When I get a request to “edit” a story, the first thing I do is clarify just what type of editing a client is looking to have performed because the range of possibilities is actually quite broad. To make things even more interesting, there’s not a true 100% standardization on the names or even tasks of particular types of editing within the publishing industry. The definitions and tasks can vary across different publishing houses, different publishing niches and even with different freelance editors.

It’s all a bit of a mess and it can be confusing for authors who are either looking for editing services or trying to figure out what the status they’ve just been sent by their editor means.

Instead of attempting some sort of World Dominance of Editing Terminology, I’ve listed below the three major editing types with a few of their alternate names and the most common tasks associated with those types of editing. This is the list I work off of and will give you a decent, if imperfect, idea of what you’re looking at when you are contracting for editing services or getting a status on editing in progress.

  • Content Editing

    This is the most intensive form of editing I provide and, thus, the most expensive. A content editor delves deeply into the not just the technical aspects of the language of a manuscript, but into the storytelling aspects as well. The focus of content editing is to help an author improve a manuscript by:

    • Suggesting changes to the manuscript’s overall structure, timeline, presentation and contents to improve the story’s accuracy, flow and impact.
    • Ensuring consistency across the manuscript. This includes everything from character descriptions to world details.
    • Suggesting changes in the manuscript’s wording or language to improve readability and reader comprehension.
    • Correcting any errors in the manuscript’s grammar, punctuation and language errors.
    • Verifying the consistence of the manuscript’s formatting adherence to any applicable house styles.
  • Copy Editing (also called Line Editing)

    Copy editing is a step below Content editing in intensity, though it covers some of the same editing tasks. Copy editing is more about technical aspects of language than storytelling but copy editors will point out issues they discover as well. The focus of copy or line editing is to help an author improve a manuscript by:

    • Correcting any errors in the manuscript’s word usage, grammar, punctuation and logic.
    • Verifying the consistency of the manuscript’s formatting and adherence to any applicable house styles.

  • Proofreading

    Proofreading is another step down in intensity from copy editing but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. Far from it. Proofreaders catch a lot of errors in manuscripts before they are published because proofreading is basically a line-by-line careful reading of the entire manuscript. Proofreaders are focused directly on the manuscript’s technical aspects. The focus of proofreading is to help an author improve a manuscript by:

    • Correcting any errors in the manuscript’s word usage, grammar, punctuation and logic.

There are two types I’ve not listed because they are not often used in my specialty of fiction editing and those are developmental editing and substantive editing. These both tend to involve the editor being on board before a manuscript is completed and writing or having direct input into the manuscript as it progresses through outline, draft and finished manuscript stages.

You can see how the different types of editing go from the most extensive and involved in content editing to the purely technical in proofreading. But remember that this is my own list, not every editor’s list. What I consider to be part and parcel of a copy editing task may be less or more than what another editor will do when you request a “copy edit” from them. So one of the things you should always do when hiring or working with any editor is to ask them what they will be focused on while editing your manuscript.