The Four Steps of Editing

Updated on January 29, 2020
Amy Donnelly profile image

Amy is a freelance content and development editor. She loves coffee, reading, traveling, and editing.


What Is the Definition of Editing?

The most common answer: correcting misspelled words or adding a comma where it belongs. That's somewhat correct, but only the tip of the iceberg. The editing process involves many sets of eyes and several layers to complete.

It’s important to understand the different types of editing to know what to expect from the process, especially for self-publishing authors. Why? The revision levels focus on specific individual needs, including stylistic and substantive content. For simplicity, we'll divide editing types into four main categories: content and development, line, copy, and proofread.

The Steps Simplified

Step 1: Content and Development Edit

The first step for most manuscripts is content and development editing—reviewing the meat of the story, plot, and characters. Developmental editing tackles the following:

  • Flow
  • Organization
  • Chapter (arrangement, length, and number)
  • Character voices
  • Dialogue
  • Plot and subplot
  • Pacing
  • Impact of POV (first, second, third, or combination)

Content and development edits can and will sometimes result in revisions to chapter order or construction, and even additional chapters written. Do chapters alternate between the hero and heroine, shifting from first to third person point of view? Content editors eat that up! They'll ensure the third POV is following singular or omniscient rules, and that the audience connects with the character.

Step 2: Line Edit

Line edits focus primarily on sentence and paragraph structure with attention to:

  • Words or phrases that are repetitious
  • Restructuring sentences that are not complete or inaccurate
  • Run-on sentences
  • Usage of words that clarify meaning
  • Enhances boring wording

A line edit restructures sentences to elevate clarity and flow. Say there are two sentences describing something uber important, but they don’t quite pull together. During this step, the line editor will take the two sentences apart and tease them until they read effortlessly.

Step 3: Copy Edit

The mechanics happen during the copy edit, focusing on specific rules including but not limited to:

  • Grammar and punctuation
  • Spelling nuances (British English versus American English)
  • Capitalizing, hyphenating, italicizing
  • When to use numbers instead of letters

The copy edit can and should be automated using rules. Every editor uses two to three references to maintain consistency—specifically, a dictionary and a style manual. For fiction, The Chicago Manual of Style is widely used and accepted. Use of dictionaries should be selective to ensure spelling is primarily American-English, not for preference, but to standardize and provide consistency. Merriam-Webster dictionary is most common.

It’s also important to note, there are subtle differences between style manuals (APA, MLA, CMS), and dictionaries. This can be frustrating when semantics come into play about an edited final product. Using the same style manual and dictionary throughout will ensure consistency.

The copyeditor can and should provide a style sheet, pointing out rules as they pertain to the revisions made. Familiarity with the Chicago Manual of Style is helpful, but the copyeditor should provide the changes as they relate to the CMS for relevance as well as improving writing skills.

Step 4: Proofread

The proofread is the final, and hopefully, painless phase. A proofreader has the last shot at the manuscript and looks for:

  • Spelling errors
  • Words that sound the same but spelled differently
  • Correct usage of quotation and punctuation marks around
  • Dialogue
  • Missed words (of, and, the)
  • Unwanted spaces

Proofreading falls outside the technical realm of general editing. In-depth accounting for content and flow should occur before a proofread. A proofreader isn’t expected to critique or provide an exhaustive review.

A Few Pointers

It’s easy to see how manuscripts come together using this methodology, right?

There are common misconceptions. Content and development editors aren't responsible for grammar and punctuation. Line and copy are often confused, although it's clear that sentence structure and grammar rules are different focuses. The same problem arises with copy edits and the proofread.

Hopefully it's clear why the editing steps don’t often occur out of order.

Every piece is essential. Sometimes steps are skipped or omitted. It’s also not unheard of to use multiple proofreaders to polish the final product. Regardless, several editing style combinations based on skill level are possible.

The Additional Layers

It’s common practice to share work in progress with alpha and beta readers while writing or upon finalization. This occurs before comprehensive editing.

Notably, alpha and beta readers are useful and can point out plot holes, characters with annoying traits, and overall opinions of individual story parts or as a whole. However, and this might not be a favorable opinion, alphas and betas aren't considered an editing layer, although an integral and sometimes necessary part of the process. Their input gives peace of mind that the story will connect with readers, but shouldn’t replace an editor—multiple or singular.

Critique partners, commonly peers or authors, are also practical for providing useful feedback. A compelling example is tackling a different genre than usual. Finding a critique partner with expertise and audience knowledge helps deliver a smooth landing. Developmental editors also provide input for current genre trends.

Patience is bitter, but the fruit is sweet.

— Aristotle

And Then There's Everything Else

Editing a novel can be daunting. Knowing and understanding what to expect each step of the way is part of the process. Remember when working with an editor, or as an editor working with a writer, stay open to suggestions and discussion. Sometimes discussing revisions sparks ideas.

Importantly, don’t rush the process. Editing is the last step of writing the novel. At best, it’s harrowing aligning calendars to finalize cover art, formatting, marketing, and a million other tasks that coincide at the same time. Taking the time to work through these layers will deliver a sound product.

How do you edit your novel?

What levels of editing do you use?

See results

© 2018 Amy Donnelly


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    • Eli Peters profile image

      Eli Peters 

      2 years ago

      Well done! I love how you took technical editing terms and explained them in a way that everyone will understand. The chart for types of editing that you included as a graphic is awesome. Thank you. I can't wait for more!

    • Amy Donnelly profile imageAUTHOR

      Amy Donnelly 

      2 years ago from Texas

      That's awesome. I'm glad the explanations hit home! Thanks for reading.

    • Amy Donnelly profile imageAUTHOR

      Amy Donnelly 

      2 years ago from Texas

      Thanks for reading, T!

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      Thanks for the info!! I always confuse line and copy edits.

    • profile image

      Tanya Mainwaring 

      2 years ago

      Loved it!


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