The Four Types of Editing

By Bonnie Stinson

At’s PubCamp, Wendy Call presented her workshop, “Breaking Down the Editing Process: Setting Boundaries and Solving Problems.”

We’ve all had the experience of offering a piece of work to someone and asking for feedback, and they’re nitpicking over commas when all we want is to see if the story makes sense. This is your permission to “get the right person for the right feedback at the right time.”

‘Editing’ means a variety of different things to different people. In order to get useful feedback (and save your friendships and working relationships!), Wendy breaks down the four types of editing and shares some tips to overcome struggles in the editing process.

When you hire an editor, there are typically four types:

1. Developmental editing

2. Substantive editing

3. Line editing

4. Copy editing, followed by proofreading (two different people should do this)

Before you approach an editor, think about which of these four editing types you want help with. Let people know what sort of feedback you want. It’s okay to be clear with your editors.

You can also do well editing your own work. If you seek feedback from too many unrefined sources, that feedback will be a useless cacophonous mess. The primary reason to edit your own work is to maintain creative control and the personality of the content. Other people may want to change the tone of the piece and rephrase it for their own lives. A good editor should be like “perfect pitch for your voice.” Some editors can mimic other people’s voices well, but many can’t.

1. Developmental editing

This step occurs before you even have a manuscript — what’s the order of events, what’s the arc? At the developmental level, talking can be more useful than writing.

*Wendy recommends Scott Norton’s ‘Developmental Editing’:

2. Substantive editing

Once you have a full manuscript, substantive editing examines what’s happening at the chapter and paragraph levels, including character development and logical through-lines. At this point, there’s not much talk about language, syntax, or diction. The focus is more on story arc.

3. Line-editing

Line-editing focuses on the sentence level (after you’ve dealt with the flow and structure of the book, after the characters and story lines are developed).

This is often the phase at which books are compressed greatly. Line editing is the hardest thing to do yourself. For example, if you’ve written 158k words and you just got a contract for 100k words and suddenly you must lose 58k, it can be hard to do yourself. Try not to be precious about your work, and seek help from a line editor.

4. Copy editing and proofreading

Finally, copy editing seeks to correct commas, grammatical errors, word choices, syntax, and consistency in style (Chicago, APA, MLA, etc.). Proofreading is mostly to correct what happens in file transfers, and is the final sheen on an already glossy product.

Other things to think about

When you’re entering the editing process, think about what you’re doing to your own work in this order: developmental, substantive, line-editing, and copy editing.

Segment your editing attentions to save your energy and stress. Don’t worry about language at the sentence level if you’re just going for the arc. Let your readers know, especially in the initial phases, what you’re looking for in terms of feedback.

Wendy emphasized that the timing of this process is important. Can you afford to set time aside so you can come back to it with fresh eyes?

How do you keep from over-editing? Don’t polish your sentences too soon. Self-publishing is being willing to live with a mess for a long time. Know yourself as a writer and a editor. Some people need to do the hardest part first. If you’re a writer who needs to get a first draft on the page and struggles with it, then get the first draft down before you allow yourself to go back and edit.

Do you find yourself writing in passive voice? If you’re in your first draft, don’t worry about it. It’s more important to get the story out of you.

However, when something you’ve written doesn’t work for that scene or chapter, SAVE IT! You can use it either for a different part of the book, or for another story, or edit it into a selection of short stories. The possibilities are endless. This is a great compromise for writers who feel like they’re killing their babies when they cut out beautiful pieces of writing that just don’t serve the story. Save them for later!

Be careful who you give your book to. If your test readers are not your target audience, then their feedback will be totally worthless to you and you should ignore it.


  • Ask your test readers to sum up what they’ve read. What does this piece tell you in 20-30 words?
  • If there’s a scene in the book that is supposed to be achieving x, give just that scene to someone and ask them how they would describe that character in three words. How did they feel when they finished reading this scene?
  • Offer your work to some readers and ask them not to touch the page, but instead give emotional feedback.
  • Try scaffolding a troublesome passage. Divide it into nouns and adjectives and then replace them with different words.
  • Read it backwards. See when you introduce red herrings that shouldn’t be there. Does foreshadowing work? Do the frame and structure work?

Final Tips

  • Find a good skeptical reader who you’d like to reach with a piece of reading but who will be highly skeptical. Ask them to read it and ask for a scathing critique of it.
  • Idea pieces get the best feedback from people within that field, not other writers.


Wendy Call is a Seattle-based poet, author and translator. She is also a Hedgebrook alum who recently read at the 2013 Seattle Lit Crawl, and is currently writing about several U.S. national parks. You can find her at



Bonnie StinsonBonnie is a multimedia artist and writer based in Seattle, WA. Her stories touch on themes of distance and intimacy, revolution and acceptance. There’s no wrong way to tell a story, but her favorites are screenwriting, poetry, and installation art.