What is developmental editing, anyway? How is it different from substantive editing?

Do I need to get my article copyedited if I know it'll be proofread later?

Do I even really need an editor?

This page explains the different levels of editing and when in a manuscript's life each is called for. Though most of these distinctions and principles are true for both fiction and nonfiction, this guide is written with nonfiction authors in mind.  

On this resource page, you'll find:

 • the differences between a book/writing coach and a developmental editor
 • who to turn to for help when your writing doesn't sound like you
 • and more

In my full ebook, All About Editing for Nonfiction Authors: What Editors Really Do, When You Need One, and How to Find the Right One for You, you'll also find:

 • what you and your editors should talk about so you get the most out of the process
 • a handful to great places find a professional editor (other than me, of course)
 • how to pick an editor that's the good fit for you, taking into consideration skills, logistics, and vibe
 • what I think lies at the heart of good editing
 • and more

what editors really do, when you need one, and how to find (the right) one

All About Editing

You’re writing a nonfiction book, ebook, article, or essay and you think you’ll need an editor. But…what exactly do editors do? And when in your process do you need one? 

First consult this flow chart, then read on.


You’re writing a book or article. The words are…not happening. No shame. You’re not alone. Who can help you get the draft done? 

Coaching and editing to help you finish your manuscript

You could work with a ghostwriter, someone who will choose the words for you.

But if you want the words to be your own, writing coaches, book coaches, and some developmental editors are all professionals who can help you get those words on the page. 

The job of a book coach or developmental editor is to question, jiggle, explore, celebrate, bring forth, and crack open in service of you getting clear on your ideas and creating really good bones for your book.

They will ask so many questions. They will poke holes. They may send you back to the beginning. They should also explicitly appreciate what’s already working and what’s unique about you.

Lots of people call themselves coaches. Before beginning work with someone, please make sure you’re clear on what services they’re offering and how it aligns with what you actually need. Some writing coaches give feedback on your actual writing, while others focus more on process. Some book coaches concern themselves primarily with outlines and ideas, while others offer more micro-level guidance. Some offer one-off services, while others do only durational programs. What will work best for you?

An editor who works with authors from the ground up as they are creating a book is usually called a developmental editor. Editors crack their knuckles and get right on in the writing with you, offering feedback on and marking up what you have and suggesting revisions. (Just to be confusing, the term “developmental editor” also refers to editors—like me—who address whole-book concerns on a finished manuscript...see below.)

Who you choose to work with should be a matter of their experience, expertise, and credibility, as well as the fit between you, your field/genre, your process, and what they’re offering. See the full ebook for much more on this.

If you’re not ready or able to work with a pro right now, free options to help you bring your manuscript to life include:
  • a writing group
  • critique partners
  • accountability buddies

As with working with a professional, you’ll get the most out of these if you can discern—up front or over time—what kind of feedback or process support will help you the most, and then be straightforward in communicating those needs. A good coach or editor will always be responsive, and invested in giving you what you need to succeed.

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You wrote a thing! The draft is finished. Who can help you make it better?

First—congratulations on getting that first draft done. Please celebrate! 

Put it away and don’t look at it for a little while. Your revisions will benefit from a break and the perspective it gives you.

After you’ve revised at least once (ideally more), maybe sent it to beta readers and revised again in response, you’re ready for an editor to work with the complete draft from the big picture perspective. 

Who do you turn to for these first edits on a finished draft?

Developmental / structural / substantive / content editors. Editors might label themselves and their services with any of these terms (I know that’s confusing), but they all refer to editing at the macro, structural level. I’ll use “developmental editing” going forward, because that’s what I call my own service in this category.

Developmental editors make suggestions inside the context of the whole manuscript, knowing how each part works (or could work) together. We’re making the foundation solid so you can build compelling writing on top of it. Or you could say we’re helping you carve the best legs for your tabletop and attach them with the most appropriate kind of joinery, shaping the basic form for a strong, well-balanced table.

What will you get back from your developmental editor? Expect some light edits in the manuscript itself plus an editorial memo (aka “revision letter”), a multi-page document that contextualizes and explains in detail the edits in the manuscript; discusses overall themes, broad questions and concerns, and celebration-worthy aspects of your work; and offers suggestions for how to move the manuscript forward.

Handing the manuscript off to your editor gives you another break, permission not to think about your work for a while. When they return it to you, you can review, incorporate, and revise in response to the edits on your own time. 

This is especially powerful as an iterative process, with the editing and revising focusing on increasingly detailed aspects of the work each time.

Incorporating editorial feedback at this level will probably entail major revisions. Your book will be stronger for it! 

Developmental / structural editors help when the draft is done and revised

If this service is more than your or your budget can take on right now, consider a manuscript critique, which is a one-pass global critique of your book. You’ll likely get a short editorial memo responding to the book as a whole but not any editorial work in the manuscript itself. This service usually costs much less than a full developmental/structural edit.

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You’ve written and revised a book and the big picture work with an editor is done. Your arguments are solid. Your text is in a logical order. It’s speaking at the right level to your intended audience.

Language editing: line editing / stylistic editing / copy editing

Now…does it sound like you? Does each sentence and paragraph flow well into the next? Does it march, pop off the page, shine or shimmer, glide, or flow in the way you want? Are the tone and quality of writing consistent? Have you kept your reader engaged and ensured they won’t trip anywhere along the path? 

Call a line editor (sometimes called stylistic editor)—friend of fluidity, rhythm, readability, and concision! They will go line by line, word by word, helping you make all these dreams come true. 

After working with a line editor, you'll revise revise revise! Then....

Are all your details consistent (like, really, ALL your details)? Are your grammar and punctuation in order?

Call a copy editor—friend of cleanliness and correctness! May we all bow down to the good copy editors of the world, sensitive and knowledgeable folks who whip your manuscript into shape on usage, internal consistency of facts and details, grammar, spelling, etc. This is really essential cleanup, folks. (Though I carry some habits and skills of copy editing into my line editing work, I no longer offer this as a distinct service. But I can refer you to some top-notch copy editors.)

You will accept/reject a copy editor's changes, but this is usually a final touch up. If you revise after a copy edit you may be introducing new errors, and everyone will go a bit berserk. Please avoid.

Other important kinds of editing at this level include sensitivity editing (for bias, inclusivity, etc.), technical editing (for technical correctness of instruction manuals and the like), fact checking (often lumped in with copy editing, but actually a separate, critical task). Some editors combine these services; ask your editor about it.

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My recent newsletter arrived in inboxes missing a whole word in line two. Another one once showed up with a whole repeated section! ::sigh:: We’re all too close to our own work to catch the mistakes every time, even the professionals. 

When you already have a good relationship with your audience, it’s easier to let go of moments like my missing-word goof. But what about when this is your first—or only—chance to impress a reader? What if you believe, as I do, that to give your work its best chance in the world, the presentation should live up to the prose?

Hire a proofreader.

Proofreading, or what you don't know is missing until it's too late

Proofreaders are the last person standing between your audience and that sentence that says “can” where it should say “can’t.” Get fresh eyeballs on your work at the last stage to avoid potentially embarrassing errors and typos that distract or hamper your reader. 

A proofreader can:
  • Scrub your grant application, website copy, journal article, or marketing materials squeaky clean so you look maximally professional and the reader’s attention stays on your ideas, not your slip-ups.
  • Make sure all the copy edits were successfully transferred to the final layouts of your book—the traditional use of the term proofreading.
  • Do a “cold read” on final page proofs to minimize the chances of any stray errors making it into print (including formatting errors, like headers appearing on the last line of a page or an image being misaligned).

In developmental and line editing, I’m listening deeply, reading closely, and imagining in your voice and vision. But when I’m proofreading, I cut myself off from you and your words. Through most of the process I’m not even reading for understanding. 

Instead I’m breaking down words, reading syllable by syllable out loud, looking at the shapes of lines on the page, maybe even reading backward through a text. The exception comes when I think I’ve found a mistake and I zoom out and really read the sentence or paragraph to double check the intended meaning.

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All About Editing for Nonfiction Authors: 

What Editors Really Do, When You Need One, and How to Find the Right One for You

Hungry for more information? This ebook is like Editing 201—still approachable, but chock full of useful information you can use to get the most of out working with an editor. Get many of your questions about editing answered all in one friendly place. And as a bonus, my top four tips for revising nonfiction are included, too!

  1. Introduction
  2. Coaching and editing to help you finish your manuscript
  3. What lies at the heart of editing
  4. Developmental/Structural editors help when the draft is done and revised
  5. How to get the most out of a developmental edit
  6. Line editors and copy editors polish and clean your manuscript
  7. How to get the most out of a line edit
  8. Proofreading, or what you don’t know is missing until it’s too late
  9. Do I really need an editor?
  10. How to find a reputable editor
  11. How to choose the right one for you: skills
  12. How to choose the right one for you: logistics
  13. How to choose the right one for you: vibe
  14. Roll Out the Welcome Mat: Four Strategies to Pull Readers into Your Nonfiction...and Keep Them Engaged the Whole Way Through

Book Table of Contents

All About Editing for Nonfiction Authors: 

What Editors Really Do, When You Need One, and How to Find the Right One for You

This ebook will be ready to go in January 2023 for $9.99. Pre-order now and get the early bird price of $5.99. You'll be the first to know when it's ready! 

Ordering this book also signs you up for my twice-a-month newsletter featuring tips, resources, and information about editing, revision, writing, and building a sustainable creative process. You can unsubscribe at any time.

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