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Five Levels of Editing: Which Do You Need?


Red pen lying of paper with words with typesetting marks
Editing is essential to producing quality writing

Often, potential clients reach out to me to ask what I would charge to do a copyedit on their manuscript. I will answer their question but I always refer them to the Services & Rates page of my website. I do this for two reasons. First, I want them to see that my quote is the published rate on my site and not a fee I’ve pulled out of thin air. But the second reason is a bit more surreptitious. I want these folks to read the definitions of each level of my editorial services. Why? Because some of those seeking a copyedit for their writing aren’t ready for a copyedit. Their manuscript is far too rough, maybe even just a first draft.

In this article, I have extracted the details from my Services & Rates page to let you see what I do at each level of editing. My definitions are a conglomeration of multiple editing service sources and the definitions used by the publishers I’ve worked for.

Developmental Edit

A developmental edit has many nicknames: a deep-dive edit, a macro edit, or a big-picture edit. Whatever you call it, this is an organizational edit. At this early editing stage, I look at the presentation of the material in the entire manuscript. I might move chapters around, as well as large chunks of text within a chapter. I suggest how to plug holes in the material. I will:

  • make the chapter arrangement logical.

  • give the text a cohesive flow.

  • highlight jargon to be defined or eliminated.

  • check to assure the tone and language are appropriate to the purpose and audience.

Substantive Edit

A manuscript that I can do a substantive edit on is in overall good shape, clearer and more coherent than one requiring a developmental edit. A substantive edit addresses the flow of ideas within a chapter or sections within a chapter, the clarity of the ideas and information, and the quality of the prose. I make sure:

  • the work has smooth transitions between chapters.

  • we fill in missing content.

  • the prose is clear and appropriate for the target audience.

  • the prose uses an active voice and engages the reader.

Line Edit and Copyedit

[Note that every level of editing separates the type of work from the word edit. But, oh no, not copyedit. Editors fight over whether it’s one word or two. The Chicago Manual of Style likes copyedit as one word, so that’s what I go with.]

To my mind, it's hard to separate line edits and copyedits, so I lump the descriptions together. These are paragraph- and sentence-level edits, with proper grammar checking thrown in. I check the flow. I decide if every paragraph, every sentence, and every word is necessary. I make sure:

  • the text is clear, logical, and coherent.

  • the structure is consistent throughout and easy to follow.

  • the tone is appropriate to the material, audience, and purpose.

  • spelling, grammar, and punctuation are consistent and correct.

  • repetitious words are removed.

  • awkward phrasing is rewritten.

  • you've used active voice and you're showing not telling.


Note: to allow myself maximum time for coaching and editing, I only proofread manuscripts that I have first done a higher level of work on.

This is the end of the line to make the manuscript the best it can be. Technically, it's the final review, after the manuscript has been typeset. (Often, people ask me to proofread their manuscript, when what they really mean is copyedit. Mistakes happen during the typesetting process. A proofread is what catches those.) It’s a clean-up, looking for errors of any kind that happened during the typesetting process: checking one last time for PUGS (punctuation, word usage, grammar, syntax), any inconsistency of font style, weight, and size, problems with page layout, numbered charts, graphs, and images, and widows and orphans. (A widow is a paragraph-ending line that falls at the beginning of the following page or column, separated from the rest of the text. An orphan is a paragraph-opening line that appears by itself at the bottom of a page or column, separated from the rest of the text.)

“Which Level of Editing Do I Need?”

To answer this question, I ask writers to send me a sample of their work, maybe ten or twelve pages, which is sufficient for me to see the quality of the writing and the state of the work. I read with my levels of editing in mind, making notes and jotting down questions for the writers. I tell them what I see and suggest what needs to be done to make their manuscripts of the highest quality.

And, as you might imagine, we don’t always agree on how to proceed. Some insist on a copyedit, which is my cheapest level of service, even when the work obviously needs a higher level of editing. Be warned—I will not do a copyedit on a manuscript unless I agree it’s ready. A manuscript that is disorganized, incoherent, has holes in the information or story, lacks a clear point, uses vocabulary and language that is inappropriate to the intended audience, or doesn’t have an intended audience is not one I will invest time in as an editor.

If you feel your manuscript is finished, or you simply don’t know where to go from here, look at my definitions of editorial services and decide which one you think would best suit you at this point. Please reach out with questions or comments. I’d love to work with you.

In addition to working as a nonfiction and creative nonfiction editor and writing coach, I am co-author, with Dr. Terri Lyon, of the book Make a Difference with Mental Health Activism: No activism degree required—use your unique skills to change the world. Visit my website page Make a Difference and Dr. Lyon’s activism website Life At The Intersection to learn more about Make a Difference, including how to place bulk orders.

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