4 Types of Book Editing—Help! What is Developmental Editing and Do I Need It?

The book editing world is a confusing place for newbies—there’s everything from proofreading to developmental editing services out there. If you’ve poured your heart and soul into writing a business book and you want to know where to go to make your book content AMAZING, you may find yourself feeling totally lost.

But have no fear, I’m here to save the day (just like Mighty Mouse—dating myself, I know). What follows is a quick primer on the different types of book editing and the benefits of using each, along with tips for knowing when to engage each.

Could you Google this info for yourself? Yep. Will you want to Google it and sift through all the info when you’re in a hurry to get that big, beautiful book out to the world? Nope. So, let me be your blinkest or theSkimm for your book editing needs. You’re welcome!

Types of Book Editing

Many writers get confused about all the different types of book editing available. Hell, even editors can’t always agree on what to call the work they do and that’s because there’s a decisive lack of definitive lines between the different types. But since we’re not here to write a philosophical treatise on book editing (though this could be a fun challenge for another day), what matters is what you need and how to get it. So, let’s draw some lines.

There are four types of editing involved in the traditional publication process. We’ll talk about them in order of when in the process an author might engage each type (latest to earliest in the writing process). Don’t worry! If you’re going the self-publishing route, as many of my editing clients do, I’ll show you what type and when you will want to engage an editor too.

1. Proofreading

Proofreading comes at the very end of the publication process. It’s the final check before the book is printed or, in the case of eBooks, published and sent to online distributors. The point of proofreading is to pick up on any typos and spelling mistakes and correct any small inconsistencies, e.g., making sure “well being” is always written “well being” and not “well-being” or “wellbeing” sometimes.

Proofreading gets its name from the old-timey “proofs” typesetters created before the final print run for a book, newspaper, or magazine. Back in 1812, the text was laid out in pages along with photos, diagrams, tables, etc. and a proofreader would come along and make sure everything was copasetic just before going to print. Today, with electronic publication, the uncorrected proofs for your book might arrive to your proofreader as a PDF file.

By the proofreading point in the writing process, your publisher will have paid someone (or done it in-house) to format your book. This means it’s too late to make major structural changes. You, as the author, won’t be able to delete paragraphs or sentences because it would mess up the formatting.

When do you need proofreading?

  • When your book is in the final stages, after the raw manuscript has been edited at least once (by someone other than yourself) and it has been formatted, you’re ready for a proofreader.
  • If you’re going to enlist the help of beta readers, you can save proofreading until after or during the beta stage.
  • If you are going to self-publish, proofreading is not the most crucial thing. I know. I can just see my college English professor holding his head in shame, but, for better or worse, we are more forgiving of typos in digital text than in print material. So, if you’re trying to decide whether to spend money on say formatting or proofreading, I’d say go with formatting.

2. Copy Editing

The book editing stage just before proofreading is called copy editing (and no, I’m not talking about editing the blurbs on the book jacket. Creating marketing copy to sell your book is a whole different blog topic for another day). In the publishing world, “copy” refers to the text. So, we could call copy editing, text editing.

Copy editing is word-by-word editing that addresses grammar, usage, and consistency issues. Copy editors check for typos and spelling errors along with correcting syntax, grammar, and language. They also pay attention to punctuation like commas (team Oxford comma here!), semicolons, quotation marks, and my all-time favorite punctuation: em dashes (—).

Editors in this case usually work on the raw manuscript using track changes for a Word file or the suggesting feature in Google docs along with inserting comments to explain changes or suggested revisions. This way you, as the author, can quickly go through to accept or reject changes one-by-one.

When do you need a copy editor?

  • When you are satisfied with all of the big pieces of content including the themes and structure of the book, you’re ready for a copy editor.
  • Because you’re focused on getting your ideas out on the page, you won’t be a good copy editor for yourself. No writer—not Stephen King, not J.K. Rowling, not Toni Morrison—can get it all right with a first draft. And with a business book, you don’t have time to let it sit before you can come back to it with fresh eyes.
  • But again, if you’re planning to go the self-publishing route, copy editing is not the most crucial stage. Yes, sometimes grammatical mistakes and inconsistencies can obscure meaning. Still, in most cases a good developmental editor will catch the stuff that could prevent you from getting your big ideas across.

3. Line Editing

Before your manuscript is ready for copy editing, it may go to a line editor. Line editing is a more intensive structural edit focusing on the flow of ideas, transitional elements, tone, and style. A line editor might make suggestions like “vary your sentence length” or “make this sentence crisper by changing the passive voice phrasing to active voice” or “tighten this section by rewording to avoid redundancy.”

They work on awkward sentences and paragraph construction too. Line editors review the entire manuscript with an eye toward key aspects like whether you have properly developed a section and laid out the concept in a way that will make sense to the reader.

When do you need a line editor?

  • When your manuscript is finished, but you’re feeling too close to it to get a good read on whether you’ve stayed consistent and fulfilled any promises you may have made at the beginning of the book, it’s time for a line editor.
  • If you know your ideas are clear, but your writing style could use some polish, a line editor can be your best friend.
  • This is a place where lines between types of book editors get blurry. Line editors sometimes do the work of copy editors or proofreaders and vice versa. Above all, it’s important to spell out what your manuscript needs, so you can ask potential editors what you’re getting.

4. Developmental Editing

The first stage in the editing process is the most crucial. This is developmental editing. Here, the book gets a full, substantial, and structural edit. Your editor will jump inside the architecture of your book with you and help you “renovate” the book according to your goals. In fact, this is always my first question when talking with developmental editing (and ghostwriting) prospects: what is your goal for this book?

Often developmental editing includes proofreading and copy-editing. Speaking from experience, it’s hard to read an entire manuscript and not catch typos or inconsistencies. They often jump off the page at me. Still, I explicitly tell clients my developmental editing services do not include proofreading. I’m far from a grammar nerd. So, if your goal is to produce a perfect manuscript with zero grammatical errors and typos, I’m not your girl. You need more a stickler for the rules. I’m a renegade, remember?

However, if your goal is to get your ideas to stick with a specific audience and to set their hearts and minds on fire with your words, well, that’s the value I can add to your book. I’ll even throw in a manuscript evaluation (a $500 value) of the essential elements of your book, including:

  • Competitive research
  • Audience analysis
  • Marketability
  • Recommendations about positioning
  • Identification of any content gaps or potential confusions

A developmental editor comes in early on in the process, while an author is still drafting her book. It is always helpful if an author is on the third draft before reaching out to me, but sometimes authors get stuck and rather than letting your manuscript grow stale, reaching out to an editor for help is always a better bet.

When do you need a developmental editor?

  • When you have written a complete draft, or ideally, your manuscript has gone through a couple of drafts and you’re ready for an expert set of eyes to help you iron out the details, a developmental editor can step in.
  • Also, if you’re nearly finished getting all of your ideas out of your head and onto the page, but you feel analysis paralysis setting in, it’s time to chat!
  • Seriously. Do not wait for inspiration to hit. Inspiration always comes from talking about why you’re stuck.

But, no, really do I need an editor?

In the end, whether you choose to engage an editor is totally up to you. You don’t need my permission to skip editing for your self-published book. Plus, I enjoy developmental editing work and I believe every business book could benefit from going through some kind of editing process, so I’m never going to say you don’t really need an editor.

Still, I read a lot of books and are they all perfect? Hell, no. Do their typos and little flaws detract from my reading experience? Hell, no. Writing a book is no joke. I respect authors for taking the time to put their thoughts down for me to read. I’m grateful for the ideas that they plant in my whirling dervish of a mind. That’s not meant to detract from the good work editors do and I’m (obviously) not every reader.

Maybe you’re blessed with competent and discerning family members, friends, and colleagues with oodles of extra time to read your life’s work and give you honest, constructive feedback. If that’s the case, okay, fine. I’ll concede that it makes sense for you not to hire an editor. On the other hand, you probably wouldn’t let your cousin practice what he learned in his high school auto shop on your car. Keep in mind, ‘competent’ and ‘discerning’ are relative terms and you get to decide what your standards look like.

It is good to understand what value an editor can provide to you and that will depend on your goals for the book. If you’re considering writing a business book, I recommend you adopt these priorities:

  • Get your ideas down ASAP. Not only do you not want to risk your ideas growing stale before your book comes out, you’re very busy and likely don’t have a lot of time to devote to writing a book. 90 days is a good time-bound goal to shoot for when writing a business book. If it takes you considerably longer, consider hiring a ghostwriter.
  • Focus on how your ideas can transform the lives of your readers. You’re not simply aiming to educate your audience. You’re looking to change their lives. That’s why people buy books—because they are looking to make a change.
  • Write a business book that doesn’t suck. I mean, if you’re going to go to all this trouble, make it a book you’re proud of. Keep your sights set on your goals for the book and don’t bother comparing your book to books written by others with different goals.

Do you need an editor to stick to these priorities? Only you can answer this question. But I can tell you that I’ve seen developmental editing help clients get their ideas out more quickly, shift focus from education to transformation, and result in a seriously improved published manuscript.

I hope I’ve given you some good food for thought to chew on about book editing here. If you have other questions, email me, I’d be happy to help you think through your book writing process. Whether you’re self-publishing, looking to go the traditional route, or somewhere in between, putting a PhD in your pocket could be just what you need.

Photo credit: Sergey Skripnikov