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What Do Editors Do?

September 2, 2013

If you’re planning to hire an editor to look at your manuscript, it’s important to understand that there are a variety of editorial services available to you. They range from providing help to develop a book concept  to polishing a fully formed work. All levels of editing are not typically done concurrently, and editors generally specialize .

When you’re self-editing, you won’t draw lines between levels of editing. It’s a fluid process. But when you hire an editor, you want to be sure to find someone who is proficient in the kind of editing your manuscript requires. For example, if you’re still unsure about issues like plot or character development, you want to hire an editor who knows how to give you big-picture feedback. And it would be a waste of money and effort to have your manuscript copyedited when it is  (or should be) still in a state of flux.

Here are some definitions for the levels of editing.

Developmental Editing

  • Provides big-picture direction to help the author form a vision for the book (may include market research)
  • Suggests content and organization
  • May suggest restructuring of a manuscript
  • Coaches the author to ensure that vision is successfully executed

Content Editing

  • Provides detailed notes in the form of a “manuscript evaluation” or “editorial letter”
  • In fiction addresses big-picture issues such as plot, setting, characters, pacing, point of view, style, and appropriateness for genre
  • In nonfiction addresses clarity, clear and logical flow of your ideas, consistency, style, and effectiveness for genre

Substantive Editing

  • Sometimes called line editing; the editor works directly on the manuscript
  • Deals with the organization and presentation of content
  • Notes discrepancies or POV breaks; flags things that don’t make sense
  • Flags or suggests rewrites at the chapter, paragraph, and and sentence levels


  • Focuses on mechanical issues including: spelling, grammar, punctuation, syntax, and word usage, while preserving the meaning and voice of the original text
  • Checks for and imposes consistent style and format
  • Prepares a style sheet that documents style and formatting decisions
  • May do fact-checking

Terminology varies and these definitions are not comprehensive. They are meant to help you think about the kind of editing your manuscript might need and are a starting point as you search for an editor who can help you achieve your vision for your work.

Mary Ann de Stefano is the editor of The Florida Writer, the official magazine of the Florida Writers Association. She is also a writer, editor, and organizer of writing workshops with 30 years of experience in publishing and writing consulting. Besides working one-on-one with writers who are developing books, she builds websites and advises on e-marketing. Mary Ann does business at MAD about Words, named as a play on her initials and love for writing.

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