Freelance copy editor and proofreader in the UK discusses the difference between line editing and copy editing services!
There are four distinct stages to the editing process – developmental editing, line editing, copy editing and proofreading. Line editing and copy editing are often confused – and can be combined – but they do fulfil distinct roles in the editing of a piece of writing.
Developmental editing is generally done at a fairly early stage in the writing process, often once a first (or at the latest, second) draft is complete. Here, the editor reads through the whole manuscript and provides big-picture feedback on plot, structure, characters, tone, style and pacing. This will usually be in the form of a several-page report, discussing the various aspects of the writing, highlighting areas for alteration and improvement, perhaps with reference to specific parts in terms of continuity and clarity.
Developmental editors provide an overview of the whole story, suggesting amendments like: the sense of threat needs to be enhanced; it would be good to understand more about how it feels for the protagonist to wield her magic; the relationship between X and Y should be deepened, etc.
This gives the writer a framework for their approach to the next draft, and is designed to tackle any fundamental issues with the story, which need to be addressed before an editor gets down to the nitty-gritty of sentence-level editing.
One of the most common things I have to explain to my clients is that developmental editing needs to be completed as a totally separate activity to line or copy edits. I frequently get job requests that say, “I want feedback on plot, characters, any general issues with the story – and also correction of grammar, punctuation and spelling.”
Not only does this reduce the line and copy editing stages of the process to mere correction of technical errors (they look at so much more than that, which I’ll come to shortly), but it also demonstrates a misunderstanding of how complex and layered writing can be.
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If an editor should provide big-picture developmental feedback and sentence-level amendments and corrections at the same time, that would most likely necessitate a large duplication of effort, since the developmental feedback will likely result in the need for substantial revisions to the text, therefore creating an entirely new draft. Since the text will have changed, the sentence-level editing will need to be done again.
But once the developmental editing is out of the way, and the writer is happy with the overall structure and content of their story, what’s the difference between line editing and copy editing?
A line editor focuses on many of the same aspects of the writing as a developmental editor, but looks at sentence-level amendments, rather than big-picture ones. They will consider how each sentence contributes to the tone, themes, emotion and impact of a scene, going line by line to consider clarity, sentence structure, word choice and the author’s voice. They will look at consistency of viewpoint, where the language could be tightened up, whether there is overuse of cliché or adverbs, and whether or not the language flows smoothly and conveys the appropriate atmosphere.
So, line editing is more about the atmosphere and feeling of the text, working to improve the effect the writing has on the reader, and whether or not it works as a whole.
A copy editor, on the other hand, is more focused on the mechanics of the writing and whether or not it is technically correct. If the writing needs to adhere to a particular style guide, the copy editor will check it against all the relevant rules and standards. They will analyse the grammar and punctuation, both for technical errors and whether or not it conveys the appropriate effect. They might also do some fact-checking or raise specific questions about whether or not aspects of the content are accurate and consistent.
Take the below text as an example:
‘Jeffrey felt sad that the package hasn’t arrived yet. He looked out of the window squinting into the brightly shining sun wandering if it will get there tomorrow. Marta watched Geoff and thought about where she has hidden the box.’
A line editor might point out that telling the reader that Jeffrey ‘felt sad’ is not as strong or impactful as demonstrating it through his body language or inner sensations. They might also suggest that ‘brightly shining sun’ could be tightened to ‘bright sun’.
Depending on the tone of the story and the significance of the box, they might suggest heightening the emotion of the passage with more exploration of how Jeffrey feels about missing the delivery and what impact the delay is going to have on later events. They might also point out the way the viewpoint shifts from being inside Jeffrey’s head to being inside Marta’s, within the same paragraph, and discuss whether or not this is a deliberate shift for effect, and how it might best be handled.
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A copy editor would correct the shifts in tense from past to present, change ‘wandering’ to ‘wondering’ and add commas to break up the middle sentence into appropriate sub-clauses. They would also point out that the correct spelling of the shortened version of ‘Jeffrey’ is normally ‘Jeff’, not ‘Geoff’.
These two stages of the editing process can sometimes be combined, as the line editor may also point out technical errors as they go.
However, it’s always a good idea to have a separate copy editing stage, as a similar issue may arise as with the developmental editing stage. As the line editor will often suggest that areas of the writing need to be amended, tightened, clarified or altered beyond a word change here and there, this stage of editing may also result in more substantial revisions by the writer.
And this, again, will mean the technical correctness of the writing will need to be checked separately.
At the line editing stage, the editor may well have in-depth discussions with the writer about proposed changes, explaining their view and their suggestions, and giving the writer the chance to argue their case or express their intent more clearly. So there may be several rounds of line editing, where the manuscript goes back and forth between them. Generally, copy editing, as a separate stage of the process, will only need to be done once.
However, as it’s possible that new errors may be introduced any time the text is returned to the writer for review and revision, it’s always a good idea to have a final proofreading stage before actual publication. This will be the last time anyone reviews the text, and is designed to catch any lingering typos or technical issues before the manuscript is finalised.
As mentioned, I’ve come across many writers who think that all stages of the editorial process can, and should be, undertaken at the same time. As a writer myself, I sympathise with their desire for everything to be improved, revised, corrected and polished at once. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we just had to splurge out our first draft, then pass it on to an editor, who would transform it instantly into the best version of itself? I wish I could be that editor – both for my own writing and that of other people.
But, as the writer, it’s important for you to be involved as much as possible at every stage of the editing process. They’re your words, after all, and you’ll want to be sure you agree with any suggested changes before they are made.
People respond to writing in different ways, so an editor may well suggest alterations you don’t want to make – and that’s ultimately your decision. Also, no piece of writing is ever going to be perfect, but you owe it to yourself to engage in multiple rounds of editing, so you can make it as good as you can. And that means that every stage of the editing process needs to be done separately, and meticulously checked and considered, before moving on to the next.
Separating out the different approaches to editing means that your editor will be laser-focused on just a handful of aspects of your writing at any one time. This will enable them to hone those aspects much more carefully than if they were trying to do too many things at once.
Writing a novel can be a long and lonely process, but having a good editor by your side, every step of the way, will do wonders for the final product and also hopefully create a partnership that can make writing a lot more enjoyable.
About Annie Percik
Annie Percik lives in London, writing novels and short stories, whilst working as a freelance editor. She writes a blog about writing on her website, which is where all her current publications are listed, including her novels, The Defiant Spark and A Spectrum of Heroes. She hosts a media review podcast, and publishes a photo-story blog, recording the adventures of her teddy bear. He is much more popular online than she is.