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A Field Guide to Different Types of Editors

Ask the general populace what a “book editor” does, and you’ll get a response that runs something like this: Isn’t that the person who, um, makes your book better?

Well…yes! That’s completely true. But there’s much more to understanding the role of the editor than that.

Just like you’re a multifaceted human being, your book too has multiple dimensions. Each of these dimensions corresponds to a stage in the editorial process, and a completely different type of editor. For example, did you know:

…there are editors whose job is to help you before you even start writing? 

…that at the first stages of editing, your editor won’t touch a word on the page? 

…that editors can wear many different hats, but there’s one type of editing so specialized most book editors couldn’t do it if they tried?

No? Well, then you’re ready for an edit-cation! Let’s dive right into this field guide to different types of editors.

The Developmental Editor

The developmental editor’s job is to help with the “Big Picture” of your book. This can start as soon as you get the fancy to be writing a book at all; one of the most helpful times to work with a developmental editor is before you have a single word on the pageJust like building a house, having a strong foundation under your feet will set you up for success all along the journey that follows. When it comes to your book, a “strong foundation” means a well-crafted hook (short, high-level pitch of the book’s topic or story) plus a strong and detailed outline.

While you’re still planning your book journey, a dev editor (sometimes called a “structural editor”) can help you:

  • Hone/tighten/reposition the hook of your book so it will stand out from the crowd—and sell more copies!
  • Map out a personalized writing plan based on your schedule, topic and timeline
  • Develop a strong outline for your book, so you’re no longer writing in the dark—and you get a solid structure baked right in!

Already have a bunch of words on the page—and looking for your first round of feedback? Once again, a developmental editor is the choice du jour. She will give the book a read and make you a nice, juicy list of notes for your next draft. Depending on what type of book you’re writing (fiction, how-to, memoir, etc.) your developmental editor will be focused on different questions as she crafts her editorial letter. Here are a few common ones any good nonfiction editor will be pondering:

  • Does the book have a strong, obvious and compelling “hook”?
  • Is the voice/tone working?
  • Is the structure clear/obvious to the reader, and is it strong enough to hold up the book?
  • Does the book have adequate introduction/conclusion sections?
  • Are the chapters roughly symmetrical?
  • Do all the loose ends get tied up by the last page?

All of these questions—and many more—may be addressed in your editorial letter. Your editor will let you know what’s working, what’s not yet working, and how you can make the book “hang together” better. Then, the ball will be in your court—it’ll be up to you to revise, revise, revise.

There are many qualities to look for as you choose your developmental editor. The developmental editor has a deeper impact on the shape and form of the book than the editors who follow, so you’ll want someone who shares your vision for the project, topic and/or story. Make sure he or she has worked on your specific genre before (especially someone who’s worked on fiction, if you’re writing a novel), and that she’s familiar with the already-successful books that will be sitting next to yours on the shelf.

Finally, it’s especially important for you to like and get along with your developmental editor. While your technical editors may feel like strangers even after the project is complete, you’re likely to be spending a certain amount of time with your developmental editor. Great chemistry and mutual respect will keep the process fun and pain-free.

The Line-Editor

Once the structure and form of the book are set and ready, and all the scenes and/or information are exactly where you want them to be, it’s time for the next type of editor to enter stage left. We’re talking the line editor. The one who will pick up his red pencil (so to speak—most editing happens electronically these days) and get to work on the words themselves.

While line editing is often mixed up with copyediting or proofreading, the truth is that these are very different types of editing requiring very different skill sets. Copyediting and proofreading—which we’ll go into in depth below—are the technical phases of the editorial process. Line-editing, on the other hand, is still part of the “content” phase. In other words, it’s concerned with the art of the words more than the technical details.

At the line-editing phase, your editor is going to dive into the line-by-lineof your manuscript, looking to improve such ephemeral qualities as “clarity,” “flow” and “prettiness” (that’s a technical term). Questions your editor is asking at this stage:

  • Is there a better, more straightforward way to say this?
  • Are the sentences here too long—or too short?
  • Do I get stopped by an awkward word or phrase? If so, how can I fix it?
  • Are there more words here than necessary? What might I cut, to increase the efficiency of this sentence while maintaining or even improving the artistic expression?
  • Would this sentence go better in the previous paragraph, or the one that follows?

As you can see, the main focus here is not on grammar, per se. While your line editor isn’t going to leave an obvious typo or superfluous comma hanging out on the page, the technicalities are not his primary focus. He’s looking to improve the reading experience more than anything else. 

So what should you be tracking for, when you’re hiring this type of editor? Qualities include attention to detail, great writing skills, a better-than-average grasp of the English language, and a lot of experience making good prose great.

Note: Don’t be afraid to hire the same person to be your developmental and line editor. Within the world of traditional publishing, you’re very likely to get both these types of editing from the person who acquired your book or is your “assigned editor.” Most professional content editors are trained in both these phases—and will be able to look at both the forest and the trees. So feel free to hire one human to handle both of these tasks for you!

The Book Doctor

Before we head into the technical stage of your editorial journey, let me veer off for a moment and speak of one of the hidden heroes of the editorial world: The fearless book doctor. A book doctor “comes to the rescue” of a book that needs not only editorial guidance but help putting said guidance into practice. It’s her job to read what you’ve got written, map out how to turn it into a better book, get your approval on the plan, and then actually execute it to perfection.

In other words, this superhuman must boast both the x-ray vision of a book editor AND the endurance and creativity of a writer. They’re often taking a book apart completely and putting it back together again, only better this time. They may need to cut a manuscript down to a more reasonable size, add transitions or additional content, and/or rearrange the arc of the narrative so it comes to a more satisfying conclusion. In the process they’re healing it, bringing it back to life and [insert your fave medical-themed metaphor here] so it’s ready to take its place on the bookshelf.

You’ll want to hire someone for this role who has experience successfully completing both writing and editing projects; who understands your vision yet who you trust to bring their own vision to the project when needed; and whose personality you enjoy.

As I mentioned above, the types of editing outlined thus far are often found in the wheelhouse of the very same person. Oftentimes at traditional houses, the editor who acquires the book does whatever it takes to get it ready to head into production. 

This may include: giving developmental editorial feedback on the book proposal before the full book is written; giving the delivered manuscript a developmental edit, with editorial letter; doing one or more line edits; or even doctoring the manuscript if necessary. But all that jack-of-all-trades stuff ends now, as we enter the domain of technical editing.

This phase—often called “production editing”—requires specialized skill that many content editors simply don’t have. It all begins once the book’s content is completely dialed. At this point, the book is transmitted to production, and assigned to a copyeditor—the skilled tradesman who we’ll meet next.

The Copyeditor

As I mentioned in the intro to this blog, there is a stage of the editorial journey that cannot be completed by a garden-variety content editor. This type of editing requires a specific set of skills—including the rare attention to detail and intensity of focus needed to make certain every word on the page aligns with industry and house standards. The human to tackle this task is the almighty copyeditor, and it is at his foot that all content editors bow. 

The copyeditor’s job is to make sure every single detail in the book is perfectly aligned; perfectly coherent; perfectly styled. (Hear the word “perfect” in there? Yep, the best copyeditors are inveterate perfectionists.) He’s the one poring over the Chicago Manual of Style, making sure you’re using your semicolon correctly. If you spell the name of your town one way on page 10, it’s his job to make sure it’s still spelled like that on page 210. It’s also his job to code the manuscript for the typesetter.

This means inscribing the pages with a secret code (okay, it’s not exactly secret—but few understand it) designating which words should be set as chapter headings and subheadings, which lists should be bulleted versus numbered, where the front matter ends and the first page of the book begins, and which pages should be left blank throughout. This is also the stage where the “rules” of writing are policed, and many teeny, tiny corrections are made; where all those misplaced punctuation marks, odd capitalizations and unintentional misspellings are rounded up and thrown out before the book gets set into type.

Sound like a whole lotta details? Then I’ve described copyediting correctly. For the average human, contemplating everything a copyeditor is tracking makes the head wanna explode. But we don’t have to track it all, because we can always be sure a copyeditor is coming up behind us to dot our i’s and cross our t’s. We are the lucky beneficiaries of his sharp pencil and eagle eye. Thank you, copyeditor. Thank you. 

Obvious as it may seem, it bears repeating: When you are looking for someone to do this type of editing for you, you’ll want to hire a candidate who has been trained as a copyeditor of booksThe term “copyeditor” means different things if you’re talking about magazines, newspapers, or the field of marketing. Book copyediting is very specific, so look for someone who’s got the resume to back up the title. 

The Proofreader 

Bringing up the rear on the editorial parade is the trusty proofreader. Oftentimes copyeditors moonlight as proofers, and rightly so—both jobs require an agonizing (for most mortals!) attention to detail, and the extraordinary ability to see both what’s on the page and what’s missing.  

Proofing is so named because it’s where the “proofs”—the first imprint of the freshly typeset pages—are “read” for errors. There are generally 2-3 rounds of proofing before books start flying off the press. In other words, this is Last Chance Saloon for any typos, extra spaces, or misspellings that need updating. The front and back covers, inside flaps (if the book has a jacket), and spine of the book are all part of the proofing fun. Once the proofreader has signed off on the very last set of pages—often referred to as “blues,” because they are traditionally run in blue ink—the book is truly one step from hitting the press! 

What you should look for in a proofreader is bonafide book proofreading experience: i.e., a whole lotta experience proofing a whole lotta books over a period of years. You’ll also want someone who works swiftly—as is the case with copyeditors, proofers tend to be paid by the hour—without skimping on quality.  


So, how many of these wonderful folks should you plan to hire? The answer depends on how you’re planning to publish your book. Here’s a rough overview of the types of editing I recommend you get, depending on which publishing path you’ll be taking: 

Types of Editors to Hire If You’re Publishing Traditionally 

  • Consider hiring a developmental editor to help you refine your hook and craft a strong, well-structured outline—before you start writing your book proposal 
  • Hire a developmental editor to give you notes on your book proposal 
  • Hire a line editor to edit your book proposal  
  • When your book is acquired by a traditional publisher, ask what kind of editing the manuscript will receive in-house. If you don’t hear “developmental” and “line” editing, consider hiring your own developmental and line editors for these manuscript phases. 
  • If you stall out on your writing journey—and you have a deadline looming—consider hiring a developmental editor to help you get unstuck. 
  • Your publisher should provide one round of copyediting and 2-3 rounds of proofreading for your book. If for any reason they are not providing these rounds, you need to have a tough conversation with your contact at the house. No reputable publishing company would send a book to press without giving it both types of technical editing described! 

Types of Editors to Hire If You’re Self-Publishing 

  • Consider hiring a developmental editor to help you refine your hook and craft a strong, well-structured outline—before you start writing the manuscript 
  • Consider hiring a developmental editor to help coach you through the writing process, if you’re at risk of stalling out. (It happens to the best of us!)   
  • Hire a developmental editor to give you notes on the completed draft of the manuscript, and then possibly again after you’ve revised 
  • Hire a line editor for your final, revised manuscript 
  • Hire a copyeditor for the manuscript immediately before it is set into type 
  • Hire a proofreader to proof the “first pass pages” (i.e., first round of typeset pages you receive) 
  • Hire a proofreader to proof the “second pass pages” (after you’ve input changes from the first round of proofing) and the cover proof (front and back covers, spine, and inside flaps if applicable) 
  • Go to press with the feeling of peace in your heart!