pretty much mean the same damn thing. What this type of edit does, besides a serious contraction of the sphincter muscle, is ask an author to potentially revise and even rewrite chunks of their manuscript. This is done with an editorial report—about ten to twenty-five pages long—which will comment on plot, the subplots, the characters, their individual arcs, goals, motivation, conflict, tension, resolution, and quite a bit more. The most painful bit of this process is the domino effect, where a slight revision in one story line causes a number of necessary changes that are buried within the manuscript and must be located. A scene list—a short summary of each scene, chapter by chapter—is so useful for this, which is a document some editors offer—I do!—and others don’t. In a manuscript that has been developmentally edited, there should be comments and examples that support the editorial report in more detail. (There will be no punctuation or grammar corrections made at this time.) You can check out my developmental editing approach if you’d like to know more about how I handle this, personally.

  • Manuscript critique: this edit offers only the editorial report, leaving the manuscript itself completely untouched. It usually costs less than a full developmental edit and can be a great way to save on cost if you’re an author who can already self-edit well.

Hopefully, this guide has demystified the fiction editing levels (a bit!) and armed you with enough baseline knowledge to prepare you for an expedition into the Mariana Trench-sized rabbit hole of searching for the perfect edit for your manuscript.