January 21, 2016

What Do Editors Do? (An Answer in Three Tiers)


Hey, readers and writers. Happy New Year!

One of the questions I’m frequently asked is, “What exactly do editors do?” It’s not a dumb question! Editors do a lot of things, and as a story on NPR pointed out a few weeks ago, the role has changed over time.

To make things simple, I like to describe editing in terms of three tiers: developmental editing, copyediting, and proofreading. Published authors get the editorial treatment at all of these levels, sometimes being edited by a dozen editors or more; and if you want your self-published work to have the same durability and polish, I recommend budgeting for some editorial help. (You may not need ten editors, but you could use one or two!)

Developmental Editing (also known as content editing or substantive editing)

Content editors think about your book’s big picture. Do your arguments make sense? Is your voice clear and authentic? Are your plots and characters engaging? Is your book organized logically? A developmental editor will help you make sure that your content is spot-on for your intended reader, but they won’t spend much time on sentence-level problems in your writing. After all, why spend time correcting the grammar in a paragraph when you might decide that you don’t need that paragraph after all?


Once you are happy with your content, a copyeditor takes a book that is good and makes it really good. He or she will help you fact-check; make sure your research and citations are in order; make sure the sentences flow; and make sure the language is consistent throughout. Copyeditors do more than this, such as correcting your grammar, punctuation, or spelling; pointing out redundancies or smaller logical errors; or double-checking your plot details. For example, when I copyedit fiction projects, I like to create a timeline and a characterization chart to make sure that everyone is doing the right things at the right time. A copyeditor makes a book really shine.


A book’s proofreaders are the last line of editorial defense. By the time a proofreader has a book in hand, it ought to be in really good shape . . . but sometimes, errors sneak in. A proofreader goes line by line to make sure that there is nothing left to correct, including spellings or even page layout problems. Your proofreader will make sure that the pages even look proper in printed form. Errors occasionally get through, but a proofreader can save the day. (Note: some people refer to this as line editing, while others might consider copyediting to be closer to line editing. Either way, both versions of editing are focused upon the sentence level of your writing.)

These are broad categories, and I’ve certainly left some things out; but I will go deeper into each of these levels (plus more!) in future posts. As is, I hope this summary will help you better understand what editors can do for your writing. No matter what tier of editorial work we occupy, we—like you—want your book to sparkle.

Cheers, ya’ll! What other questions can we discuss?


(Thanks to picjumbo for the image)

About theJocelyn
  • Dann Berg says:

    I don’t think most people realize just how much work is often put into a published work. There are so many eyes that look over every single word. Just thinking about the editorial process on a book like Infinite Jest makes me shudder.

    Also, I absolutely love the artwork in your header!

    • Jocelyn says:

      Thanks, Dann. I agree! People seem shocked to learn that publishing houses have several editors who work on a single title. Infinite Jest. Have mercy. What I’d give to hear about that process!

      BTW–your website looks so useful. I’ve already bookmarked it. 🙂 And thank you re: the artwork. The wonderful graphic artist Lucy Knisley drew it for me!

      • Infinite Jest makes me think about books that should have been more tightly edited and weren’t. Unpopular opinion: I feel like books 5 – 7 in the Harry Potter series fit this bill!

  • Good editing is a craft. I think many authors get discouraged when their manuscript doesn’t look like something on a shelf at Barnes & Noble! Editing can really polish a turd, is what I’m saying.

    I’m excited to see your blog kick back up. The book reviews will be über fun! As far as other topics…let’s see. I’d be interested in your thoughts on diversity in publishing!

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