LEVELS OF EDITING
When I first started editing, I was doing it casually for friends who were writing fiction projects, students who needed help with their thesis papers, and coworkers who needed a second set of eyes on a letter or announcement. Sometimes I got paid but usually not, and I didn't really know that there were standard terms for the different levels of editing.
Unfortunately, when I started looking at editing professionally, I discovered that those "standard terms" are often varied and confusing, and their definitions can sometimes be murky as heck. This makes sense when you consider that editing is a broad field that's developed differently in different industries or parts of the world, but it's not very friendly to newcomers.
It seems like if you ask ten different editors to define the levels of editing, you'll get ten different answers, but what follows below is what I've found in terms of commonalities. It's also worth noting that these definitions refer primarily to fiction and creative nonfiction; academia has its own set of definitions.
Editors Canada lists four stages of editing: structural editing, stylistic editing, copy editing, and proofreading. All the definitions of editing that I've found under other names elsewhere correspond to one of those, so I'd say it's a pretty good breakdown.
Here are some of those alternative names:
Structural editing = substantive editing, developmental editing, content editing
Stylistic editing = line editing
Copy editing = mechanical editing
Then you add in that some publishers have one editor doing multiple levels of editing, which they simply call "manuscript editing", or that just about every definition of "line editing" is super vague, and you can see why this is a confusing topic for people both inside the editing field and outside it. I hope this post can help sort things out a bit for you, or at least clarify what I mean when I use certain terms.
This is the stage of editing that probably has the most number of names: developmental editing, substantive editing, content editing, macro editing... Honestly, you can probably find more if you look. But most sources for fiction and creative nonfiction that I've seen agree that the first stage of editing is the one that assesses the project on a big-picture level.
One course from Editors Canada describes this stage of editing like so: "Substantive editing, also known as structural editing, focuses on the content, organization, and presentation of an entire text, from the title through to the ending. Substantive editors help writers define their goals, identify their readers, and shape the manuscript in the best possible way. They clarify the argument, fix the pacing, suggest improvements, and draw missing pieces from the author. ... Substantive editing is the first step in the editing or revising process, and there is no point in copy editing a text that needs substantive work." Other materials from EC refer to it as developmental editing, specify that it covers concept, craft, structure, plot, world-building, and character development, and confirm that it's also called a structural or substantive edit.
Editors Canada also publishes a definitive document called Professional Editorial Standards, which defines the various levels of editing and outlines what tasks they include. This document's section on tasks for structural editing includes:
Reorganizing material to achieve a coherent structure and sequence, a logical progression of ideas, and a narrative or expository flow and shape appropriate to the audience, medium, and purpose
Suggesting the revision, cutting, or expanding of material
Identifying and recommending appropriate deletions (e.g., to remove repetitive, irrelevant, or otherwise superfluous material) and additions (e.g., to fill gaps in content or strengthen transitions between sections)
Definitions provided by courses offered through the Editorial Freelancer's Association seem to agree: "Also called content editor or substantive editor. ... The developmental editor is one who works at the big-picture level. Does the novel do what it’s supposed to do? If it’s a genre novel, does it meet the expectations and requirements of the genre? Are there big holes in the manuscript? Is the narrative effective (does the story make sense)?" "A developmental editor in fiction is different than one in nonfiction. In nonfiction, a developmental editor usually works with the author beforehand, helping to shape the book. In fiction, a developmental editor works with a finished manuscript. Generally, a developmental editor will offer a critique or editorial letter. This editorial letter, which can range anywhere from five to twenty pages (or even more), touches upon plot, pacing, narrative tension, setting, characterization and a character’s arc, dialogue (whether it works and sounds realistic), and other big-picture issues."
Even Wikipedia says, "As explained by Scott Norton in his book Developmental editing: a handbook for freelancers, authors, and publishers, developmental editing involves 'significant structuring or restructuring of a manuscript's discourse'." "Content editing, also known as substantive editing, comprehensive editing, macro editing, or heavy editing ... evaluates the overall style and content of a document".
Personally, I refer to this level of editing as "developmental" because it feels the least likely to be confused with another name—like substantive versus structural versus stylistic... You get the idea.
This is by far the trickiest stage of editing to pin down. Also called stylistic editing, line editing is sometimes included in developmental editing and other times included in copy editing, which doesn't help matters at all. Even Editors Canada says, "Stylistic editing is editing to clarify meaning, ensure coherence and flow, and refine the language. [It] is often done as part of a structural edit or copy edit rather than as a separate step."
Tasks that Editors Canada's Professional Editorial Standards lists for this type of editing include:
Improve paragraph construction, sentence construction, and word choice to more effectively convey meaning
Revise sentences, paragraphs, and passages to resolve ambiguities, ensure logical connections, and clarify the meaning or intention
Ensure that transitions between sentences and between paragraphs are smooth and support the coherent development of the text as a whole
Determine the language and reading level appropriate for the intended audience, medium, and purpose, and edit to establish or maintain that language and level
Establish, maintain, or enhance tone, mood, style, and authorial voice or level of formality appropriate to the content and for the intended audience, medium, and purpose
The EFA's introductory course on line editing emphasizes that it focuses on voice: "Line editors listen to the music behind each written word. They consider the rhythm and cadence of a sentence or paragraph and ask how it meshes with the mood and tone of a scene or story. They look out for an author’s stylistic weaknesses but never override an author’s style." It describes tasks such as "helping an author develop their authorial voice, addressing issues with mood, point of view, and dialogue at the line level, using line editing to improve a scene’s pacing, and challenging an intermediate or experienced writer to take their work to the next level."
Other courses from the EFA say, "This is a line by line, sentence by sentence edit that is not looking at grammar and spelling per se, but the way the writer uses language to further the storyline." They describe tasks that include tightening dialogue and other passages; making sure the transitions between scenes work well; fixing confusing narrative digressions; improving the pacing by looking at the language; making sure the dialogue is consistent with the time in which the novel is set; and flagging clichés, mixed metaphors, and other word issues (such as an author’s go-to words).
A post from NY Book Editors explains that a "line edit addresses the creative content, writing style, and language use at the sentence and paragraph level. But the purpose of a line edit is not to comb your manuscript for errors – rather, a line edit focuses on the way you use language to communicate your story to the reader. Is your language clear, fluid, and pleasurable to read? Does it convey a sense of atmosphere, emotion, and tone? Do the words you’ve chosen convey a precise meaning, or are you using broad generalizations and clichés?"
An article from LitHub agrees: "Line editors tighten sentences when tension and clarity is missing, but they also give sentences breath when constrained. Beyond removing clichés, they excise a writer’s pet words and mannered constructions. Line editors help sentences build into paragraphs, and paragraphs flow into pages."
Personally, I combine line editing and copy editing, because I find working that way to be pretty intuitive. Other editors will have their own preferences and/or offer line editing as its own separate service.
Copy editing is sometimes also called mechanical editing. Editors Canada describes it as "editing to ensure correctness, accuracy, consistency, and completeness."
Tasks that Editors Canada's Professional Editorial Standards lists for this type of editing include:
Correct errors in spelling, word usage, grammar, and punctuation
Identify and consistently apply editorial style (e.g., abbreviations, treatment of numbers, Canadian/British/American spelling, URLs)
Develop a style sheet, or follow one that is provided, to track editorial style and apply it consistently
Understand methods for documenting sources (e.g., reference list, footnotes, links) and consistently apply an editorial style (e.g., APA, Chicago) appropriate to the material or as directed
Identify and either query or correct arbitrary and confusing shifts and variations in terminology, logic, and mechanics (e.g., metaphors, characterization, spelling, numbers, abbreviations)
The EFA's courses on copyediting fiction agree ("correct spelling, grammar, usage, punctuation, consistency of facts and presentation; check cross-references; prepare style sheets that guide consistency and accuracy across the manuscript") but also describe maintaining continuity (which means internal consistency of facts, such as picking up on inconsistencies in names and ages of people, physical characteristics, timelines, and world-building details).
Scibendi agrees: "Regardless of the topic of a piece of text, a copy editor has the expertise needed to find and correct errors in spelling, grammar, continuity, flow, and punctuation."
But other definitions provide descriptions that go beyond grammar, spelling, and style guides, which is when things start to blend into line editing. Grammarly says that the tasks involved in copy editing "include checking written material for grammar, spelling, style, and punctuation issues before it’s prepared for proofreading. A copy editor may also do a rewrite, if necessary, to fix any problems with transitions, wordiness, jargon, and to ensure the style of the piece fits with the publication." Even Wikipedia's definition has increased scope: "Copy editing is the process of reviewing and correcting written material to improve accuracy, readability, and fitness for its purpose, and to ensure that it is free of error, omission, inconsistency, and repetition."
The fact that there isn't a clear boundary between line editing and copy editing is part of why I combine them. But also, in my experience, the small presses and indie authors I most enjoy working with tend not to have a dedicated line editor, and do rely on one person to cover multiple levels of editing. Even if you have two editors (one ostensibly focused on development edits and, afterwards, one ostensibly focused on copy edits) overlapping when it comes to providing line edits, unless one or both of those editors is deeply territorial or bad at their job, I think a manuscript only benefits from the extra attention and sets of expertise.
(Yes, outside of this page, I tend to use "copyediting" rather than "copy editing". I just like it better without the space, and I'm allowed my idiosyncrasies.)