Developmental edit. Line-edit. Critique. Proofread. Copy-edit… When it comes to hiring an editor, it can be hard to know which service is right for your manuscript. Let’s get stuck right in with a breakdown of what all those editorial terms mean.

This article will cover:

Explanations of each of the editing services

How to decide which service is right for you

How the publishing route (traditional or self-publishing) may affect your decision

What to do if your budget is limited

Developmental edit

Also known as: structural edit, substantive edit, content edit, story edit, comprehensive edit, macro edit, heavy edit

This is the ‘big picture’ stage, when your editor will review elements of storytelling craft in your manuscript. This could include analysing the structure and plot, flagging up issues with pacing, giving pointers for character development and pinpointing inconsistencies with voice and point of view. They will also look at any genre-specific issues – for example, in a fantasy novel this could include an assessment of world-building and magic systems.

It’s also the editing stage where any high-level changes would be suggested. This could involve trimming down long sections of exposition, developing a sub-plot or cutting a secondary character. The format will vary from editor to editor, but it will usually be delivered as an editorial report, along with more detailed, specific feedback annotated on the manuscript document itself. After a developmental edit you may need to make some fairly substantial revisions, so sometimes a second round of developmental review is needed.

Manuscript assessment

Also known as: editorial critique, editorial letter, manuscript review, manuscript appraisal, manuscript evaluation, structural report

A manuscript assessment provides an in-depth objective analysis of the strengths and weaknesses in your manuscript, with a focus on the type of story-level elements that would be covered in a developmental edit. An assessment is usually delivered in the form of an editorial report only, without the specific on-page edits that come with a developmental edit. Some authors opt to have a manuscript assessment as a budget-friendly alternative to a developmental edit (more on this below).


Also known as: copy-edit, sentence level edit

This is where things get detailed. The editor will review the nuts and bolts of your writing at the sentence level. It involves editing for clarity and flow, unpacking unwieldy sentences, checking facts, flagging up continuity glitches and applying the rules of the Big Three: spelling, punctuation and grammar. On a deeper level, it can also address issues such as dialogue effectiveness, pacing and point-of-view slip-ups.

Some editors differentiate between a line-edit, which looks at the deeper dive stuff, and a copy-edit, which focuses mainly on spelling, punctuation and grammar.

Tip: Ask a prospective line-editor to provide a sample page edit so that you can get a sense of how hands-on they will be with their line-edit changes.


The final polish. This is where any lingering typos and grammatical bungles are eliminated. By this stage in the editorial process, there shouldn’t be any structural or sentence-level changes to make.

A manuscript’s journey from first draft to publication can look something like this

Other services

There are a couple of other services editors might offer. Book coaching is becoming increasingly popular. Typically, this would take place when you are still working on your first draft (whereas editing happens after you’ve completed your draft). It could involve regular video or voice chats, accountability and goal-setting, brainstorming plot ideas and providing tools to help you with any specific writing challenges you are facing.

In a query letter review an editor will give you feedback on the query letter and other materials (synopsis, sample chapter) that you prepare to submit to agents and publishers when looking for a traditional publishing deal.

Which service is right for me?

The answer is: it depends on what state your manuscript is in and what level of editing, if any, it has already received. Ideally, a manuscript will go through a minimum of three stages of editing before it is ready for publication: a developmental edit, a line-edit and a proofread. Some authors also send their first draft out to beta readers to gain impartial feedback and make revisions based on this before they even approach an editor.

Tip: If in doubt, ask. When quoting for a job, a professional editor will request a sample of your work so that they can gauge what level of edit it may need. If you’re not sure which service you need, tell them about any previous work that has been done on the manuscript and ask for their assessment.

Does it make a difference if I’m self-publishing or looking for a traditional publishing deal?

For both publishing routes, and especially if it is your first novel, a developmental edit or a manuscript assessment is the best place to start. If you are planning to submit to traditional publishers, it’s worth having a line-edit of at least the first three chapters and getting some help with your synopsis and query letter before you start submitting. Typically, traditional publishers will conduct their own edits; however, a manuscript that has been line-edited will be a more appealing prospect than one that has not, because it will involve less work for the publisher.

If you are going down the self-publishing route, it’s worth the investment of hiring a professional editor to work on each of the three main stages: developmental edit or manuscript assessment, line-edit and proofread.

What if my budget is limited?

The two stages where it would be of most value to get professional editing are the developmental and line-edit. If a book has a thorough developmental and line-edit, then the proofread should be a straightforward job of checking for any minor typos – you could consider asking a friend to proofread it for you.  

Another option for saving some cash is to opt for a manuscript assessment rather than a full developmental edit at the first stage. If the manuscript has already had a beta read and you have made revisions based on the feedback before approaching an editor, this might be an option for you. This will involve more work on your part, as the onus will be on you to make the revisions without step-by-step guidance from your editor, but your manuscript will still benefit from invaluable story-level input.

Some editors offer a combined line-edit and proofread service. Personally, I don’t do this, as I believe it’s important to take the time to complete each editorial stage thoroughly.


So there you have it. You should now have a clearer idea of the various stages of the editorial process and an idea of where your manuscript is on its journey towards magnificence – and what expert help you need to get it there.

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