The Right Kind of Editing, in the Right Order

I’ve occasionally heard an author say “My manuscript has already been copyedited. I just need some help reorganizing it and smoothing out the flow.” That’s a bit like saying “My kitchen has already been painted. I just need to knock out a wall and put in a couple of new windows.” It’s important to get the right kind of editorial help – and to do things in the right order.

In the world of traditional publishing, an editor shepherds your book through clearly defined phases. But if you’re self-publishing or just trying to get your own manuscript into better shape, it’s up to you to know not only what kind of editing you need but also when to do it.

Developmental Editing (a.k.a. substantive editing)

When you’re remodeling a kitchen, you start by thinking in broad terms. Could the stove, sink, and refrigerator be arranged better? How can you maximize storage? Wouldn’t it be delightful to have more counter space? And what kind of look are you aiming for, anyway – cozy or sleek?

Kitchen design is analogous to developmental editing, which considers major improvements to a book’s content, organization, tone, and writing style. The goal is to get the big items in the right place and plan ahead for the medium and small ones. Developmental editing is sometimes also referred to as substantive editing.

Copyediting (a.k.a. line editing)

Copyediting happens only after the design has been finalized, the framing is in place, and the finishes have been chosen. A copyeditor’s responsibility is to tackle grammar and syntax, word choice, spelling, punctuation, and style. If you copyedit a book without having done any developmental editing, you may find yourself needing to rip out a wall later.


Proofreading is the final phase of editing. It’s the punch list of the book process. Proofreaders check for errors, including problems that might have been introduced during layout. You can’t properly proofread a book before it has been typeset.

Whether the project in question is a kitchen or a book, you may reach a point where you realize that you’ve neglected something that should have been done earlier. Backing up in the process may ultimately be the right thing to do, but it’s worth avoiding. No one likes to tear out something that’s just been completed. By understanding the editorial process and tackling the steps in the right order, you can build a beautiful book without expensive do-overs.

How to Write without the Distraction of Self-Editing

We’ve all seen writing prompts along the lines of “Just write freely for five minutes without stopping or going back over what you’ve written.” Have you ever pulled that off? Has anyone?

Even if you’re not trying to write continuously, it’s pretty much inevitable: you see the words appear on the page, and your mind evaluates them and start fiddling with them.

Years ago I began using voice recognition software, primarily as a way of dealing with tension in my hands and arms. (I’m both an editor and a musician, and the last thing I wanted was to be sidelined by a repetitive stress injury.)

But I’ve since discovered that voice recognition software has a hidden superpower: it frees me to write without immediately being distracted by the urge to self-edit. Voice recognition is a technological miracle – and a tool exceptionally well suited to writing.

There are some downsides, of course. Good software isn’t cheap, and it can take a while to become skilled at using it. So why invest the time and money?

First, it truly is easier on your body. Humans aren’t meant to hunch over a laptop all day. So why do we do it? Why indeed, when you could relax or move while you write.

Second, dictating is much faster than typing. A good typist can hit 50 to 80 words per minute. Dictation will easily be twice that fast. (And perhaps you, like me, were never a good typist in the first place.) When speed matters, dictation will win hands down.

But most importantly, if you’re dictating instead of typing, you can turn your back on your screen while you write. You can look out the window instead, or rest your eyes on a piece of artwork, or look at the mind map you drew on your whiteboard. You can even close your eyes.

It’s liberating to truly separate the processes of writing and editing.

Of course, you’ll eventually need to edit what you’ve written, and voice recognition software works for that, too. I can do about 90% of the things I need to do on my laptop without ever touching the keyboard or trackpad.

Many people try voice recognition software grudgingly, when they’re injured but need to work anyway. My advice: Take it up now, on your own terms, and see what it can do for your writing.