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  • Writer's pictureNicole Arch

The Four Stages of Editing (and Which is Right for You)

Updated: May 5, 2023

If you’re a debut author looking into different types of editing online, you may be coming across terms and definitions that are confusing, used incorrectly, or just plain gibberish. Sometimes totally different terms are even used interchangeably—I've seen gig postings or client requests asking for one kind of edit, only to turn around and describe a completely different service. So when you're looking into the four stages of editing, how do you know which one your manuscript needs?

Pink and grey notepads with a pen, pencil, and a saucer containing a cookie and a cup of tea

First, let's distinguish between the four stages of editing.

  1. Content Editing Content editing, also known as developmental editing, is usually the first stage in the editing process—the one concerned with the actual meat of your story. It looks at big picture elements like plot, characterization, POV, structure, scene vs summary, tension, character arcs—you name it—and how you can make your story as strong and engaging as possible.

  2. Line Editing Line editing is concerned with language side of your story, and usually occurs during or after content editing. It focuses on elevating your craft through a combination of grammar and style, with attention to tone, syntax, word choice, rhythm, and flow.

  3. Copyediting Copyediting focuses on the grammatical and technical aspects of your writing. It aims to catch inconsistencies and errors while using a style guide—typically the Chicago Manual of Style for fiction works—to ensure that spellings and other elements remain the same throughout your manuscript. It is usually the final stage of editing before layout, typesetting, and proofreading.

  4. Proofreading Proofreading is the last pass through your manuscript before publication, intended to catch any lingering errors or typos that slipped through the cracks during edits and revisions. It can be done before or after layout and typesetting, but if done after, it can also catch formatting errors like missing page numbers or incorrect fonts.

Still confused?

Think about it this way: proofreading and copyediting are concerned with correctness, while line editing and content editing deal with, well, content—the creative side of editing. That's why content and line editing tend to go earliest in the editorial process. If you have a major plot issue that will require drastic revisions, it's better to discover that as early as possible... preferably, not after you've invested in having someone error-checking passages that you might actually need to change or cut altogether.

So Which Service is Right for Me?

Nearly every manuscript will need to go through all four stages of editing before publication—and some stages, more than once. With that said, copyediting and proofreading tend to be more useful for authors who either 1) have already undergone content and line editing, or 2) are otherwise confident that their manuscript's creative elements require no revision—authors who only need one last polish before submission or independent publication.

If you're just starting your editorial journey, however, I highly recommend content and/or line editing as the best first step. These transformative services provide a thorough level of edits and feedback designed to enrich the content of your manuscript before you invest in the "final touches" of copyediting and proofreading. They also provide advice to enhance your craft as you go forward, helping you become a stronger writer and self-editor.

And if you're still unsure which of the four stages of editing is right for your manuscript, consider an editorial assessment or manuscript critique. Having an editor read through your manuscript and supply their overall impressions, including advice for what type of editing would be best serve your needs, may be just the thing you're looking for.

Have a question about the kinds of editing that I didn't answer here?

Let me know in the comments, or through my contact page! I'm always happy to chat with writers about my services.



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