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Developmental or Copy Editing. Which one is right for you? [Updated 4/20/17]

Andrew Scott

Andrew Scott


Freelance Copywriter


Apr, 2017

Originally Posted On 9/15/16

No matter if you choose one type or all three, professional editing is a MUST for all authors.

Developmental Editing

“It’s a waste of time and money to hire someone to copy edit your book before you’ve addressed all developmental and line edits.” Writer’s Digest

The first step in deciding if a developmental editor is for you is actually knowing what the term means. A developmental editor is simply a professional who knows the setting, plot, character development, and all the ins and outs of a story (or non-fiction subject if you’re writing non-fiction). In essence, they make your story stronger and make it ready to be passed around and published.

Some people recommend giving your book to a book club or writing group to see how it fares under their critical gaze, but many times little to no effort is put into actually giving you feedback. If you can gather a core group of readers in this way it can be a great asset, but most of the time it ends up being more hassle than it’s worth.

The thing you have to remember about DE’s is they are professionals and being paid to assess your work and make it the very best it can be, which will make all the difference in the world.

Think about it this way. You’re Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade. You’re meandering through the Venetian library looking for the fabled ‘X’ that marks the spot. The X is there, waiting to be found, but someone forgot to include the staircase that leads to it. Sure, a staircase may not look pretty in the middle of a library, but it’s needed to get to the top floor. The DE is the staircase you use to get some seriously heavy-handed objectivity of your work.

So, should you hire a Developmental Editor? If you’re a young author just starting out and can afford it, I highly recommend it for everyone who writes fiction. Until you’ve gotten to a point where you can rely on a core group of fellow writers or hardcore readers, the developmental editing stage could mean the difference between being published and not.

“A lot of agents don’t have time to edit manuscripts these days, they want ones they can read and then take directly to publishers, so having someone proofread it first is always a good idea.”

Copy Editing

It needs to be as perfect as you can possibly make it before sending it. [Editors] want to make your book the best it can possibly be.

There are more freelance editors available to you than ever before but, even among editors, there are some very different beasts. The Copyeditor is the person who edits your manuscript for typos, grammatical mistakes, and unruly sentences at the sentence level, but that’s really where their job finishes. Sometimes you may get some general feedback from this type of editor, but they don’t offer much in the way of advice concerning plot, dialogue, or characterization; which is why a DE is so important.

You might be saying that you don’t need someone to correct these things, that you can do them yourself. Well, you definitely SHOULD self-edit, but you still need a copy editor.  Even editors themselves should always hire an editor when they go to publish their book.

This is because when you finish this manuscript you’ve been working on like a mad alchemist for (potentially) years, there’s a chance that you’ve distilled away all objectivity concerning whether or not it’s even a good story. Naturally, there’s the cheap option of giving your manuscript to a friend or relative you trust but, ultimately, your feelings matter more to them than your sales. Yes, even that friend who ‘always tells it like it is’ will likely hold back on their true feelings. It’s just the way it is.

So who should hire a copy editor? In short, any writer who ever hopes to be published! Even those who are looking to go traditional should consider copy editing so that their book is the best it can possibly be by the time it reaches the agent or publishers desk.


The third type of editing that you’ll commonly wonder if you need is proofreading.

Proofreading is exactly what it sounds like, the person who reads the final proof before publishing. And, for anyone who doesn’t know, a proof is the final draft of a book, usually in pdf or eBook format.  The proofreader’s job is to make sure there are no spelling mistakes, formatting issues, or other topical problems that can cause bad reviews.

But do not confuse copy editing and proofreading! A proofreader who gets a manuscript that has not been copy edited will either charge a lot more or just flat out refuse to proofread it.

So who should hire a proofreader? I could easily say all writers because it is an important part of the process, but it is most important for those who are going the indie or self-publishing route. Skipping this step could mean the difference between 3-star reviews and 4 (or 5) star reviews.

The worth of a developmental editor is really a question of perspective. You don’t have one. Neither does your friend who only wants the best for you and doesn’t want to tell you about that glaring plot hole.

The beauty of indie publishing is that there’s an untroubled avenue from your writing desk to seeing your work on Amazon, but sometimes trouble can be exactly what your story needs. Giving it to somebody who can critically assess its merits as a story can be the trial by fire that sears away the loose ends and uncomfortable dialogue that result in bad reviews that loom over you like a dastardly zeppelin. Brutal honesty is what’s going to separate your manuscript from the ephemeral kindle-fodder clogging up the market. Be wise, forget kindness and make your story the very best it can be.

Ultimately, you have to ask yourself what your manuscript needs. Are you comfortable with your spelling and grammar or do you just think ‘necessary’ is spelled with three ‘c’s and a ‘z’? A lot of agents don’t have time to edit manuscripts these days, they want ones they can read and then take directly to publishers, so having someone proofread it first is always a good idea. That being said, developmental editor Kristen Weber hit the nail on the head in saying “I have many potential clients who come to me thinking they only need a copyeditor, but that’s like putting a pretty roof on a house that has no foundation.”

Further Reading:


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