When is copyediting enough, and when do you need a deeper developmental or line edit?
It’s not unusual for authors not to know what “copyediting” means, specifically. To some, editing—whether it’s copyediting, line editing, or developmental editing—seems like everything that comes after typing THE END. But editing is not monolithic, and the entire editorial process is often best handled by different editors with particular expertise.
To understand where copyediting fits in, let’s go over the different levels of editing.
The Four Types of Editing
The editorial process can be broken down this way:
Developmental edit: After a beta read and/or manuscript evaluation, the developmental edit is the first big step of the editorial process. For the most part, developmental editing sets aside issues at the sentence level and instead focuses on the big storytelling elements: plot, structure, characterization, scene vs. summary, and so on. The editor will query the author about point of view, tense, and theme, and point out areas where the story needs refinement to support the author’s goals. The developmental edit might be spread out over more than one round, and it could take months to make all the necessary revisions.
Line edit: Sometimes called a heavy copyedit, the line edit is the stage for close attention to each paragraph, sentence, and word. Now that the big issues are worked out, the editor ensures that the language enhances the author’s artistic and thematic goals for the book. It’s not a time for grammar and spelling edits, though. The line edit attends to literary style, or sentence structure, word usage, transitions, voice, and tone. The editor shapes each scene, each piece of action, and helps the writer move the action through time and space. The line edit usually takes one or two rounds.
Copyedit: Here’s where the grammar enthusiast makes her appearance. The copyeditor fixes grammar, punctuation, and spelling; fact-checks dates, place-names, historical events, and other objectively true information; and ensures consistency and believability. (For example, would a croissant be served for breakfast in eighteenth-century America? Do Neal’s eyes change from stormy gray in chapter one to piercing blue in chapter thirteen?) The copyedit often takes just one round, but as you’ll see below, it can extend to several more.
Proofreading: Finally, it’s time for proofreading. This is best done on the laid-out pages, before the book goes to press. The proofreader compares the formatted files to the copyedited manuscript, checking that all the copyeditor’s edits were made correctly and that the formatting is error free (no missing page numbers or incorrect fonts, for example). Proofreading normally takes just one round, although on certain books, the publisher might hire out for a cold read as well, or reading the laid-out pages “cold,” without comparing them to the manuscript.
As you can see, there’s a great deal of editorial work to be done before it’s time for copyediting. That’s why, when authors inquire about copyediting but have not yet shared their book with an editor, we often suggest they back up a couple stages.
But there’s an exception to every rule.
Adi Gelbart’s Egglike
Every now and then, a book comes in with no need for a developmental and line edit, even when the author hasn’t worked with an editor yet. This was the case with Adi Gelbart’s absurdist sci-fi novel, Egglike.
Gelbart contacted Noel Editorial seeking a copyedit for his manuscript (the first book he’d ever written, by the way). I read his sample prepared to find some of the more typical macro-level issues that would suggest the need for a deeper edit—things like point of view confusion, tense changes, and awkward progression through time or space.
But Gelbart was right: it was time for a copyedit. His manuscript had some grammatical and spelling snafus, but it was definitely near the end of the editorial process.
Four Rounds of Copyediting
One of the pleasures of working with Gelbart was his thoroughgoing attention to every word and piece of punctuation. English is Gelbart’s second language,* so we encountered idiosyncrasies that he simply hadn’t known about. We ended up exchanging four rounds of comments. Gelbart would read through my edits, pointing out what seemed wrong to him or answering one of my queries with another question. For example, here’s an exchange about the plural of “motif”:
Here’s another example of Gelbart’s commitment to getting the language exactly right. (As you can see, sometimes there’s not a clear answer.)
It took us a couple months to complete the copyediting, but by the end, Gelbart was satisfied that he understood every change I made and that none of my edits contravened his vision.
By the way, I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys humor and deep originality in a novel, even if you don’t typically read science fiction. Here’s the Amazon link.
I’m not the only fan: Gelbart has 5-star reader reviews on Amazon, an average Goodreads score of 4.82, and a fabulous write-up in Ragazine (“It’s as if the minds of Robert Sheckley and Philip K. Dick were dissolved in a bottle of vodka that Adi drank at Milliways”). A reader in Helsinki sent Gelbart a picture of the book on a bridge (a bridge features prominently in the first part of the book):
Another in Brazil shared a video of an egg pyramid (pyramids and eggs also make important appearances).
Gelbart is also a musician, and he’s recorded the album “Music for and Against Egglike” to accompany the book. You can read an excerpt of the book, download the first chapter, and buy the album here.
* Gelbart's first language is Hebrew, and his third is French and German, which he says are fighting for dominance over the rest of his brain like it's 1870.