Should You Hire a Developmental Editor or a Copy Editor?

by Marylee MacDonald in For Writers Doing Revisions

You’ve just finished your manuscript, the one you’ve been working on diligently for what feels like forever. You know that before you submit it, you should get it looked at by an editor, but whom do you pick? Are they all the same? The first thing you need to do is to figure out what kind of editor your manuscript needs: a developmental editor or a copy editor.


Image from Iconfinder

Developmental edits happen early in the process. Developmental editors help authors find weak points in their manuscripts. These editors will look at character, structure, language, and narrative. Copyediting happens second, once your manuscript is in its final form—no more reworking chapters or adding and deleting scenes. Copyediting focuses on grammar, punctuation, and the four Cs: clarity, consistency, coherency, and correctness.

A Developmental Editor Looks at Character and Structure

Let’s take a closer look at what a developmental editor does. What does work with character, structure, language, and narrative look like? A developmental editor will take a clean, fresh look at your characters. Oftentimes, it’s difficult for an author to be objective about their characters, just as it can be difficult for a parent to be objective about a beloved child. These characters came to life inside your head, and you’re bringing them to life on the page. There’s no one closer to them than you. Your editor will tell you if your characters lack continuity, if they’re realistic, if one seems unnecessary, or if your story is lacking a key character, such as an antagonist.

Structure, unsurprisingly, has to do with the makeup of your story, the foundation from which your setting and characters spring. A developmental editor will tell you if your point of view is working, if you should incorporate flashbacks to make your timeline less linear, or if you have too many flashbacks already. (These can slow down the momentum of the story.)

Editors look out for situations when you should bury the lede and for places you should withhold information for dramatic effect. They let you know if your story beats around the bush. If it does, better to hear it from an editor than from a frustrated and confused reader.

Dialogue and Voice

Characters’ dialogue is one of the aspects a developmental editor considers when looking at language. Does each character have a distinctive speech pattern? A developmental editor can tell you. But dialogue is not all editors look at. Differences between the narrator’s and characters’ voices need to be clear, too.

What about setting and the characters’ appearance? A developmental editor will give you feedback on whether there is enough, or too much, physical description. and whether the tone and rhythm of the story is consistent throughout.

Lastly: narrative. A developmental editor looks for continuity issues in the story, particularly verisimilitude oversights. She’ll tell you when there are aspects that don’t quite ring true. Most editors provide page-specific comments. She might flag a sentence that doesn’t make sense or a section of the narrative that undermines or contradicts other parts of the story. Often, this is a just a matter of pointing out that the wording is confusing.

In short, a good developmental editor makes your work the best version of itself that it can be.

Comma Dusting and Grammar

A good copy editor will be able to apply the rules of grammar to your work in a way that you as the author cannot, as it is frustratingly difficult to read your own work for what’s actually there, as opposed to what you know is supposed to be. A copy editor must be well-versed in the latest version of the Chicago Manual of Style, and must have Webster’s Dictionary—physical or virtual—at-hand.

Though many authors are skilled at grammar, an in-depth knowledge of grammar’s fine points takes focused study. Copy editors learn grammar’s rules and the pitfalls. Such editors can help you present your book’s cleanest version to an agent or publisher.

proofreaders marks

Professional editors will use proofreaders’ marks.

By default, copy editors do a good amount of fact checking. Is this word capitalized because it’s the name of a street? A town? A country? (Or was it just a typo?) Copy editors make sure your street/town/country is spelled correctly, and if your story is based in reality—settings that are real places, explanations involving science, etc.—this is even more relevant. Copy editors are often the last to set eyes on a manuscript before publication, and in this way act as a safety net for other mistakes.

A badly copyedited book will pull readers out of the story. Readers don’t want to be riding along in the middle of a car chase or following your protagonist down a shadowy corridor, only to get yanked out of the scene by thinking, “Wait, isn’t it ‘you’re’?” or “The author didn’t close her quotations!”

So, hearty congratulations on finishing your manuscript, and welcome to stage two. Once you know what type of edit your manuscript needs, you can begin your search for the perfect editor. Though letting a third party critique your work may be scary, doing so is one of the most important steps authors can take in getting their manuscripts accepted for publication.

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