In an earlier blog post we talked about the importance of developmental editing and why the focus on big-picture stuff – structure, book-spanning issues like plot or organization, character development, dialogue, and that sort of thing – needs to come first, before you spend too much time worrying about the finer points of style and wording. This time we’re going to talk about sentence-level editing, which is about the words themselves.

There are two issues that make getting a grasp on this relatively straightforward topic slightly difficult. First, the terminology – line editing, copy editing, proofreading – seems to mean something slightly different to every author, editor, publisher, magazine, agent, and online journal, and this makes it tough for the author seeking an editor to know exactly what it is they’re asking for.

Since we can’t force definitions on anyone else (alas – we’ve tried), we’ll focus on what sentence-level editing terms mean as used here at The Editorial Department, and we’ll try to clarify them enough that authors have a better understanding of the processes involved, whatever they may be called.

One really critical thing to understand is that the three tiers of sentence-level editing have to be taken in order. There’s no sense in doing a copy edit before a line edit, or proofread before a copy edit, or doing any line-level editing before your book is as sound as you can make in content, pacing, and structure. To approach the process in any other order is simply a waste of time, effort, and money.

So our suggestion is: don’t.

Line Editing

When we write, there are times we’re inspired to find the perfect way to phrase something, times when we’re just getting the job done to get the reader from point A to point B, and times we get a little too carried away with our own brilliance.

One thing line editing addresses is the inconsistency that can result from this combination of artful, utilitarian, and downright purple prose. This often means reining authors in when their writing comes off as strained or self-conscious in its effort to be literary, as well as the opposite  – making sure that the effort to be spartan, muscular, or efficient with your prose hasn’t left it feeling stripped. Line editing strives to make all of your writing as good as your best writing, which may include cutting, tightening, rephrasing, moving, and judiciously adding when necessary.

Another thing line-editing addresses is pacing and proportion. After all, who among us hasn’t gone on for pages about something that only needs a paragraph or, conversely, spent too little time on a scene or moment that would be more effective if rendered in better detail? A good line-editor brings an assured, objective eye to how much detail and texture serves a scene best.

Where developmental editors read manuscripts with their eyes on more macro issues, line editors read with their eyes on the words and sentences, and how they work together in service of the author’s voice. Of course that doesn’t mean a developmental editor won’t point out issues with mechanics or a line editor won’t make suggestions regarding characterization, but the focus of each type of editing is essentially different, and by the time a manuscript is ready for line editing it shouldn’t have many big-picture issues left, which allows the line editor to focus on your lovely prose and how to make it even better.

Here’s a very abbreviated list of the kinds of things a good line editor will fix.

  • Awkward phrasing and clunky sentences
  • Extraneous verbiage
  • Clichés and overuse of adverbs
  • Inadvertent repetition of words and phrases (as opposed to repetition for effect)
  • Points of potential confusion in plot (fiction) or argument (nonfiction)
  • Use of passive voice and other weak or amateurish writing constructions
  • Clumsy sentence rhythms, turns of phrase that sound forced or unnatural
  • Wrong words and homonyms

A good line-editor will also make creative efforts to strengthen overall narrative voice, make scenes more vivid and engaging, make dialogue more snappy and memorable, and make each character’s voice as distinctive as possible. This aspect of the process is less about fixing what’s wrong and more about improving on what’s right. It’s where a lot of the magic happens, and it requires a unique ear and skillset that has little to do with rules and everything to do with making your writing as smooth, polished, and pleasing to the ear as possible.

Not all line editors are created equal, and one reason for this that all the editing that gets done has to be done in the author’s own voice. This is very difficult to do because we all have our writing quirks (I’m inordinately fond of asides, for instance, as you may have noticed), but it’s critical to a successful line edit.

In practical terms, line editing is done using the Track Changes feature in Word, which allows the author to see all changes made and either accept or reject them. It also allows editors to make comments to explain changes, teach a point of craft, or encourage authors to go further with a given change or suggestion.

We deliver two versions of line edits, one with all changes tracked and editor comments showing, and one with all comments deleted and changes accepted so you can see how it reads without distraction. Line editing includes follow-up time with your editor, as well, because questions are part of the process.

We also often recommend what we call a Coaching Line Edit, which is a line edit of a section of a manuscript – anywhere from one chapter to several – along with explanatory comments from the editor. This is a wonderful way for authors to improve their self-editing skills, as it allows them to not just see the kind of changes made during a line edit, but understand the reasoning behind them. Authors can then apply what they’ve learned to the remainder of the manuscript, and carry their newfound knowledge into all their other writing.

Copy Editing

This is the type of editing most people think of when they think of editing, and often what they mean when they ask us to edit their manuscripts because it’s the type of editing most people experienced in school.

Copy editing is about making a manuscript “correct.” Copy editors are a breed apart from developmental editors and line editors because copy editing requires extreme attention to detail and an exhaustive knowledge of the English language. Like, exhaustive. It’s one of those jobs where being obsessive-compulsive comes in handy, because otherwise no one would ever be able to master all the rules or read carefully enough.

Here’s a very abbreviated list of the kinds of things a copy edit addresses:

  • Punctuation
  • Grammar
  • Spelling
  • Idiomatic usage
  • Fact checking
  • Manuscript formatting
  • Capitalization
  • Accuracy of quotations
  • Anything missed in line editing

There are a number of style guides such as AP, MLA, and APA that can be used as references to ensure consistency with copy editing. Our default is The Chicago Manual of Style, but we can often work with other style guides when needed.

Track Changes is also used for copy editing so you can see the editor’s work and approve or reject as you like. In addition, the copy editor may include comment balloons when a change is optional, or where they’re unable to make a change due to insufficient information. The opportunity for follow-up is included here, too.

One thing that’s worth mentioning: while English has many hard and fast rules, there are many that aren’t so much rules as guidelines. This is especially true of punctuation, and especially true of commas, which are often a matter of stylistic choice. It’s also true of things like dialogue, spoken and internal, where “incorrect” grammar may be appropriate to the character or person speaking. When copy editors point out such optional changes, they’ll flag them as such so you can make the final decision.


Literally, this is a review of the manuscript “proof” copy – that is, writing that has been typeset and needs to be checked for correctness prior to printing. These days proofreading is most often done on a PDF document after a manuscript has been through electronic layout. (The exception is if you’re going straight to e-book, when the proofread would be performed using Word, prior to e-book formatting.)

If you’re planning to pursue traditional publication, you don’t need a proofread, though you do need line and copy editing; if you’re planning to self-publish, you need all three, but the proofread will happen after layout (again, except for e-books).

Here’s a very abbreviated list of the kinds of things addressed in a proofread:

  • Punctuation
  • Grammar
  • Spelling
  • Capitalization
  • Widows/orphans, odd spacing, etc.
  • Errors introduced by the author during revision following the copy edit
  • Errors introduced by the designer during layout
  • Correctness of front and back matter (usually not present during copy editing)
  • Anything missed in copy editing

Because proofreading is almost always done on the electronically typeset PDF, the changes aren’t actually made by the proofreader but are simply flagged using the Sticky Note feature in Adobe Acrobat.

Three critical things to understand about proofreading:

  1. Proofreaders are human beings. You know why you used to see so few typos on published books in the old days? Because publishing houses provided up to TEN rounds of proofreading from separate proofreaders (and that’s after line and copy editing). They don’t do that anymore because it’s become prohibitively expensive. Our goal is to meet or exceed the editorial standards of modern traditional publishing, so while we’re thorough and attentive, we can’t promise perfection with only a single proofread. The more proofreading passes, the cleaner the manuscript.
  2. Designers aren’t editors. They’re looking at the text as a design element rather than reading for correctness or even sense. For that reason, the proofreader not only flags the error but clearly explains how it needs to be corrected. (Again, unless you’re going straight to e-book, in which case the proofreader simply makes the changes in the Word doc.) This takes time, which may cost you money, so you really want to go into your proofread with a manuscript that’s as clean as you can get it.
  3. It’s impossible to proofread a manuscript that isn’t ready for proofreading. Authors often believe all they need from an editor is someone to clean up their mechanics, but if a book is confusing, poorly structured, full of unidiomatic English, unskilled writing, and that sort of thing, it can’t be proofread. It’s like trying to tame the Amazon with a leaf rake, or clean up a landfill with a spoon.

There’s no writer in the world who doesn’t need both developmental and line editing. We’re too close to our own writing to see it objectively, and that’s true for everything from characterization to commas.

As I said in my post about developmental editing, at The Editorial Department we believe it’s our job to push our authors as hard as they’re willing to be pushed because we know how much competition they have – not just from other traditionally and self-published books, but from blogs, websites, smart phones, TV … There’s a tremendous amount of information vying for everyone’s time, and we want you to stand out.

For the right reasons, that is. Not because your manuscript is full of errors.


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Editorial Department