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What does an editor do? 3 distinct roles, 5 powerful benefits. 

 October 31, 2020

By  Sue Brown-Moore

What does an editor do?

Editors make books better. Editors breathe life into a story. 

Editors hack up drafts and suck the life out of a writer's voice. Editors partner with writers to protect and amplify their storytelling voices.

The best editors only work for big-name publishers. Freelance editors open up possibilities for indie and trad authors. 

Editing is about so much more than spelling and grammar or who you know.

Your relationship with your editors should not be about fear or popularity or simply marking up words.

What does an editor do? Here are the basics.

Editing is an essential part of the writing and publishing process, but sorting out what, when, why, how, and where can be daunting. In this article, we'll cover all the basics you need to know about fiction book editing (plus 5 powerful benefits) so you can write your best. damn. story. ever.

Short on time? Download the recap of this article while you read: Download your Editing Master Guide to start building your freelance dream team, then schedule your edits with confidence! 

So what does an editor really do?

Depends on who you ask! And what industry you're in. While the concept of editing is pretty much the same across disciplines, the process of editing can vary greatly. A book editor is not the same as a video editor is not the same as a sound editor.

But you're here for writing advice, so let's keep this simple. In this article, we're only talking about book editors. Specifically, fiction book editors. (And, yes, that matters.)

Did you know that some authors self-publish without ever working with an editor? Or send off their proposals to publishers without a second opinion?

Britney spears cringing (don't publish without an editor!)

You only get one chance to make a first impression, so make it count! Even if you're an established author, don't risk damaging your brand in the name of shortcuts and savings. Keep reading to find out why it's critical for you to work with a professional editor and learn the basics for yourself.

Know someone who's tempted to self-publish or submit a proposal without hiring an editor? Here's why that's a huge mistake (and a pro tip on scheduling your freelance edits). #amediting #amwriting Click To Tweet

We'll also talk about:

Don't miss my visual template for scheduling your edits, complete with a detailed checklist to help you vet potential editors! (In a hurry? Download the checklist right now!)

On to the good stuff. (Seriously. Editing is fun!)

What you need to know about editors and editing books

What you need to know about editors

If you asked Merriam-Webster exactly what an editor is, you'd get definitions that describe vastly different types of editors:

to prepare an edition of : select, emend, revise, and compile (as literary material) to make suitable for publication or for public presentation

and

to alter, adapt, or refine especially to bring about conformity to a standard or to suit a particular purpose

Totally straightforward... right? (Uh, no, not really.)

And to toss even more confusion into the editing arena, there are in-house editors and freelance editors (sometimes called independent editors). Here's a quick breakdown:

  • Freelance editors work for themselves. Authors hire them directly. Working with this type of editor gives you the most freedom to build your personal creative dream team and zero in on getting the feedback that is right for you. If you're an indie author or planning to self-publish, hiring freelance editors is really your only option.
  • In-house editors work for a publishing company. There are enough distinct editing roles within a publishing house to make your eyes cross, so we'll just focus on freelancers today. When you publish with a house, they make many of the staffing and creative decisions for you. Traditional publishing is best suited to authors who just want to write and let someone else handle the detailed business decisions.
Why you need to work with an editor for your books

Why do I need to work with an editor?

A more important question than 'What does an editor do?' is 'Why do I need an editor?'

In the purest definition, you can think of editors as the guardians of your author brand. They understand the trends, norms, and expectations of their genre. They can predict some mistakes before you make them, then spot even the tiniest inconsistency by the time you've churned out that final draft masterpiece.

Editors are the guardians of your storytelling voice and brand. Shout out to an #editor who makes your work better! #amwriting #amediting Click To Tweet

No editor is perfect. Even if you work with a team of a dozen professionals, your finished story is likely to have some sort of error or shortcoming. But that's okay. Fiction readers might expect perfection, but what they really want is to feel.

So, do you need an editor? Couldn't you just learn all the editing skills yourself? Of course! And you should do at least some of the groundwork, even if you hire a full team of word wizards. 

But, as the author of your own work, the one thing you will never have is fresh perspective. And editors can help you define, develop, and protect your reputation as an author. There are five distinct and powerful benefits you're missing out on if you don't hire professionals.

An author will never have fresh perspective on their own work. Editors help define, develop, and protect your reputation. Hire the best-for-you editors you can afford. #amediting #amwriting Click To Tweet

Do you know there are three types of fiction editors and editing types?

What are the three types of fiction editing?

Focusing on freelancers, what do Merriam-Webster's vague definitions above tell us about each specific type of fiction editor?

  • The first definition—"select, emend, revise, and compile"—is the work of developmental and line editors.
  • The second—"to alter, adapt, or refine"—is where line and copy editors live.

You may have heard of managing editors or acquiring editors. Such roles work almost exclusively with publishing houses, so we won't focus on these today: 

Feeling sleepy? Stay with me! We're getting to the good stuff.

Jeff Goldblum yawning

Now that we know generally what editors do, let's break that down with some real task definitions. And we'll clarify why line editing is harder to file into a neat category.

As a heads up, know that there's some disagreement within the romance industry about the exact boundaries of each type of editing (and both journalism and non-fiction editing roles differ somewhat from publisher fiction), so my terms today may not match what you've experienced or what someone else tells you, and that's okay.

As long as you understand the heart of what each type of editing is, you can make the best decisions for your work.

What is an editor? The definitions vary. Nail your own understanding of the roles and never hire the wrong editor again. (And snag a free edit-scheduling template!) #amediting #amwriting Click To Tweet

The 3 types of fiction editing are developmental, line, and copy.

As a (very basic) preview for the when to do what types of editing, this is the order:

  1. Developmental
  2. Line
  3. Copy

And here's a quick glance at how each role can overlap. We'll look at this in much more depth a little later.

How the three types of fiction editing overlap

Aside from these three, there’s also proofreading. Proofreading is sort of its own beast, and its scope has evolved in the technological transition from traditional print books to ebooks. Proofreading is not something I do, so I’m not going to talk about it today. But know that proofreading comes after copy.

The 5 powerful benefits of working with an editor

The 5 powerful benefits of working with a fiction editor

When considering the question 'What does an editor do?', you might be tempted to choose your services based on price. Don't underestimate power of the the top five most essential benefits of an editorial collaboration. Each section below will explore these in depth, but here's a quick overview of why investing in a professional book editor is a smart and savvy move at any stage of your career.

Developmental editors bring depth and richness to your story. A good story edit can mean the difference between earning an enthusiastic true-fan reader vs. a scathing DNF (Did Not Finish) review. (More about Dev Editing) 

Line editors work magic on your prose. Working with a skilled line editor can level up the quality of your work in unexpected and intangible ways. (More about Line Editing)

Copy editors protect how readers perceive your work. Most humans misunderstand at least a few elements of grammar and punctuation. Get something wrong, and readers will notice (and they won't forget). (More about Copyediting)

Edits are basically a free masterclass. You can learn as much (or more) from a quality edit that you're already paying for—especially dev and line—as from hands-off instruction that uses abstract examples.

Boost your confidence, creativity, and skills. Working with a team of editors will add quality checkpoints to your writing process, open up creative possibilities you'd have never considered, and steadily grow your craft skills.

What is a developmental edit? What does a developmental editor do in fiction?

What does a developmental editor do?

Dev editors care about the heart of the story and characters. Does it make sense? Does it resonate? Is it reaching its full potential?

The main responsibilities of developmental editors in fiction

We care about why characters do what they do, what they're trying to achieve, and the conflicts they'll have to overcome along the way. If you've heard of GMCs (Goals, Motivations, and Conflicts), developmental editors are the ones who analyze and adjust those character elements in a story structure.

We also care about what's in a character's past, what they fear, and what they think they want but instead actually need. We pull back the covers on all their skeletons and deepest desires and help you strategically cut, nurture, or exploit those elements in a story.

A developmental editor is a storysmith.

Why do developmental editors care about a character's backstory? Knowing WHAT editors do will help you hire the RIGHT person at the right time. #amediting #amwriting Click To Tweet

Developmental editing is the most vital role in the creation of a healthy, compelling story.

What dev editors do and how developmental editors help writers

Quick note: A developmental edit is sometimes also called content edit, a story edit, or a macro edit. Some professionals also refer to developmental editing as "substantial editing" or (substantive editing), which is a catch-all category for any edits that alter the substance of the story and are not restricted by a technical style guide. 

When considering an editor who advertises their work as "substantive edits", be sure to clarify exactly what that means—developmental or line? Both? And if both, how deep will they go into each type of editing? (Too much line editing can be wasted effort in a hefty dev edit.)

Yeah, it's a lot to think about.

Woman wide-eyed and blinking - Okaaay.

So what WON'T developmental editors do?

Developmental editing is not about spelling, punctuation, grammar, or *how a line is phrased. In this phase of editing, the focus is solely on the characters and story. You should expect most of a dev editor's work to guide the plot arc, character journeys, world-building, and story flow (pacing). 

What developmental editors will not or should not do

That said*, a dev editor might also make notes about general stylistic line-level recommendations or flag a section to come back to later and check for story relevance. Weaving little pieces of connective tissue into a story can add depth and power to a narrative.

If you work with an acquiring editor at a publishing house, the early-stage work they do on your manuscript is similar to that of a freelance developmental editor. The major difference is that a house prioritizes their style and a freelancer's edits enhance yours.

Dev editing pitfalls

Storytelling techniques are excellent tools, but you should always base your story choices in the character journeyInexperienced developmental editors sometimes cling too strictly to proven or popular storytelling formulas, which can stunt your creativity. Or they don't dig deeply enough into the story elements and character details that matter most, then spend too much time on line-level recommendations.

Storytelling techniques are excellent tools, but you should always base your story choices in the character journey. #amediting #amwriting Click To Tweet

Since many dev editors also offer line and copy services, getting lost in the weeds can be a strong temptation. If they start losing sight of the story on a character or plot level, developmental editors risk wasting time and effort on revisions that might be cut in the next draft.

But remember, all freelance editors have different styles and scopes for their work, so if you're short on budget and want to get the most possible out of your developmental edit, you may be able to negotiate some sort of a combo edit. More on that later

What to expect in a story edit

Developmental edits can take the form of:

Different forms of developmental edits

In a story consult, you talk directly with the editor about your story (ideally by voice or video). Since it's just the two of you chatting, and your challenges may vary from book to book, consultations can be tailored to your specific needs. I've found that the most effective time for a story consult is just after you've fleshed out the basic story idea but before you've written the first draft.

A pre-draft story consult with a Developmental Editor can save you time, money, and sanity. Help a friend out and @ mention someone who would thrive in a one-on-one chat! #amwriting #amediting Click To Tweet

Outline and synopsis critiques are not for you pantsers out there. If you can't write a banging story summary, don't try for this type of dev edit. And don't feel bad about it—plotting isn't everyone's strength. The editor needs to be able to glean all the key character and plot elements from your summary alone (and maybe some character profiles, if you can swing those). 

Sometimes this type of edit also includes a read of the first few chapters. It can be a great way to prep your story for a contest or proposal without having to perfect the full draft.

The most common style of content edit is a full manuscript read with a report telling you what works, what doesn't, what's missing, and any questions or suggestions the editor has. These can get lengthy (I've delivered some editorial reports that were over 60 pages, and a pre-emptive story consult could've cut that bulk in at least half). Working through the feedback from a heavy developmental edit can be mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting. So give yourself time and space to do your best work.

This is one of the major reasons I recommend giving yourself twice the time you think you need between dev edits and the next phase in your schedule.

Some developmental editors will also leave inline comments on the manuscript during a full or chapter read. These are usually of the query variety—asking questions or making recommendations (more on queries in the Line and Copy Edit sections below). In my freelance work, a full story edit that includes both the report and some inline feedback is called a Comprehensive Developmental. Without the comments—report only—it's a Critique Developmental.

Every freelancer has their own definitions, so be sure you know what services you're buying.

The DOs and DON'Ts for developmental editors and story editing

Your dev editing toolkit

Developmental edits are hands-down the most important phase of your manuscript's life cycle. Fancy phrasing and perfect grammar won't win you one-click, true-fan readers if your stories don't hit them in the feels.

Fancy phrasing and perfect grammar won't win you one-click readers if you don't hit them in the feels. Invest in a dev edit and protect your brand! #amediting #amwriting Click To Tweet

Luckily, developmental editing is the most accessible type of fiction editing to teach yourself. Notice I didn't claim that it's the "easiest". And I do not recommend depending on dev self-edits as your only developmental pass. Your brain simply cannot see some mistakes or story possibilities. I've been a professional developmental editor—doing deep story work—for years, and I'm still learning new nuances and techniques.

Because there are so many different ways to approach storytelling, you've got a ton of resources at your fingertips.

Here are some tips and resources for developmental editing:

Don't...

  • Get discouraged when you can't pants/plot/[insert popular technique here] as well as the rest of your peers. Everyone writes in their own way, and no two people approach it the same. Even if they both claim to be plotters. Embrace who you are and how you need to do things.
  • Get hung up on specific methodologiesSave the Cat is the best way! No, it's Story Mastery! No, use GMCs! All good stories are rooted in three foundational elements: what the character needs, what decisions will move their growth arc forward, and how those traits line up with the genre's story beats.
  • Try to write a character-driven story (like a romance) without deeply understanding your main characters first. Even if you're not plotting, you should still be planning.

Do...

  • Create a character profile for every main character in your story or series. Don't rush this process, but don't get stuck on it either. Try to flesh out what your characters are missing in their lives, what they want most, and what fear is holding them back.
  • Make a list of your characters' fears and wants, then jot down a series of events or decisions that would challenge them. Give them opportunities they can grow from, whether through failure or teeth-gritting success.
  • Read a lot of literature in your genre. And not just the bestsellers. Pay attention to the themes and types of events the stories tend to share—these are your standard tropes and story beats. The more you understand what makes your genre tick, the better you can tweak the rules of it and hook readers with new ideas.
Self high-five gif

Give yourself a self-high-five for sticking it out this far! All of this editing knowledge is going to help take your stories to the NEXT LEVEL. Carry on, you badass, you.

Finding online tools to auto-diagnose a story on a true developmental level is... well, impossible. They don't exist (that would be some scary, next-level AI work!). You should absolutely work with a developmental editor to frame out your story structure.

Even if you can only afford a pre-draft consultation, you could save yourself dozens of hours in rewrites and immeasurable emotional energy. Story consults are an excellent, relatively low-cost way to catch any trouble spots in your story before you waste time and energy trying to fix (the wrong) problems in your first draft.

And to get the most out of your dev edits, you should definitely self-educate. I highly recommend these books for romance authors:

*Affiliate links. If you buy through these, I'll make a fraction of a penny every full moon. Feel free to skip the links and do your own search. 🙂

Ready to move on? Let's talk line edits!

What is line editing? (Especially in fiction)

What does a line editor do?

When it comes to the question of 'What does an editor do?', line editing is probably the most misunderstood of all three roles. 

Most simply put, line editors are wordsmiths.

The main responsibilities of line editors in fiction

Line editors need a holistic understanding the characters and plot events so they can recommend when and how to enhance, forecast, or reiterate the right themes at the right times.

What they care most about are the nuances of your author storytelling voice and the authenticity (and consistency) of your characters' voices.

Once a line editor has a strong sense of your writing style, character arcs, and story flow, they can boost the power and pop of your prose to the next level. This means they care about story issues, but they also keep a sharp eye out for little opportunities that can leave a big impression.

What line editors do and how line editors help writers

The secret to mastering line editing is threefold:

  1. Identify the sentence constructions and word choices that create the most compelling images for your style, characters, and story;
  2. Define a set of targeted style rules to guide your prose revisions;
  3. Then apply those guidelines to every. single. line.

To break the rules, you have to know the rules. Line editors are as skilled as copyeditors in their grammar and technical skills, but they are less restrained by the strict rules of a copyediting style manual. Of all the editing roles, line editors have the most creative freedom to make your story "sound better" (this is in scare quotes because isn't 'better' subjective?). 

To break the rules, you have to know the rules. Shout out to your favorite line editor! #amediting #amwriting Click To Tweet

Any editor should point out offensive content, but since line editors work in the essence of the words, phrasing is especially important to them. Line editors can help you wordsmith at a line level, where developmental editors optimize details at the story and character level (storysmithing).

A full line edit can be exhausting, for both you and the editor. But it can seriously elevate the feel (and feels!) of your story. Most importantly, every line revision should enhance or evolve your work rather than outright re-write it. Think "polish", not "alchemy".

What WON'T line editors do?

All plot and character development should be rock solid before you start the line-editing phase. No major story changes should happen during a line edit. That includes cutting and adding scenes. 

What line editors will not or should not do

Line editing does overlap copyediting when it comes to grammar revisions, but the focus is on defining and enhancing your prose style rather than enforcing an external style guide. *The only time a line editor should be spending time on punctuation and spelling is when the change is relevant to achieving a specific stylistic effect. That said, they should also be careful not to introduce errors.

Line editing pitfalls

Keep a keen eye on whether your line editor is tinkering with the story or (even worse) imposing their own storytelling voice onto your work. While line editors do manipulate your prose for stronger effect, it should always be toward the goal of aligning with and supporting your style (and the story's big picture).

It's okay to add, cut, and revise targeted lines of text, but the changes shouldn't radically alter your content. Any revisions on the scene level are more the territory of developmental editors.

There's a lot of room for interpretation here, so just go with your gut. If you feel like your line (or dev!) editor is overreaching or infringing on your style, speak up. 

What do line edits look like?

Line edits can happen in the comments sidebar of a manuscript or as direct inline changes. The inline revisions look just like copy edits, and the most common way of leaving this kind of feedback is through a feature like Track Changes in Microsoft Word. The editor makes a change, and the program shows a visual clue. You can then accept or reject the change.

Different forms of line edits

Sometimes a comment (also called a query) is meant to inspire or inquire rather than instruct, like:

This scene needs more world-building. What does Rosa see and feel as she talks?

or

This sounds out of character for Rosa—intentional?

If you contracted for some line-level edits in your developmental edit, your editor might also leave some style suggestions in your editorial report or even start a style sheet for your copyeditor to work from. 

We’ll talk more about style sheets in the copyediting section below, but note that a good line editor will take care to preserve the stylistic choices you’ve made together and pass those on to the copyeditor* in a way that protects your voice and any explicit characterization decisions.  

*When you are coordinating all the editing phases yourself, it is your responsibility to ask (up front) for a style sheet from your line editor and then give it to your copyeditor. In my experience, most authors don't even know what a style sheet is, much less know to ask for one. Take control of your brand.

The DOs and DON'Ts for line edits and line editors

Your line-editing toolkit

Line editing is the least popular editing service, but you should invest in a full line edit at least once in your early career. The wordsmithing skills you can learn from a good line editor is akin to taking a personalized masterclass in writing style. (And it probably costs about the same, or maybe even less!)

You can train yourself on story structure—there are tons of checklists and systems out there to help even inexperienced writers cobble together a decent story. But mastering your prose on the word and phrase level is far less straightforward. For some authors, penning an elegant style is effortless—if you have natural writing swagger, rejoice!

Want to level up your prose? Hire an editor for a full line edit! It's practically a masterclass in writing style and voice. Who would YOU recommend? #amediting #amwriting Click To Tweet

But if you're one of the many writers who have to work hard at that seamless style—and don't fret if you are! You're in some excellent company—here are some tips and tools to get you started.

Online software for line edits

Because there's some crossover between copy and line edits, I also recommend the tools above for copyediting. But when you're line editing, try to use these apps to guide your early revision decisions. Once you have a good grasp of basic grammar, they might hamper more than help you. They're not designed to embrace creative freedom, and that is exactly what line editing empowers you to do.

Quick-reference tips and techniques for line self-edits

Don't:

  • Start every sentence in a paragraph (or even across several paragraphs on a page) with the same word, phrase, or grammatical structure. The result tends to read as simplistic and low quality. Set your standards high!
  • Use the same word or phrase more than once or twice on a page (less, if you can manage it). Instead, look for synonyms that fit your style.
  • Assume the reader understands who your character is, their physical location, or their emotional state in any given scene. Breathe life into your scenes by layering in details about sense elements and little backstory clues.

Do:

  • Vary your sentence structure and length. This gives a lyrical, up-and-down feel to the prose that can captivate readers.
  • Take the time to select strong, active verbs wherever possible. While not every verb needs to stand out—"to be" verbs cost a reader much less mental energy and read just fine—strategically placed power words and phrases can really pop your prose.
  • Embrace your character's natural lingo and mannerisms. Try to approach your phrasing and vocabulary choices from inside the character's head rather than your own. This exercise (click) can help you achieve the ever-elusive Deep POV, resulting in a beautifully immersive reader experience.

Looking for a freelance line editor who specializes in romance? LMGTFY (click). Just be sure your definition of "line editing" matches the scope of their services before exchanging any money.

What is a copy edit? What does a copyeditor do?

What do copyeditors do?

When most people consider the question 'What does an editor do?', they're probably thinking about copyeditors. 

The main responsibilities of copyeditors in fiction

A copyeditor's goal is readability and technical consistency. They choose a set of technical style guidelines, then enforce it without mercy. The Chicago Manual of Style is the go-to rulebook for fiction editing, and publishing houses often have their own additional custom house styles as well.

Consistency across all your (or a publisher's) work sets a standard of excellence readers can depend on. Ensuring this consistency is essentially what a copyeditor does.

While copyeditors are most known for catching your grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes, they do other things too. Like spot word or phrase repetition (another crossover with line editing) and fact check. 

What copy editors do and how copyeditors help writers

They are experts in their chosen style manuals. A copyeditor’s style guide is their bible. They know it by heart, and they live their professional lives by it. Why does this matter?

Copyeditors can make lightning-fast revision decisions. They are the masters of their style bibles. Shout out to your favorite copyeditor! #amediting #amwriting Click To Tweet

Such deep familiarity with the fine details of their craft gives copyeditors an intuitive understanding of what healthy phrasing, grammar, and punctuation should look like. And their sharp eyes help them make lightning-fast decisions that most writers (and even other editors) would need seconds or precious minutes to consider. 

They also keep detailed style sheets that help them, and any other editor working on the project (including the line editor*), make consistent and informed decisions. 

*Remember I mentioned earlier that line editors might contribute to a style sheet? (click to revisit that section) Since the line-editing phase comes before copyediting, be sure to ask your line editor for a style sheet in advance! Your copyeditor can only work with what you give them.

Respecting a cohesive set of expectations about grammar, punctuation, and style within a genre gives us a comfortable framework to follow. Then, we can intentionally break the rules when we want readers to sit up and pay attention.

What WON'T a copyeditor do?

Copyeditors might enjoy the story they're reading (or not), but they do not make changes to any story or line elements that are not governed by their chosen manuals of style. They also don't selectively ignore parts of their style guides without justification, and any deviations are recorded on the style sheet.

What copy editors will not or should not do

Page-level formatting is outside the responsibilities for a fiction copyeditor. They usually don't fiddle with word wrapping or margins or any visual element that isn't style-guide related. Because the placement of text on a page can change with font, size, and other unrelated decisions, proofreaders (or other medium-specific roles) handle the final visual checks.

Copyediting pitfalls

Copyeditors worship at the altar of style standards, not emotional arcs. Like line editors, they can be tempted to make “sound better” changes. But that's outside the copyediting purview.

Fun fact: I work with one author who intentionally hires a copyeditor from a completely different fiction genre. The idea is to help the editor disconnect from the story emotionally so they can focus solely on enforcing technical style. 

Wherever you find your copyeditor, consider how much emotional distance you want them to keep and what their proven track record is within your genre.

Inexperienced copyeditors also tend to overthink small decisions like comma placement. There’s only so long you can stare at a sentence before things start to look weird and you spend five minutes debating a comma. Doubt is human nature, but experience lends confidence.

Editors are human, and they will make mistakes. Build a strong freelance editorial team to protect and nurture your style. Give your go-to editors a shout-out! #amediting #amwriting Click To Tweet

Keep in mind that no editor is perfect, and each will interpret the rules of grammar in unique ways. Copyeditors often get a bad rep for overediting. Enforcing the rules too strictly can suck the life out of your storytelling voice. And the more they read or analyze the same text, the more mistakes they're likely to make.

This is part of the reason you should build a team. Choose editors who are experienced in your genre but specialize in different types of editing. A little overlap can be healthy too. 

Keep reading to find out the one thing you should never combine with copyediting!

What does copyediting look like?

Copy edits are the most straightforward of all three types of fiction edits, and the editing process for copy edits is a little simpler than for line or dev.

Since the work of a copyeditor is defined by a set of widely accepted rules, they edit directly on the manuscript and track their decisions on the style sheet. Unlike with dev and line editors, there’s little wiggle room in what they do.

What copy edits can include

Modern copy edits are done through inline queries and Track Changes in a word processing app like Microsoft Word. If you can't afford the price of Microsoft's Office Suite, you can ask your editor to work in Google Docs, but I find it's much less powerful and efficient (and tends to get slower as the number of tracked changes climbs). Ideally, you should work in the same application as your line and copy editors, preferably in the same file (to preserve change and comment history). Which is a bit inconvenient for Scrivener users.

Don't stress if your editor sends back a manuscript with hundreds of revisions and queries (or even thousands, depending on story length and level of edit). That's totally normal. 

That said, there are different levels of copyediting, and the cost increases as the effort increases. Ask your copyeditor if they do light, medium, or heavy edits when you’re negotiating project details. If they offer all three, find out what each level entails before you choose one.

The DOs and DON'Ts of copyediting and copy editors

Your copyediting toolkit

Copyediting may be the most straightforward type of editing to learn, but it's also the most technically complex. Especially if American English is your primary written language. You probably learned some of the basics of grammar in school, but chances are high you've either forgotten most of it—what the heck is a gerund anyway?!—or you never really understood some concepts.

And that is totally okay.

This is why we hire editors. Knowing the nitty-gritty ins and outs of a style manual is a copyeditor's job. That's part of what they get paid to. Unless studying grammar is one of your personal hobbies (or you're a trained copyeditor yourself), copyediting is not a service you can afford to skip. Even if you're a pro copyeditor, you're always better off letting fresh eyes do a pass (and pro copyeditors know this).

Authors: You 1000% absolutely need a copyeditor. Got one you trust? @ mention them and their genre specialty here to help out a fellow writer! #amediting #amwriting Click To Tweet

However, you can (and should) give your manuscript at least a basic copyediting pass for the obvious errors. Here are some self-editing tips and (mostly free) tools.

Online software for copy edits

Microsoft Word also offers some basic spelling and grammar checking, so don't ignore those little red squiggles when you see them! All your editors will thank you.

Psst! you can even use Grammarly on your WordPress site if you have the browser extension installed.

Quick-reference tips and self-editing techniques for copyediting

Don't:

  • Add a comma whenever you want the reader to pause. If in doubt, leave them out.
  • Start sentences with -ing words or phrases unless you truly understand what an ISA is (Impossible Simultaneous Actions).
  • Use semi-colons in fiction prose. It's just awkward. Periods are the way to go.

Do:

  • Make sure your sentences have at least a subject and a verb. Unless you're going for a specific stylistic effect (even then, use it sparingly).
  • Check that your verb tenses are consistent throughout your story. Unless you're intentionally (and correctly) using past perfect or want to emphasize a dream or flashback.
  • Check that your POV is consistent. No flipping between first person and third. (Unless it's on purpose, in which case, think really hard about that decision.)

Looking for a freelance copyeditor who specializes in romance? LMGTFY (click). Just be sure you mutually define what level of copy edits you want (light, medium, or heavy) before finalizing any project plans.

You eagle-eyed writers out there probably noticed that I used both copy edit and copyedit in this article. Which is correct?

Both. =) Pick your fave!

I sometimes use them interchangeably, but tend to separate the words only when I'm treating the phrase as a compound object noun (like in a series of other nouns—'line and copy edits'). I almost always smash the words together when I'm using it as a verb, adjective, or gerund (copyediting), or a personal noun (copyeditor). So I might say copyedit, but copy edit is just as valid.

This is the sort of decision a style sheet or overarching house style is meant to define. The writing community can't even agree on this one, so don't stress too much about it. If in doubt, just follow your favorite style guide or dictionary.

What roles and responsibilities do book editors share?

How do the types of editing overlap?

The responsibilities of fiction editors explained with the parts of an orchid

I have a black thumb, so the first time I managed to keep an orchid alive (that's it, pictured above!), I was ecstatic. I also had an epiphany about how the different types of editing map onto the parts of this lovely flowering plant.

Here's the breakdown, from the ground up:

  • The soil is your setup (time, place, tropes), sub-genre, and prevalent themes. The roots are your character's history and core values. (Dev editors)
  • The leaves are the characters—how they grow over time, stretching up and out, or down and away—and plot elements, how they stack on top of one another. (Dev editors)
  • The flower spikes are the storytelling voice and style for the author and characters. (Line & Dev editors)
  • The flower buds are story and character opportunities—various states of realization, from a tiny nub to petals on the brink of bursting into bloom. (Line and Dev Editors)
  • The flower blooms are the prose—your unique grammar structure and little stylistic flourishes that keep readers hooked. (Line editors)
  • The support stake—your chosen style guides. Unlike in my picture above, this shouldn't be visible to your readers. It's just for propping up the developing story. (Copy and Line editors)

Important warning about line and copy editing

Earlier I noted that line editing overlaps with both the story and copy phases of editing. If you absolutely must—for time or budgeting restraints—you can do some light line editing in a dev editing pass. (This is actually pretty common, sometimes called "substantive" edits. I call it a "Comprehensive Dev Edit"—remember that terms vary by editor.)

Never mix copy editing with line editing. Don't risk introducing errors! #amediting #amwriting Click To Tweet

But do not adjust line-level phrasing to "sound better" during a copy edit. Resist, resist, resist! Every time you make a line change, you risk introducing more errors. Errors that you may not catch. (And that goes for your editor, too.) So if you only have one copyediting pass, keep it strictly Chicago. Trust me, you'll be glad you resisted the temptation to tweak.

The key to scheduling your edits

When (and how) to schedule your edits

With so many editing phases to plan for, getting all your services lined up can be a beast of a task. I've helped dozens of authors perfect schedules just like yours, so I've put together a handy quick-reference chart you can pin to your to-do list (printable and virtual—scroll down to snag it!). 

The secret path-of-least-pain to the perfect editing schedule is this:

  1. Leave time for a full rewrite after receiving your first dev edit.
  2. Then give yourself at least twice as long as you think you need after every other editing phase. 
  3. Schedule these edits with each member of your freelance editing team well in advance, and stick to your schedule.  
Really? Wow.

I know, I know. You've written the damn book, and you just want to publish it already! But think about how much time you spent crafting and perfecting that story. One of the most stressful things you can do to yourself during an editing cycle is to underestimate how much time you need for post-editor revisions. 

Don't write yourself into crunch mode! Schedule your edits FAR in advance, and stick to that schedule! Download your edit-scheduling template here! #amediting #amwriting Click To Tweet

Many editors schedule out their work calendars months in advance, so not being ready may mean losing your spot altogether. Or it may mean getting subpar edits (because you gave them a subpar story)—we aren't miracle workers. To get our best, you have to give us your best. And sometimes that means massive rewrites. (A pre-draft dev consultation can save you revision time and midnight crying jags.)

Thankfully, most dev edits aren't so drastic, but if it happens to you—and life happens to all of us—you'll be glad you were prepared.

Your template for scheduling freelance edits:

Sample schedule for indie authors planning freelance edits

Download this visual template (plus more!)

Developmental editing must happen first. You may need a few rounds, so don't rush this phase. Get comfortable iterating on your story, because this is the time to do it. Do not make any story-level changes after you send the manuscript to your line editor.

Line editing, if you choose to invest in it (highly recommended), must come before copyediting. Work on tweaking your delivery and tone here to really bring pop and presence to the characters and scenes. After you send your story to your copyeditor, no more "because it sounds better" wording tweaks. Walk away from the manuscript!

Copyediting is your final phase before moving to proofs. Remember that no editor is perfect, but do try to catch as many errors as possible in this phase. The more self-editing you do (in Word, Grammarly, Autocrit, etc), the less strain on your editor's prime energy. Only error fixes beyond this point.

Download your Master Guide

There's a ton of deep information in this article, and I know it's a lot to take in all at once. So I've put together a no-frills, quick-reference recap. Drop your email below and I'll zoom it right to your inbox. (And it links back to this article, just in case you want to revisit for more binge-learning later!)

Questions about what editors do or the types of editing?

Let's discuss!

Still confused about what editors do?

Need more advice on what types of editor is right for your work?

Leave a comment and we'll chat!

About the author 

Sue Brown-Moore

Creator. Speaker. Feminist. Human. She/her. Sue Brown-Moore is seasoned, comprehensive professional romance book editor. Her passion is educating romance authors, while enriching and empowering their writing careers. Only you can write your own HEA.

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