Choosing the Best Editing Level
Updated: Sep 16
Whether you’ve developed a book manuscript over a few years or fast tracked it into six months, at some point, you’re likely to consider getting your work edited. After all, it’s hard to keep a proper perspective on whether what’s in your head matches what’s on the page. Given that even dedicated bibliophiles max out at reading about one book a month, providing them with a compelling narrative that isn’t dragged down by spelling errors and such should also bring more readers into your fold.
Based on what stage of manuscript development you are in (for essays and other long-form content too), here are factors to consider before hiring an editor. I have included descriptions of the types of editing-related services available to you.
It’s possible you’re unsure of whether your draft needs wholesale revisions before refining the text. If you’re early on in the project and not on a tight publishing deadline or budget, consider hiring an editor to do a manuscript evaluation. The evaluator will review the big picture elements that help your manuscript gel. Among the elements they’ll consider is whether certain information would work better in an earlier or later section to help readers follow your ideas, whether transitions between sections have been added appropriately and work smoothly, and if sections need to be beefed up or winnowed down. In addition, an editor will consider the author’s voice and tone, and elements such as character development (even non-fiction books have main characters to consider, such as a book focused on advances in Artificial Intelligence, or the physics of floods).
Basic manuscript evaluations, aka manuscript critiques or reviews, aren’t about the editor suggesting how to make specific changes in all cases. Instead, they’ll write up a multi-page summary of the elements that are working well and those that need work, often referencing some passages as examples of a pattern that is bogging the text down.
More detailed manuscript evaluations will involve longer summaries, and often will include call-outs as comments in the text to show you exactly where things went awry and some approaches to addressing them. Depending on their skill set, an in-depth evaluator may also discuss factors like your audience and the work’s potential market.
When it comes to evaluating the nitty gritty, a separate editing step or more is traditionally done to consider line-by-line issues (though I or another manuscript evaluator should be able to give you a quick read on whether such editing would be recommended).
If you’re early manuscript hasn’t come together well for a variety of reasons, you might want to hire an author coach as the next step if funds allow (this tends to be the most hands-on, and most expensive, editing-related offering). Depending on the coach, they may offer tips on steps such as improving your writing habits; or they may offer such advice and be an editor who can work beside you and provide as-you-go advice to develop the manuscript piece by piece.
Completed Manuscript Edits
If the work feels fairly far along, or you can’t afford a front-end evaluation, seek out an editor who does developmental and copy editing, and get a bid for having either or both done. Professional editing helps to improve the odds of developing the best book possible as part of reflecting your personal image. Unless you’ve done a fair bit of up-front work, it wouldn’t be surprising to benefit from a developmental step and then some level of copy editing. But ultimately, the decision is yours. Here’s my breakdown on what these steps involve (be sure to ask an editor what they specifically do for each level of editing, though, because individual approaches vary):
Developmental editing is, in effect, a detailed manuscript evaluation where the suggestions have been applied by an editor. If a book was compared to a train being built from the ground up, the developmental editor is the one who helps ensure the frames for the cars are built to spec, the head lights and horn of the locomotive work, etc. A developmental edit (also called a structural edit, or sometimes, confusingly, a line edit) covers the overall content structure, with deletions or reworking of sections occurring to improve the content, and consideration of the content’s overall clarity and cohesion (such as ensuring that a chronological memoir doesn't have unexplained, noticeable gaps in time if the same time period is fleshed out routinely elsewhere). In some cases, what one editor calls a heavy copy edit will mirror another editor’s developmental edit. Developmental edits cost more on average than copyedits because of the complexity of whole-scale thinking about a manuscript.
Copy editing, also sometimes called line editing, gets into the details of how sentences are structured and paragraphs connect to each other and so on; that is, it is line-by-line evaluation of text. It’s akin to checking that the interior lighting is consistent in all of a train’s cars, and the seats have the same comfort level and coloring – all to give the reader a smooth “ride.” Besides checking if you’ve used proper grammar and punctuation, and used a consistent style for headlines and such, a copy (i.e. content) editor calls out elements such as best word choices, how consistent your sentences and paragraphs are, whether the sentence-level text flows well and passages are clear and lack logic gaps.
Certified editors like me might offer three levels of copy editing. The lighter the copy edit, the lower the cost — but also the more instances in which the author will be left to decide how to address an issue that’s been identified. For instance, in a medium copy edit, content that could use restructuring tends to be pointed out to the author, but not restructured by the editor.
Your book may be a family history one sent to a dozen or so loved ones, in which case a light edit may be good enough. If you plan to share your work publicly and a prospective editor suggests at least a medium edit, I'd take that into serious consideration. A heavy edit, if recommended, would likely help if you simply want the best book you can get, or you're gunning to get book reviews, to enter book competitions and such (keeping in mind that it's still hard to get reviews with a self-published book as a new author).
Ask whether a prospective editor checks outside sources for the accuracy of facts or not, as that coverage varies; fact checking does become more common with a heavy edit (though editors should point out any internal inconsistencies within a document regardless of the editing level).
Now, back to line editing. Some consider this a subcategory of copy editing because it also involves reviewing text line by line. In this case, though, the emphasis is on improving the style of prose and other matters that get in the way of the author's voice and a compelling story. The approach can overlap with copy editing, such as when repetitive words are pointed out. But it takes a different focus to look at writing primarily for the rhythm of the language, how well word choices match the mood being created, and things like whether parts of a scene could be tightened up to meet readers' needs while moving the story along.
As an aside, you might save money by doing prep steps on your manuscript before handing it over for whatever editing level you chose. In all but simpler manuscript critiques, your editor should provide a copy of the manuscript with their edits visible for your consideration. Editors usually use Comment bubbles or query in some other way about edits where they may have misinterpreted your meaning. Some editors like me will offer a follow-up conversation by email or phone/video to ensure you understand their edits.
At traditional publishers, a book will go through proofreading steps after any developmental and copyediting stages. Proofing is a final catch-all step to check for glaring errors, such as double periods at the end of a sentence, misspelled words, a misnumbered page or a headline that’s in a different style than all other headlines. It’s very common for a few grammar glitches and more to be caught.
As an indie author, it could be tempting to skip the proofing step and just run Spell Check and purchase software to flag potential grammar gaffes. But passing on this step is risky; editing software often can’t pick up certain errors, such as the fact that you had mistakenly used feat while referring to your lower appendages. That’s why even seasoned writers hire proofreaders.
I do recommend hiring one person for copyediting and another for proofreading if possible. Though it’s less hassle to hire just one editor, and I offer that when clients prefer it, a new set of eyes may catch something the initial editor overlooked. In fact, a publishing house I’ve worked for has a pre-proofreading step done by one expert right before a book is formatted, and a final proofread by another after layout is done.
In the end, decisions about what level of editing to pursue boil down to your budget and comfort level. Given that more than 1 million books came out nationally in 2017 alone, though, it pays to have a self-published book that gets noticed because it reads as professionally as traditionally published ones.
By Barbra A. Rodriguez