How to Know What Kind of Editing You Need

Looking to get your novel or short story edited? This post will help you learn the difference between the different kinds of fiction editing so you can make the right choice when you hire an editor.

If you’re a fiction writer on the hunt for an editor, you’ve probably realized that there are tons of different kinds of editing out there. A quick Google search will unearth all manner of available services: Editorial reviews, manuscript critiques, copyediting, developmental editing, content editing, line editing, proofreading, structural editing… The list goes on.

Even when you think you’ve nailed down the definitions for all of these terms, you might find out that not everyone is using them the same way – one person’s copyedit is another person’s line edit, and so on. To add to the confusion, editors sometimes come up with their own unique names to describe their services (for example, I once came across an eccentric fiction editor who described one of his services as “the green pen of helpfulness”).

So how do you figure out what the different kinds of editing are, and what the right choice is for you?

I’m hoping this blog post series will shed some light on all the different kinds of editing services out there and help you figure out which one is right for you. But the bottom line is:

If you’re not sure what exactly an editor is offering, ask.

Even if you think you understand the terms they’re using, it never hurts to clarify. “What exactly do you mean when you say ‘line editing’? Do you have a sample I could look at?”

Getting your manuscript edited can be a big commitment of time and money, so you want to make sure that you and your editor are on the same page.

If you’re worried about being a nuisance, don’t. Any editor worth working with will be happy to clarify the services they’re offering, and in the end you’ll be glad you didn’t make assumptions.

So let’s get started. I could go into an insane amount of detail describing all of the different kinds of editing services out there – and I will, later – but first:

The Basics: Story-level vs. sentence-level editing

In a nutshell, there are two categories of editing available for fiction writers: story-level editing, and sentence-level editing.

There’s a ton of variation within those categories, of course. On the story level, you can find everything from a super wide overview – I’ve seen editors, for example, that focus on critiquing nothing but your premise – to a brief letter that points out the strengths and weaknesses of your story and suggestions for revision (editorial review), to a scene-level dissection of your plot and character development (developmental editing). On the sentence level, you can find editors that will suggest major overhauls of your paragraph and sentence structure (line editing), point out subject-verb disagreements and incorrect comma placement (copy editing), and be the last pair of eyes to find any typos on your manuscript before it hits the printers (proofreading).

I’ll go into more detail about each of the types of editing in another blog post, but for now here is a quick cheat sheet:

Examples of story-level editing:
Developmental, structural, or content editing
Manuscript Critiques
Editorial Reviews

Examples of sentence-level editing:
Line editing

Remember that individual editors may have their own names for their services, so when in doubt ask for clarification. If an editor offers more than one of these services, most of the time they will break up their service packages so that your manuscript gets either a story-level edit or a sentence-level edit, but not both at the same time. This is because, first of all,

It doesn’t usually make sense to get a story-level edit and a sentence-level edit at the same time.

Here’s why: If your story needs major editing on plot, point of view, and character development, you’re going to have to do so much revision after you get your manuscript back from the editor that it would be premature for them to line edit your work on the sentence level. Secondly, story-level editing and sentence-level are both very time-consuming and it would be pretty expensive to do both simultaneously

So… How do you know if you need story-level editing or sentence-level editing?

To decide if you need story-level editing or sentence-level editing, ask yourself these 4 questions:

Question #1: Are you happy with your story?

Do you like your main character? Your plot? Your ending? Do you feel like your story is coming together the way you want to? If the answer is no, and if you’re finding yourself frustrated, annoyed, and hitting a wall, then by all means seek out an editor who can help you.

Sometimes fiction writers make the mistake of assuming that their perception skewed. “I’m unhappy with my story – but maybe it’s just me! Maybe a reader will love it! It’s just my imagination!” While there is some truth in this – often times as writers we are way too close to the work to be able to see clearly, which is why we need to hire editors in the first place. But, on the other hand…

Trust your intuition. If you feel like your story is problematic, it probably is.

And, more to the point, if you are truly unhappy with your story, who cares if a reader likes it? The goal should be writing a story that you love as much as your readers do. If it’s gotten to the point that looking at your manuscript is enough to make you grimace, pout, or want to pull your hair out, look for an editor who can help you address your story-level issues. Developmental editors are great for this. Ideally, look for someone who has experience in your genre. There are also editors who offer story consultations or manuscript critiques, which can be a quicker and more affordable way of getting story-level help on your novel or short story.

Question #2: Are you a story-focused writer, or a language-focused writer?

Some writers have no problem penning clear, economical, agile, and stylistically interesting sentences, but when it comes to plot and character development they are seriously challenged. Other writers tend to be clunkier on the sentence level but can produce original characters and airtight plots out of thin air.

If you have a hard time with your writing on the sentence or word level, look for a sentence-level editor (line editors are great for this). On the other hand, if you struggle with story, plot, and character, you will be better off investing in a story-level editor (like a developmental editor).

Of course, most of us need help with both of these things from time to time, but knowing yourself as a writer and your own strengths and weaknesses can go a long way toward helping you decide what kind of help to get.

Question #3: Is this your first draft? Your fourth? Your tenth?

Generally speaking, first, second, and even third drafts are not ready for sentence-level editing.

Even if you are a meticulous plotter who is working from an airtight outline, inevitably the early stages of drafting are a discovery phase – in your first and second draft, you are still figuring out your story, developing your characters and plot, and in the process finding big problems and loopholes and undertaking serious revisions. If you are getting stuck and need help at this stage, hire a story-level editor.

On the other hand, if this is your fourth, fifth, or more draft, you might be ready for a sentence-level edit. But before you run off to your nearest line or copyeditor, ask yourself one last question:

Question #4: Has anyone else read your manuscript?

Just because you have read and revised your manuscript a dozen times and feel like it all makes perfect sense, doesn’t mean that your story is going to come across to a reader. If you have an advanced draft of a novel or short story and feel like it’s ready for a sentence-level edit, it’s a good idea to get a few people to read your manuscript before you send it off to an editor. Try to find people whose judgment you trust – fellow writers and astute readers – rather than giving it to a family member or friend who might be worried about hurting your feelings and not be entirely honest with you.

If four or five people read it and your story seems to be coming across clearly, then proceed with a sentence-level edit.

I hope this has helped you understand more about the different kinds of editing available for fiction writers.