Depending on where you are in the writing process, you will have different needs when it comes to editing. If you think your draft needs a couple more rewrites, you wouldn’t want an editor to correct grammar and spelling. Similarly, if you are about ready to publish, you wouldn’t want an editor to make structural changes to your story.
Knowing what kind of work you need will help you find the editor that is a perfect fit for you. Each editor might have a slightly different definition of the stages of editing. It is always best to confirm (in writing) what type of work is being performed.
Here are the main types of editing you may come across, listed in the order that you would use them. Keep in mind, if you are planning to query traditional publishers, the majority of this work would be done in-house. I would only suggest considering the first one, which has to do with the bones of your story.
Developmental Editing (Substantive Editing, Content Editing, Structural Editing)
This type of editing requires looking at the big picture. Does your story make sense, flow in a logical order, stay consistent in tone, meet genre expectations, and tie up any loose ends? You could consider it a review of your book before it’s even finished. Here is where the most sweeping changes would be made, including restructuring, if necessary.
It is often the most difficult stage for writers. It requires putting your baby into someone else’s hands and letting them pick it apart before piecing it back together. This is the closest an editor would come to help you write and flesh out the story.
While most developmental editing is done within your document, some editors might provide a Manuscript Critique or Assessment. Rather than making changes within the manuscript, they could provide a separate document with suggestions for improvement. It is often more affordable than a full edit.
You’ve checked all the story issues and it’s almost time for fine-tuning. But just in case you’ve missed something that could affect large portions of your manuscript, it’s best to check your facts here. Not all manuscripts require this kind of work, and most writers can perform this task themselves. But if you aren’t the best researcher, some editors specialize in fact-checking. They can give you a second set of eyes to help with liability. Some editors in later stages may not provide this service, trusting that you have done the work yourself.
Copyediting (Line Editing, Mechanical Editing)
While these two are sometimes called separate stages, in today’s editing field, they are often combined. They provide similar services, but as noted before, each editor is different. A line edit looks at the paragraph level, checking for many of the items listed in developmental editing, but not necessarily for errors such as spelling. Copyediting looks sentence by sentence, specifically for mistakes in grammar, usage, syntax, spelling, and punctuation. Many copyeditors, myself included, combine these two stages.
You may also request light, medium, or heavy copyedit, which refers to the amount of work you want to be performed. They look for inconsistencies, accuracy, and readability at the micro-level. If developmental editing is the big picture, copyediting is the frame-by-frame.
When the final copy is ready, the proofreader gives it one final pass. This typically takes place after formatting to make sure no errors were introduced, such as strange page breaks or omissions. They may make light corrections, but this stage is usually a much lighter pass than a copyedit would be.
Other Editing Types You May Encounter
Typically used in non-fiction, an indexer would look for important items within your book, such as names, places, terminology, and headings and create an index for the back matter.
These are the people who would prepare your book for either printing or digital sale. Many specialize in e-books.
While not necessarily an editor, many editors do offer these services. Design could include book covers, images, and chapter headings.
Many people have the ability and desire to see you succeed. Each editor is different and may have their definition, but I hope this gives you a baseline for how to find the right fit. Confirm with your editor what services they are providing, especially if you have a specific thing you are looking for.
Good luck on your journey to publication!