understanding different types of editing

Source: Nic McPhee

Writing is only a quarter of what goes into making a successful book. Maybe less.

What? Don’t believe me? Writing creates the whole experience, you say? The ultimate experience in a writer’s life is putting “THE END” on the page?

Right. Sure. This is your first book, isn’t it?

Authors wear many, many hats—enough to open an entire hat shop, honestly. Not only do you have to write the book, but you also have to edit and revise it, manage its production, and market the thing when it’s finally ready to go public.

That’s at least four distinct and challenging jobs.

Types of Editing

Luckily, authors get to call upon experts in each field to help them out so they can focus on the writing part—the thing they’re an expert in.

Traditionally, you’d hire out all the other work to one, maybe two sources: your publisher and maybe your agent, if they were inclined toward doing some editing.

Today, though, authors have many more options, and most indie authors choose to establish their own team of experts to produce their books, paying a la carte for services instead of licensing away their rights and accepting an 8-10% cut of the sales in exchange for the publisher handling everything.

But figuring out what help, exactly, you need can be tough—especially in the world of editing, which can sometimes be even more grueling and frustrating than writing the book in the first place!

When it’s time to find a wonderful professional editor, how do you know what types of editing you need for your book in the first place? Editors, like writers, specialize—and not just in genre, but also in the style and depth of editing they do.

Let’s go over the main types of editing so you can figure out what’s best for your project.

developmental editing and editors

Developmental Editing

The first stage after you write a book is developmental editing.

No, strike that. The first stage after you write a book is waiting.

As Stephen King said, “When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.” It’s that step back that’s critical—your book is your baby, and no one else will ever be as close to it as you are.

That’s why you have to get some distance from the manuscript—and also need to call in someone else to take an objective look at it.

This is where a developmental editor comes in.

What Does a Developmental Editor Do?

A developmental editor’s job is to pick apart all the pieces of your manuscript and help you put them back together better and stronger.

A great developmental editor is more of a guide than a collaborator, although you’ll need someone that you get along well with and who can nudge you in the right ways.

Basically, you want someone who can point out the flaws in your writing, as well as the things you’re doing well, and help you figure out ways to fix the things that aren’t working and amp up the things that are.

What a developmental editor shouldn’t do is rewrite your work for you. They can offer suggestions and potential phrasings or possible solutions, but you’re not looking for a ghostwriter here—you’re looking for someone who can teach you how to write better, using your own draft as a learning tool.

Developmental edits focus on the big picture: does your book make sense? Is it missing anything? Does it contain too much?

In fiction, that means looking for plot holes, undeveloped characters, weird pacing, strange jumps in point of view, characters who appear and disappear out of nowhere, inconsistencies, and so on. A great developmental editor will also point out your crutch words and help you polish your writing in general.

In nonfiction, the developmental editor will help make sure that your arguments all line up, that your book flows in a logical fashion, that you’re not missing any key points, and that you’re not spending too much time on any given point. In some cases, the editor will also help you fact-check your research, but that isn’t inherently part of the job.

What Don’t They Do?

In a lot of cases, developmental editors don’t provide copyedits or proofreading (we’ll get to that in a minute). They’re just there to help you whip the structure and function of your book into shape, going over matters of plot, pacing, characterization, and more.

Granted, some aspects of mechanical writing will come into play—if you struggle with certain grammatical rules or spelling issues, that will get addressed—but developmental editors mostly focus on the big picture.

However, some developmental editors will offer a discount or a bundle of services, so you can use the same editor to copyedit your manuscript once you’ve gotten through the developmental revisions and produced a draft you can be proud of.

Developmental editors don’t write the book for you—they’re not ghostwriters. They guide you through looking at your book more objectively, like a reader would, and help teach you the skills you’ll need to improve both this book and future books.

How Does Developmental Editing Work?

A good developmental editor works very closely with an author to refine a draft manuscript.

This usually takes the form of a whole lot of tracked changes and comments within Word or another word processing program.

You should expect to get back a marked-up document that’s got a lot going on in it—and you should expect to spend a lot of time and energy going through each change and question, rewriting huge chunks of your book, adding and deleting scenes, maybe even restructuring the whole book or changing the point of view.

You may also get a “letter from the editor,” a document pointing out bigger items and commenting on the whole reading experience. This sums up the editor’s general assessment of your book, while the marked-up document digs into individual points and details.

It will probably take a few passes to get everything right. Your editor will send you a document loaded with comments and suggestions, and you’ll go to work revising it. You’ll send back the new version. They’ll send back another round of changes and suggestions.

This might take one back-and-forth pass, it might take six. It all depends on the book.

When you’re hiring a developmental editor, be sure that you’re both clear on what exact services the editor provides and how many rounds of revision you’re going to get.

Also check to find out if the editor is willing to accept questions or have conversations about your writing when the project is technically out of their hands—that is, during the copyediting or proofreading phases. You may want input on some idea you have in the middle of the night a month from now!

How Long Does It Take?

Developmental editing is by far the most time-consuming part of the editorial process.

The editor needs to carefully read your entire book and make thoughtful notes. They also need to dig into the details of your book, editing for structure and clarity in Word and making comments and suggestions throughout.

This takes a lot of time and energy!

Plus, then you’ll have to respond to all those questions and suggestions and changes, rewriting your book with the editor’s guidance in mind. This stage can take a lot of time, especially because there will always be edits you don’t agree with and you’ll need to figure out what makes sense to do and what doesn’t based on your unique work and style.

A really skilled, efficient editor can thoughtfully respond to about 800-1,000 words per hour, but can only keep that up for about 3 to 4 hours at a time (editing is hard work!). Some editors may be faster or slower. So obviously this process would take a while for a 90,000-word novel!

How Much Does It Cost?

Every editor charges different rates, naturally.

If you get an editor who’s just starting their career or who’s transitioning from being a publishing house employee to a freelancer, you might be able to get a lower rate than with someone who’s spent 25 years working for the Big 5 and has a huge list of freelance clients.

How editors charge also varies. Some editors charge by the hour, while others charge by the page or the word.

I recommend that new indie authors working with a particular editor for the first time try to find someone who charges by the page or the word—that way, you know exactly how much to budget.

The Editorial Freelancers Association has a super-handy list of average rates so you can see where the quote you’ve been given falls.

In general, a good developmental editor will charge:

  • $50-$60 per hour
  • $15-$25 per page
  • 6-10 cents per word

Expect a standard novel to cost anywhere from $3,500 to $9,000 for developmental edits done by a skilled professional. If possible, make sure that this price includes copy edits and proofreading for the final draft!

copy editing line editing

Copy or Line Editing

Copy editing and line editing are two ways of referring to the same basic procedure.

This next part of the editorial process picks up where developmental editing left off.

After you’ve gone through a few rounds of revision (both editing on your own and working with a developmental editor to address issues you didn’t spot yourself), you’ll be left with a clean draft.

In some cases, you’ll come through your writing process with a pretty good draft. You may be able to self-edit and work with beta readers or a writer’s group to refine your first attempts without paying a developmental editor. If that’s the case, you can head straight into copy editing.

What Does a Copy Editor Do?

A copy editor looks for mechanical, rather than stylistic or structural, issues.

“Mechanical” writing issues are things like grammar problems, capitalization errors, spelling glitches, and word choice problems.

This is where the “line editing” name comes in—copy editors go line by line through your manuscript hunting for glitches.

Think of this like spellcheck on steroids: you’ll get insight into homophone errors, problems with phrasing or spelling, missing words, funky capitalization or paragraph breaks, and more.

A great copy editor will also look for the use of passive voice, too much use of italics or other emphasis, and other things that might detract from your book.

What Don’t They Do?

Copy editors don’t provide you with an overall view of the quality, structure, pacing, etc. of your book—that’s for a developmental editor.

They might leave little notes about something that doesn’t make sense, but it’s not strictly part of the process. They’re there solely to make sure that your writing is technically sound.

How Does Copy Editing Work?

Much like a developmental editor, a copy editor will go through your manuscript in Word and make a ton of changes using the Track Changes feature. This will allow you to see everything they’ve suggested and to accept or reject the changes.

It’s best to go through all these changes carefully, because there will always be things that you don’t agree with or want to look into a little more.

Feel free to accept or reject changes as you choose, but remember—you paid for copy editing because you wanted a professional-quality book that would impress readers and present your work in the best possible light. Your copy editor is an expert, and their advice should count.

How Long Does It Take?

Copy editing is faster than developmental editing because it’s less focused on big-picture issues that take a lot of thought and time to figure out solutions to.

Instead, by focusing on details that have clear right-and-wrong forms, copy editors can scoot through a manuscript pretty quickly.

A good copy editor can do about 1,500 to 2,000 words, or about 6 to 8 pages, per hour. As always, some editors may be faster or slower than this.

How Much Does It Cost?

Copy editing is a bit cheaper than developmental editing, again because of the differences in time and effort involved.

For the most part, you can expect to pay:

  • $30-$50 per hour
  • $3-$5 per page
  • 3-5 cents per word

A standard novel will often cost about $1,000 to $2,500 to copy edit thoroughly, but you can sometimes find freelancers willing to work on well-developed, previously edited manuscripts for under $1,000.

proofreading and how it works


Once you’ve gotten your manuscript whipped into tip-top shape, it’s time to start thinking about proofreading.

If you’ve had your book professionally edited already, I recommend doing the proofreading after you’ve had it laid out for publication.

The layout and formatting process almost always inserts a few errors into the text—that’s just the way it goes. Proofreading at the end of the process helps you catch these glitches and any other mistakes that may have survived your previous rounds of editing.

It also gives you a chance to review the book when it looks a little different from a default Word format on your screen—and those visual differences, believe it or not, do often let you catch errors that slipped past before!

What Does a Proofreader Do?

A proofreader checks your manuscript for any and all errors related to its final display. That means missing words, spelling errors, strange sentence or paragraph breaks, messed-up formatting, or other goofs.

Think of this as the general quality-control phase. The heavy lifting of structural, content, and style editing has been done; the grammar has been fine-tuned; and everything is basically in good shape. Now you’re just trying to make sure that there’s no chips or scratches on the final product.

What Don’t They Do?

Proofreaders don’t comment on style, structure, pacing, or other big-picture items.

Often, they don’t even offer grammatical suggestions. They’re focused exclusively on making sure that your book is as error-free as possible…not that it makes sense or engages the reader.

How Does Proofreading Work?

Because proofreading a book often takes place after the layout is done, this one doesn’t happen in Word.

Instead, the proofreader will take either your physical proof copy or your “soft” PDF proof and mark that up.

Some proofreaders will make changes using proofreader’s marks, a series of scribbles and squiggles that mean certain things or indicate certain actions you need to do.

But because most freelance proofreaders now work with indie authors and others outside the publishing industry, this arcane language is starting to phase out.

Instead, modern proofreaders often use the built-in editing functions in Adobe Reader or other PDF tools.

You’ll get back a PDF marked up with highlights, sticky notes, and strikeout/replacement notes indicating what needs to be done. If you were thorough during copy edits and careful during layout, you may not have a lot to fix. Still, even a great copy editor is human, so you may see more corrections than you anticipated when another set of eyes goes over your final proof!

Some proofreaders also provide a spreadsheet of corrections, particularly when working with an ebook proof. This will list out the page and line where the error appears, the phrases on either side of it, and the problem itself, as well as how to correct it. Including all this information makes it easy to use the Find function to locate and resolve the error.

How Long Does It Take?

Proofreading can be done much more quickly and efficiently than other types of editing, because the proof the editor is working from should be in pretty good shape already.

Expect your proofreader to be able to get through about 2,500 to 3,000 words per hour, or around 10 to 12 pages per hour.

You shouldn’t see too many errors, so implementing the corrections shouldn’t take you more than an hour or two.

How Much Does It Cost?

Proofreading is a critical part of the editing process, because it’s the last check for errors before you actually put your book on sale. As a result, it’s not something you should skimp on!

That said, proofreading is also the one place where you can think about using volunteers to help you out. The more sets of eyes you have on a document, the more likely you are to find all the errors—though there’s always some that slip past, even in Big 5 publishing houses.

Consider rounding up a few beta readers, friends, or family members to help proofread your final version once it’s been laid out and ask them to point out any errors they find. Having about 3-5 people look over your final proof gives you a good chance at catching any problems that might have slipped through.

But professional proofreading help is even more likely to find those glitches. Expect to pay:

  • $20-$35 per hour
  • $1-$2.50 per page
  • 1-2 cents per word

Proofreading a completed book that’s been formatted and laid out will generally cost around $500 to $750, though you can often find proofreaders who will work for less and some online proofreading services are very affordable.

A well-edited book better expresses your point, looks more professional, and better engages readers. Take the time to find the right editor who provides the type of editing you need and watch your reviews go from “meh” to glowing in no time!

Did you find this post helpful? Let us know in the comments below!

Read on to learn more about what it takes to craft a professional book: