Editing a full-length work of fiction is not done all at once, but in phases. Different editors use different terms for the type of editing they do and what it covers.
Here’s my take on the 4 basic levels for freelance fiction editing:
- Developmental or Content Editing deals with story structure at the chapter and scene level — your “big picture” issues. It addresses plot, subplot and characterization problems (including credibility, motivation and likeability), pacing/tension building, showing vs telling, and the most effective sequence of events. It also covers areas lacking clarity or sensory details, point of view issues and info dumps.
Chapters or scenes need to start with a hook and end on a note of suspense or at a turning point. The editor offers suggestions in all these areas and more, and brainstorms additional solutions with the author as needed.
Note: Substantive Editing is considered a separate editing level in traditional publishing houses, but is usually included in Developmental Editing by freelancers. This is fine-tuning at the scene level (reordering, cutting, revising) when a manuscript already has all the basic elements in place.
- Line Editing is done at the paragraph and sentence level and should only be undertaken when structural issues have been addressed.
It involves streamlining of sentences, revising for clarity, elimination of redundancies, and (with the author’s consent) the rewriting of ineffective passages and sharpening of dialogue. Care is taken to maintain the author’s voice at all times.
- Copyediting is at the word and punctuation level. It corrects spelling, punctuation and grammar, based on a recognized stylebook such as The Chicago Manual of Style. This level of editing includes fact-checking (such as correct timing of events) and watching out for libelous text. Copyediting also ensures continuity in descriptions or details. For example, the color of the protagonist’s hair or eyes must be the same throughout, and the setting must be consistent.
- Proofreading – This is a careful read-through of the entire manuscript to catch any errors missed in copyediting. It covers typos, spelling/punctuation mistakes and formatting issues. Sometimes authors do their own proofing by reading their work aloud.
As an author, do you need to go through EVERY level of editing for your book? Yes. But you may eventually be able to do most of it yourself (with a reliable source of constructive feedback such as a critique partner), and get help for the levels you are struggling with.