The four stages of editing

When I find myself answering a question frequently, it’s time to blog about it. Many writers ask, “What’s the difference between developmental editing and copyediting?” Or, “Does a substantive edit include proofreading?” What these questions have in common is some confusion about the four separate stages of manuscript editing. A manuscript that goes from draft to published book must pass through each. We editors use the following terms for these stages:

1. Structural editing: Big changes to the plot or character development. Sometimes writers know how to do this on their own, sometimes not, and if not, we editors write a helpful critique to aid in revision.

2. Substantive editing: A heavy line edit that improves clarity and flow, and sometimes cuts or moves passages as needed to ensure a strong scene. (When I perform this service, it also includes a critique with insights on how readers will respond to your story.)

3. Copyediting: A lighter, line edit done after the big edits are complete, and includes final polishing, fixing of minor mistakes, and reading for utter perfection.

4. Proofreading: An essential final step before a manuscript proceeds to print (i.e., if you’re self-publishing, or before your publisher sends the final manuscript to the printing press), best performed by a different person. Proofreading is a different skill, akin to finding a few needles in a haystack, to ensure that there are no remaining typos.

With most clients, I perform either #1 or #2 on a manuscript. Very polished manuscripts get #3. Pre-press manuscripts go to my hawk-eyed proofreader, Babs Griswold.

The most important principle to understand is that editing cannot be performed in one fell swoop, for the simple reason that it is pointless to scrupulously proofread a chapter that may not have a place in the final version of a novel. The direction of editing flows from story structure, to artful writing, to stylistic perfection, to typographical perfection; and to get the most out of working with a freelance editor, it is wise to get an accurate assessment of where your manuscript falls on this spectrum, and plan for each of the editing phases thereafter.

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