So You Want To Be A Copyeditor… Or Developmental Editor… Or Proofreader?

When I first began editing, I used the word as a blanket term for pretty much anything I did. Corrected some spelling? Editing. Reworded a sentence that didn’t contain parallel structure? Editing. Commented to the author that I’d like to see more of a minor character who I thought could be important later on? Editing. Oh, that event actually occurred one year earlier than written in the manuscript? Editing.


Technically, I wasn’t wrong—all of this is, of course, editing. What I didn’t know was that there are many different types of editing, and that what I was used to doing is called copyediting.


There are three types of editing in particular that always seemed to be mentioned but never explained: copyediting, proofreading, and developmental editing. Contrary to what I believed and what, I suspect, many others do as well, each has a very different purpose during the editorial process, and none are interchangeable.


Developmental editing is the first editing stage, and is easier to differentiate from the three than copyediting and proofreading are—but that doesn’t make the job any simpler. While copyeditors and proofreaders make sure the manuscript doesn’t contain any errors, developmental editors work to make sure a story is the best it can be. This is where second, third, and more drafts come into play, and where the biggest changes to the manuscript are made. If you’ve ever had your writing workshopped and your feedback included ways to strengthen your characters, setting, scenes, and/or plot, you’ve experienced developmental editing.


Developmental editors work by asking the author questions while they read the manuscript, pointing out plot holes that need explaining and unexplored threads that could bring the story in a new and interesting direction. They delve into the content of the writing instead of the mechanics, showing the author places in their writing that can be expanded and improved upon rather than fixing mistakes. Developmental editors focus on the whole picture, both big and small. They can suggest moving entire paragraphs around, writing new ones, or deleting some altogether, while also encouraging the author to change main character’s hair color from red to black.


It’s important to note that this stage must occur before both copyediting and proofreading. Every time the manuscript is altered in any way the copyeditor must start back at the beginning to make sure new mistakes have not been introduced to the writing. This is why freelance copyeditors will often only accept finished manuscripts to edit.


Copyediting, the second stage of editing, is often confused with proofreading, and the confusion is understandable. In fact, I still sometimes mix the two words together. The biggest difference is that copyeditors correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation, while also calling to attention factual or tonal inconsistencies within a manuscript. Proofreaders, on the other hand, review the final version of the manuscript to ensure that mistakes have not been introduced during formatting and typesetting, as well as catch any remaining egregious errors that weren’t caught during copyediting. There is more to both copyediting and proofreading than mentioned here, of course, but I’ll keep these examples simple to distinguish the main differences between the responsibilities of the two.


Based on those differences, this means that the copyediting phase occurs before proofreading. Copyeditors typically make at least two passes through a manuscript to ensure they have corrected any and all mechanical errors present in the writing. After each pass the manuscript is returned to the author, who reviews the suggested changes and decides whether or not to accept them. Once the copyeditor has completed their passes through the manuscript and all of the changes are discussed with the author and, eventually, incorporated, the copyeditor’s job is finished.


Even though copyediting and proofreading might seem like they would overlap, proofreading is always the last editorial step. The copyediting phase is done either electronically or on a hard copy of the manuscript, when changes can still be freely made to the writing. Proofreaders, on the other hand, are given a printed copy of the final manuscript to look over to make sure everything is as it should be—that no pages are missing and that every copyedit has been incorporated, for example. During this stage, any mistakes that are caught and need to be changed can affect printing costs, whereas copyediting does not (as long as the copyediting phase remains within the publishing timeline).


And that’s it. The simplified difference between copyediting, proofreading, and developmental editing. Each is unique in purpose and highly beneficial to have applied to a manuscript. Although an author publishing their manuscript through a traditional publishing house is guaranteed to go through each of these stages, it is recommended that self-publishing authors hire at least a developmental editor and copyeditor when looking to publish their work. Specialized editors provide a fresh set of eyes to a manuscript and can catch mistakes and find opportunities an author often will not, and they usually love what they do!