Copy Editing and Proofreading
The copy editor looks for mistakes on a very technical level. Copy editors look for typos, grammar, and spelling errors, but they are more than proofreaders. They’re looking for consistency in punctuation, numbers, hyphenation, et cetera. They’re even looking at the consistency of your writing in a very literal sense. They’re checking to make sure your thoughts don’t change mid-stream and they’re also looking for internal consistency and a copy edit may include fact-checking. A copy edit is really the nitty-gritty edit. The editor goes line by line by line looking at every single word, looking at every single bit of punctuation. These people are the grammar Nazis. We love them because they help us.
Proofreading is the lightest form of edit. Too many people who put themselves out there as editors are really proofers. Worse, they rely on spell check and automated grammar checks to do the lion’s share of their job.
My stock line when it comes to editing and proofing is that proofing a book is like sweeping a dirt floor. Every time you sweep, you’re going to pick up something. And every book has at least one mistake in it somewhere. Most have more than one. You’re not going to get perfection, no matter who proofs your book or how many eyes go over it. My stock example is a book by New York Times bestselling author Patricia Cornwell. She is published by Putnam, no slouch in the publishing world. I found a typo on page 6 or 8 of one of her books.
When you consider how many people read that book before it finally went to print—Cornwell herself, dozens of times, her assistant(s), probably at least three or five of her family and friends, her agent, her agent’s reader, her editor at Putnam, the editorial assistants (and most likely the entire staff at Putnam because it’s a new Patricia Cornwell novel!), then the line, copy, and developmental editors and who knows how many rounds of proofing—how could there possibly have been a typo, especially that early on in the book before readers start getting tired?
That’s a long-ass rhetorical question. The answer is that there are always typos. They are slippery little creatures that tap into some sort of evil magic just to make us crazy. We can only do our best.
Line and Developmental Editing
A line editor addresses the actual writing style. They look for run-on sentences, redundancies, any tonal shifts or tense shifts. You’ll see that people will start a paragraph writing in the present tense and all of a sudden they’re in the past tense or if you’re really technical, the pluperfect which nobody uses or if they do, they don’t know that they’re using it. (I shift tenses constantly in informal writing like blog posts. In books, I have to go through every line and correct myself.) So a line edit is all about the content, the language used, and your writing style.
A higher level of line editing is developmental editing, which looks at the book as a whole. Developmental editors evaluate the structure and organization of the book, the coherence or how well it hangs together, and consistency.
Developmental editors will spot the boring or blunt passages. If you’re writing something and they know people’s eyes are glazing over because their eyes are glazing over, they’re going to mark it and show you that it needs to be fixed. They’re also on the look-out for any information that might fit better elsewhere. Sometimes you hit an entire section of a book and you look at it and think, “You know what, that would go better in Chapter 3 rather than Chapter 6,” or you might hit something in Chapter 6 and think, “Oh, I didn’t tell them about that back two chapters ago. They need to know that before they know this.” They are looking for information that’s in the wrong place or that would fit better elsewhere.
Developmental editors also spot areas that need more… development. If an idea isn’t fully fleshed out or the information isn’t clear, they’ll either add, clarify, or tell the writer that the section needs more work. (Or all three.) In fiction, they will tell you when characters are one-dimensional or when dialogue is stilted. They’ll find the holes in the plot and hopefully tell you how to fix them. In nonfiction they will find the jumps in logic, the steps you leaped over, where you need to provide more proof or validation.
Which Types of Editing Does Your Book Need?
Probably both copy and line editing. At the very least it needs a thorough proofing. All editors are looking for clarity of writing. Copy editors and proofers want to make sure that the actual words, punctuation, and grammar are readable. Line and developmental editors want to make sure the author communicates the information and message clearly.
Editing your own work can be done, but the results will not be as good as hiring an outside set of eyes. We are too close to our own work and we miss mistakes that jump out at readers. It is best to let an editor find your mistakes rather than a reader you are trying to impress.