Who else is confused about what editors do?

November 20, 2013

When a reader comments that a book was poorly edited, usually she means she found typos or grammatical errors – the kinds of things a proofreader should catch before a book goes to print. But proofreading is just one level of editing. Most books go through multiple stages of editing. If a substantive editor has done her job well, readers won’t notice larger problems such as illogical arguments, repetitive sections, boring passages, and undeveloped characters. 

By the time a book is traditionally published, the author may have worked through several significant revisions with editors before the house deems it publishable. Self-publishers who want to produce professional work would be wise to ensure their manuscripts get the same treatment, by hiring skilled editors at the various levels.

Before hiring an editor, you need to understand the difference between the various levels of editing.

Substantive or Structural Editing

This is the first stage of editing. The terms substantive editing and structural editing are used interchangeably. Both mean clarifying a manuscript’s content and structure, examining the big-picture things such as character development, story flow, dialogue, pacing, sources, chapter titles, voice, and chapter organization. We’ve never seen a manuscript that didn’t benefit significantly from substantive editing. Unless you’re Alice Munro, it’s likely that yours would too.

Substantive editing does not mean rewriting. An editor will work with the material you’ve already written, suggesting you delete some, move some around, and she will often try to pull more out of you by asking careful questions. But she won’t just invent new material – that’s your job as the writer.

Stylistic Editing

Another term for stylistic editing is line editing. Once the substantive editing is complete, this editor scrutinizes your work at the paragraph, sentence, and word level, clarifying meaning, reducing repetition, smoothing out sentences, eliminating unnecessary words, and so on. A strong stylistic editor can make a decent wordsmith read like a good one.

You wouldn’t normally hire a substantive editor, a stylistic editor, and a copy editor: often either the substantive editor or the copy editor will handle stylistic editing. Sometimes both will. You’ll want to clarify that before hiring either of them so you can make sure this essential step is covered.

Copy Editing

Then a copy editor does more mechanical work, checking grammar, punctuation, spelling, and ensuring the book is consistent. The copy editor will impose order, using guides such as the Chicago Manual of Style. For instance, the copy editor will ensure that someone with blue eyes on page 2 doesn’t end up with green eyes on page 89, that the book uses metric and imperial measurements consistently throughout, and that newspapers mentioned in your manuscript are italicized, so readers know they’re publications.


Once the book has been typeset, the proofreader will read the page proofs, checking things such as page numbers and running headers, and looking for typos and spelling errors. The proofreader also ensures the copy editor’s changes made it into the proofs.

You can see how each stage of editing gets increasingly focused, with the proofreader doing the very detailed work of checking each word letter by letter to ensure it’s correct. Proofreaders often hold rulers beneath the line of text they are checking, so their eye doesn’t get distracted by all of the text on the page. It is very slow, methodical work.


It might surprise you to learn that indexing is also considered a stage of editing. It’s the very last one, which happens once the book’s proofs are finalized and there won’t be any more significant changes that would cause the text to reflow, therefore messing up the indexer’s page numbers. The indexer creates the entries at the back of the book, as well as the corresponding page numbers. Sometimes indexers catch spelling errors in names that the copy editor and proofreader missed, since they compile all of the entries for that name.

What Next?

So there you have it, the stages of professional book editing. Next time we’ll discuss how much editors cost, and how to find and hire a skilled editor. And if you want guidance on lining up editors for your own project, just get in touch.

Expert publishing guidance
Enter your email address to receive our monthly newsletter. You can unsubscribe at any time.
* = required field
most popular