The different types of editing
When it comes to publishing a book, the basic process is:
Manuscript critique and/or development edit
But this varies hugely. In traditional publishing you’ll likely have a number of proof stages, so there might be three separate proofreads. The development edit and copyedit might get rolled into one, or there might not be a proper development edit at all. There’s no agreed standard for what the different types of editing are called or even what they consist of, and the lines between them are very much blurred.
So bearing all that in mind, this is my understanding of the main types of editing based on over a decade working in educational and nonfiction publishing in the UK. I’m going to break the editorial process down into three main stages or levels, which we’ll call the development edit, copyedit and proofread. We’ll look at how these apply to a nonfiction book, and also explain how a manuscript critique comes into the picture.
Also called substantive editing, content editing or structural editing
Development editing looks at the big picture: the overall structure and content of your book. A development editor will likely consider the following areas.
The structure of your book: does the structure make sense? Should chapter 6 really come earlier in the book? Does the material in chapter 2 need reordering? Would adding subheads and sidebars help to break up the text?
The content of your book: is anything missing? Are there needless digressions that could be cut? Are there any parts that seem misleading or factually dodgy? Are there bits that need more explanation?
The overall argument/message: is this clear? Does the thread of the argument continue logically from one paragraph to the next? Could the overall message be stronger in places?
The overall tone: is this appropriate and pitched at the right level? For example, if the book is for beginners, are explanations simple and non-technical enough without being condescending?
The overarching question the development editor is trying to answer is what does the reader want out of this book, and does the book provide it?
NB Sometimes people use 'development editing' to refer to working with an author as they write their book. The editor collaborates with the author throughout the writing process to help them turn a rough idea into a complete draft. In traditional publishing, development editing is something that usually happens after the book's been written. But regardless of whether a development editor gets involved before or after you've finished writing, they're still focused on the same thing: the overall content and structure of your book.
This provides an overall assessment of your book. It basically asks the same questions as a development edit but at a broader level (which makes it less costly). A development edit hones in a bit more on the detail.
So for a development edit you’d expect to get the manuscript back with comments all over it, suggesting improvements to individual paragraphs as well as whole chapters. This would probably be supported by a short ‘editorial letter’: a summary of the main areas for improvement.
This is essentially reversed for a critique: here you’d expect to receive a detailed, comprehensive report on the manuscript that sums up the strengths and weaknesses of the book and suggests how to improve it. This will include specific examples from the manuscript, but you’re unlikely to get comments on the manuscript itself.
Copyediting comes into play once the bigger-picture stuff is sorted. A copyeditor focuses on the writing at the sentence level and makes sure the book reads well. They also make sure small inconsistencies are ironed out.
Copyediting usually involves:
Catching mistakes or inconsistencies in spelling, grammar and punctuation. For example, making sure you haven’t used American and British spellings interchangeably, or that ballistic punctuation has been reined in.
Making sure the text is readable and flows well. Copyeditors might suggest rewording individual sentences.
In traditional publishing, preparing your manuscript for typesetting by including instructions for the typesetter.
NB This stage is sometimes split into two processes: line editing and copyediting. In this case, line editing focuses on making sure the text reads well while copyediting focuses on more mechanical issues, such as fixing inconsistencies in spelling and tagging the manuscript for typesetting.
Proofreading happens once the book has been set (designed and laid out). The proofreader will mainly try to catch errors that have slipped through the net, or any funny layout issues. This is not the time for the author or proofreader to start rewriting large chunks of the manuscript; if the book has been edited well then the proofreader should only need to correct small mistakes and issues that were missed by the copyeditor or introduced by the typesetter.
Which type of editing is right for you?
This question likely only applies if you’re self-publishing. (This is because most nonfiction books are sold to traditional publishers on proposal, i.e. before they’ve been fully written. Once they have been written, your publisher will likely organise and pay for the edit for you.)
If you (and ideally at least a few other people who’ve read the manuscript) are confident that the overall structure and content of the book is right, you could try jumping straight in with a copyedit.
A manuscript critique is cheaper than a full development edit, but less detailed. If you’re confident in making revisions with broad guidance rather than detailed input, a critique might be a good place to start. This could also be a good way to test out both your manuscript and an editor – if you find their critique really helpful then you might want to ask them to do a development edit or copyedit as well.
A development edit is a great way to get detailed advice on the stuff that can sometimes be the hardest to sort out (and potentially have the biggest impact on the reader). If you’re not confident about the structure or content of your book and want to work closely with an editor to get these foundations right, you might find a development edit particularly valuable.
If you’re not sure which type of edit would be most beneficial then an editor should be able to advise you on this after they've seen your manuscript.