Types of Editing

There’s a lot of variation and overlap across the different categories of editing, mostly due to the lack of industry standard definitions.   Understandably, this causes a lot of confusion and miscommunication.  What’s a poor author or writer to do in order to figure out what type of editing they need and what type of editing editors actually do? Copy editing, line editing, developmental editing, substantive editing, and content editing – what do they all mean? And what about proofreading?

To create some clarity, I’ve listed some definitions below that are some of the most commonly used.

Copy Editing

Copy editors are tasked with correcting mechanical errors (spelling, capitalization, punctuation), syntax and usage errors, and style errors while preserving the voice and intent of the author.  Copy editors may also query the author or correct ambiguous references, awkward sentence structure, wordiness, or inconsistencies. Copy editors also read from the point of view of the intended audience to make sure that the piece has clarity and makes sense to readers. Finally, they may note where the author will need to gather permissions to use copyrighted material and may cross-check tables, figures, and other features for accuracy and consistency.

The depth of a copy edit is sometimes described in levels (light, medium, heavy). While there is some overlap between various types of editing, heavy copy editing should not be considered synonymous with substantive editing or development editing. Copy editing is also not synonymous with proofreading (see proofreading definition below).

Line Editing

Line editing is sometimes used in place of copy editing and sometimes in place of content editing. Line editing is simply a word-for-word, line-by-line review of the manuscript.  It aligns most closely with copy editing.

Developmental Editing

Developmental editors manage a project from the proposal or rough draft  to final manuscript.  This can involve hiring authors or gathering input from authors, setting budgets, and supervising the design. Developmental editors may also analyze competing works and the overall market and suggest changes to content, organization, and presentation, based on the research.

Substantive Editing

Substantive editors focus on a big picture perspective of the work.  They identify problems with clarity and clarify and/or reorganize the work to improve content and structure. Substantive editors may either make the changes directly to the work, or they may suggest the changes to the author and let the author do the rewriting.


Proofreading is typically the last step before publication.  Proofreading should not be confused with copy editing (or any other sort of editing).  Proofreaders compare two versions of a document to verify that changes introduced during the edit were made correctly and that no errors were inadvertently introduced in the process. They may also read typeset pages a final time to catch any typographical errors before the pages are sent to print.   Proofreaders may take on other duties related to reviewing the final proofs before printing.

Fact Checking

Fact checkers verify facts or quotes in a document or conduct research to correct the facts.