When someone asks me about editing services, one of the most frequently asked questions I usually end up answering is the difference between copyediting and proofreading. These are two of the most commonly sought editing services, but in fact there are several major stages of editing in the traditional publishing process. Here I will briefly explain four of the most important categories of editing in order to help authors find the right type of editing services for their needs.

Editing StageFunction
Acquisitions and Developmental EditingMaking decision to publish book, evaluating and improving book’s overall theme and marketability
Line Editing (Content or Style Editing)Editing literary style for readability, clarity, persuasiveness, and impact
CopyeditingEditing grammatical style for spelling, punctuation, grammar, style guidelines, factual accuracy, and legal liability
ProofreadingChecking final manuscript for typos and other errors before printing

I will focus on defining tasks rather than titles. In practice, many editors perform several of these tasks, and the names for different tasks sometimes get blurred together. There are other editing titles besides those I’m going to cover, but these tend to overlap with the ones described here. I’ll stick to four of the most essential types of editing in order to keep things simple.

The stages outlined here apply primarily to traditional book publishing. However, they can be adapted to the needs of self-published book authors, as well as authors publishing shorter works like articles or white papers.

1. Acquisitions and Developmental Editing

In traditional publishing, the first editor to handle a book is typically the acquisitions editor or acquiring editor. An acquisitions editor may also be called a senior acquisitions editor, a senior editor, a general editor, or an editorial director.

Acquisitions editing informs the publisher’s decision whether or not to acquire a book for publication. An acquisitions editor reviews book ideas submitted by published authors, prospective authors, agents, auctioneers, and editors.

An author or agent usually pitches ideas to an acquisitions editor by presenting them in the form of a book proposal, which is a short summary of essential information about a proposed book’s content, its market, and its author. Acquisitions editors often have to review hundreds or thousands of book ideas, so they prefer ideas to be submitted through book proposals. Authors and agents sometimes hire consultants with writing or editing experience to help prepare and improve book proposals.

After considering many proposals, the acquisitions editor decides which books to pitch to the publisher’s editing and marketing departments. If the publisher decides to pursue a book project, the acquisitions editor then helps negotiate a contract with the author’s agent. They also help shape the book to improve its overall thematic direction and marketability. This latter function is also sometimes known as developmental editing or substantive editing, depending on the context.

A self-published author may perform some of the functions of a traditional acquisitions or developmental editor. They may do their own market research to evaluate various project ideas and decide which ones to implement. They may also hire a consultant for assistance in evaluating a market or refining an initial concept.

2. Line Editing (Content or Style Editing)

Line editing, also called content editing or style editing, is the stage of editing that comes after a first draft of a book or chapter has been written. A line editor reviews a manuscript’s literary style to make sure that it’s easy to read, its message is clear, its arguments are persuasive, and its emotional impact hits the right note.

3. Copyediting

Copyediting is often handled by line editors who do both jobs. Where line editing focuses on literary style, copyediting focuses on grammatical style and related issues. A copyeditor uses a publisher’s in-house style guide to review a manuscript’s spelling, punctuation, and grammar. They also often act as fact checkers and keep an eye out for passages that require legal review, such as quotations that require copyright permission, potentially libelous statements, or statements that could be construed as giving medical, financial, or legal advice.

4. Proofreading

A proofreader is not technically an editor, but works closely with the editing team. A proofreader reviews pages of a manuscript that are in the final stage before going to the printer, checking for typos and other errors. The copyeditor usually does some preliminary proofreading before handing a manuscript off to a proofreader.

There are traditionally two stages of proofreading. The first stage is called the galley proof stage in traditional publishing, and is often called the uncorrected proof stage in digital publishing. In this stage, the proofreader reviews pages that have been typeset, with type fonts and size selected. Traditional publishers usually submit galley copies to advance reviewers while the proofreader is still working on them. This is less common in digital publishing, but may still be done.

The next stage of proofreading, the page proof stage, adds illustrations, tables, footnotes, and other final touches to corrected proofs. After page proofing, the manuscript is ready for the indexer and the printer.

A Tip for Hiring Editors and Proofreaders

So that’s an overview of the editing process. Hopefully knowing these concepts and terms will help you find the right type of editing service. Because some of the terms and job titles overlap, it’s important to communicate exactly what you want done to a manuscript when hiring an editor or proofreader. A simple way to approach this is to let your editor know whether you’re looking for help with literary style (line editing), grammar and spelling (copyediting), or checking for typos in your final manuscript (proofreading). Describing exactly what you need done will help you avoid some of the issues that can arise from terminological confusion.