Developmental Editing and Copy Editing: What’s the Difference?

There are so many writers out there these days.  Now that the world of publishing has been blown wide open and anyone can publish a book a heck of a lot more people than ever before are calling themselves writers.  And that’s great!  But I’ve been lurking around the Kindle boards and other reader hang-outs lately and let me tell you, it’s not so great to them.  Because there is a lot of half-baked material being served up as if it’s a feast.

What’s the problem?  Editing.

Oh my gosh, I can’t tell you how important editing is.  If writing a book is like throwing all the ingredients together and mixing then editing is like checking the recipe to make sure you’ve put the right ingredients in at the right amount.

I’ve heard a very large number of self-published writers out there say that they can make due without an editor.

Well you can’t.


At least I’m in the school of thought that says you absolutely must have your work edited by a professional before you can let it see the light of day.  There are more things that need looking at in a novel than most writers setting out on the journey realize.  And based on the comments I’ve seen here and there, there is also a misunderstanding about just what it is that an editor does.  So let’s take a look at that, shall we?

First, there are two kinds of editors.  You can’t do without either of them.

When a lot of people think “editor” they think of the person who reads through your manuscript looking for bad grammar, misspelled words, and typos.  This is a Copy Editor.  Copy editing is like making sure you don’t have broccoli in your teeth.  I, for example, am terrible at punctuating dialog.  I can’t keep it straight in my head which bits of dialog should end with a comma and which should end with a period, which bit after the dialog should be capitalized as a new sentence and which is a dialog tag.  It’s obvious when you point it out to me, but when I’m just reading through I write it all wrong.

A good copy editor knows the rules of grammar and uses them mercilessly against your manuscript.  I should have had someone copy edit The Loyal Heart a little more intensely before I published it because I had a serious ‘smirk’ problem.  Copy editors are also there to catch overuse of words.  Thankfully, self-publishing allows you to discreetly swap out a more thoroughly edited version of a novel without anyone being the wiser.  *shifty look*

Yes, copy editing is obvious and oh-so necessary.

But even more essential, in my humble opinion, is developmental editing.

A Developmental Editor is a writer’s best friend, but I bet most writers are terrified of the prospect.  I know I was before I had my first manuscript developmentally edited.  A Developmental Editor reads your manuscript and asks questions.  They peel away the layers to figure out what makes your story tick.  Or more importantly, what stops your story from ticking.  A Developmental Editor not only points out the broccoli in your teeth but asks you why you needed to have broccoli in the first place.  Maybe kale would work better?

Like I said, I was terrified when I sent my first manuscript to a Developmental Editor.  I loved that story.  I was passionate about it.  The very last thing in the world that I wanted was for someone to pick it apart and tell me everything that was wrong about it.  I chewed my nails for weeks, wondering what my editor, Alison, would say about the story.  I was terrified that she would tell me I was a horrible writer and should stick to my day job.

Well, she didn’t.  Why?  Because Alison is an excellent editor!

A good Developmental Editor, like Alison, is there to work with you.  Because there are all sorts of things that you, as a writer, can’t see when you’re so close to your work.  Think of a Developmental Editor as the sharpest reader your story is ever going to have.  If something doesn’t make sense, they will tell you.  If they think you didn’t lift a character or situation to its fullest potential, they will tell you.  If they have an idea for a different direction your story or backstory could go in, they will tell you.


Case in point:  I’m working on a western Romance, Our Little Secrets, right now.  I wrote it, and rewrote it, and revised that.  But something still wasn’t right.  I knew something wasn’t right, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was … or wasn’t.  The time came and I sent it off to Alison.  And I waited in dread because I knew something wasn’t right.  I knew a serious critique was in the mail.

And then came my edit letter.  And yep, the story has some problems.  But guess what?  I may have known that there were issues, but Alison had a much clearer idea of what the issues were.  Her long, long, long letter of critiques read like the pieces of a complex puzzle fitting into place.  Oh!  Of course my heroine seems a little too perfect and a little too capable of handling things.  I didn’t really define what she was afraid of well enough.  And of course that potentially awesome scene fell flat.  I only depicted my hero’s shock over the turn of events, not all of the other emotions he would be feeling.  Oh!  That’s what was missing!

I don’t care how good of a writer you are, if you don’t have someone else, someone professional working with you to process your story it’s not going to be as good as it could be.  Do you know which of the Harry Potter books is J.K. Rowling’s least favorite?  The Goblet of Fire.  Why?  Because she felt as though her publishers rushed her and she didn’t have a chance to edit it as much as she wanted to.  Yes folks, even the master herself doesn’t get it right on the first draft and needs the help of editors to bring a story to its full potential.

So please, please, please do yourself and your readers a favor.  Bite the bullet, hold a bake sale, wash cars, break the piggy-bank, max out your credit cards and hire an editor.  A Developmental Editor and a Copy Editor.  You need them.  Everybody needs them.  If J.K. Rowling can do it, you can too.

Next week:  How to listen to your editor, critiques, and reviews without whining or losing your temper and becoming a better writer for it.


6 thoughts on “Developmental Editing and Copy Editing: What’s the Difference?

  1. That’s what I always tell myself when I hate my own writing; even J.K Rowling didn’t make it perfect on the first try! 🙂

  2. I’m so glad to hear that I’m not the only one who stares at the punctuation for my dialogue in helpless confusion.

  3. Yes, totally agree. I wonder if there is an editor out there who is both. Pretty much all editors for indie writers say they are both, but I wonder if it’s possible to be both unless you are seriously experienced. The big mistake I made was hiring an editor who said she was both and turned out being a dev editor only. It would have been okay if I’d known, but it made my life hell once it dawned on me that I had do self-copy-edit. I’m sure someone else could have done a better job, but hopefully I fixed most of the errors (she says with a cringe).

    • Someone once gave me the advice of paying college English or Communications majors to copy edit books. They are more likely to work for cheap and to gain the experience. I have never tried it though. Hmm…. Maybe I should. 😉

  4. Pingback: Self-Publishing Essentials – Passive Marketing | Merry Farmer

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