Types of Editing in Fiction

Four Types of Editing in Fiction + Proofreading

One of the most common questions that floats around the author/editor world concerns types of editing in fiction. In particular, self-publishing authors and new authors are unaware of the multiple different types of editing. When a writer finishes a manuscript, this can cause confusion and uncertainty about next steps. This article will define the different types of editing as I know them, and hopefully provide some clarity of the editing world. 

laptop and white notepad on wood table

Brief Overview

There are four types of editing in fiction: developmental editing, substantive editing, line editing, and copy editing. Proofreading is frequently included in the editing world as a last step before publication, however it is not technically editing.


Developmental editing (also called manuscript appraisal/critique and conceptual editing) looks at the overall picture of the story, the strength and organization of the story. It happens very early in the writing process, often before the book is completed. The developmental edit helps an author flesh out their story, ideas, characters, etc.

It looks at:

  • Flow. Does the writing move in a predictable and meaningful way? Is it easy to follow the story, or is something out of place?
  • Character development. Do the main character and main supporting characters have substance, a background, and believable reaction to circumstances? Do the minor supporting characters buoy the story, sink it, or are they neutral?
  • Plot, subplot, pacing. Does the story follow a pattern to move the reader through the story in a way that naturally leads to a conclusion? Are there points that are missing that would lead to a better understanding of the outcome of the story? Does speed of the story ebb and flow so that the reader’s interest is held to the end?
  • Point of view (POV). Does the writer “head hop” through out the manuscript without indicating a change? Does the POV change based on the chapter? Is there an intentional and obvious break and transition? (Hint: if there isn’t, it makes a book really difficult to read.)

Developmental editing makes sure a book is not only readable, but also enjoyable for the intended audience. It does not look at word choice, punctuation, grammar or internal chapter and paragraph structuring.

The goal of the developmental editor is to ask questions to help the author make the story a better version of itself.


Substantive editing (also called content editing) also looks at organization and flow, but at a chapter and paragraph level. Where the developmental edit looks at the general overall picture of the story, the substantive edit will dive into each chapter of the story.

A substantive edit may include:

  • Moving paragraphs within a chapter,
  • Moving paragraphs into a different chapter,
  • Deleting content,
  • Making suggestions for addition of content.

The substantive editor will make suggestions at a paragraph level for improving flow from one paragraph to another, one chapter to another, or for overall readability of the story. They may delete content, or write content as a suggestion in order to make these changes.

This is also the first time an editor will take the author’s voice and tone into consideration. The tone of the story should fit with the genre, and the substantive editor will let you know if it doesn’t. The author’s voice deals more with writing style, and is very much an individual component of writing that makes reading interesting.

The goal of the substantive editor is to ask questions and make changes to help the author make the story a better version of itself.


Line editing (also called stylistic editing) deals with the structure and flow at a sentence level. A line editor does not look at big picture because they are focused on the prose. They are focused on the beauty of a sentence, how each word flows to the next, and how each sentence connects to each other.

Line editing will include pointing out run-on sentences and sentence fragments. It will point out clichés and jargon.

One of the line editors biggest jobs is to cut wordiness. Meaning, they can take a sentence that is 15 words long and reduce it to five words, while keeping the meaning and tone of the original sentence. Extremely impressive, if you ask me.

The line editor will also ensure that dialogue is believable, smooth, and fitting for the character. Dialogue is typically written how people speak. It is not always grammatically accurate. A line editor knows this and will take that into consideration when reviewing lines with dialogue.

A line editor is not necessarily concerned with errors of spelling, grammar, and punctuation. They focus on the words of the story, and how they will make the reader feel and react. They focus on the author’s voice and ensure the consistency and accuracy of that voice.

The goal of the line editor is to ask questions and make changes to help the author make the story a better version of itself.


Copy Editing should occur only after an author has finished the manuscript. Not kinda finished, not “the beginning is done, but I have to write the last act or chapter.” There should be no more writing to do.

Copy editing looks at:

  • Grammar errors,
  • Spelling errors,
  • Punctuation errors.

The copy editor goes line by line through the story to find and fix every error they can find. The average person will only catch 50-60% of these errors. A trained professional will catch upwards of 90% of these errors, and some copy editors even more.

The copy editor will also make sure that the style of the book is consistent, using a style guide such as the Chicago Manual of Style or the AP Stylebook.

A copy editor will also ensure that consistency has been maintained throughout the story. Physical descriptions of people and places should not dramatically change in a story. Spellings of names and places should not change. The copy editor will catch those mistakes and make those corrections to the text.

Copy editing can be the difference between a book sounding like an amateur endeavor vs. a professional one. The goal of the copy editor is to fix mechanical errors in the text to help the author make the story a better version of itself.


Now, let’s talk about proofreading.

Proofreading is not technically editing. The proofread is the final check of a manuscript to catch any last errors in spelling, grammar, or punctuation that may have been missed by the copy editor.

In traditional publishing settings, it comes after the manuscript has been formatted. In my opinion, the proofread should also come after formatting in the self-publishing world, but this is sometimes not the case.

The proofreader will check the document to ensure no errors were introduced during the formatting process. They will check pagination, heading/chapter title consistency, formatting consistency, and line breaks. This process is now increasingly done online in a word processor or PDF document. This is the author’s last line of defense against errors before publication.

The goal of the proofreader is to fix any mechanical errors in the text missed by the copy editor to help the author make the story a better version of itself.

Final Thoughts

There are a myriad of opinions out there about what types of editing in fiction are necessary and what are not. This article is by no means a “you must do all these things” list. It is to educate you on the types of editing that are out there.

I also want to note that a lot of editors do multiple types of editing in fiction. Some will split them up into separate projects. For instance, doing line editing and copy editing with different contracts and different payment agreements. Some editors will do the line editing and copy editing at the same time, combing their efforts in contract and cost.

In any conversation you have with an editor, at any point in the process, make sure you are clear on what you want and what they provide. They may call their substantive editing services something different. That’s ok, as long as author and editor are on the same page regarding what will be done, and what will not be done.

For more information about my services and cost contact me visit my contact page. General pricing is also listed on my home page.

Have a fantastic day!

Michelle Merritt

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