The four levels of editing and how they fit within the publishing timeline

Photograph of a gold fountain pen. Photo by Art Lasovsky on Unsplash

Most editors will give varying answers to the question, ‘What are the levels of editing?’, but there are industry-accepted stages of editing that I’ll outline here. (Note: as the processes in publishing vary, not every manuscript will go through every stage – it depends on the book, genre, publishing house.)  

Step 1: Beta read or manuscript evaluation

This type of editing is a reader’s response to the manuscript. These evaluations include feedback authors might get from a writing critique group and cover big picture items, such as major plot holes or character flaws. I get into what is and isn’t working in the story. For beta reads, I write a two to three page report. A manuscript evaluation is more in-depth and runs to nine or ten pages with more detailed feedback.

What stage is this in the publishing process? In my experience, this step tends to be sought by new fiction writers looking for general feedback, and it usually happens before the manuscript has been accepted for publishing.

Step 2: Developmental or structural editing

This level of editing is more hands on and there are major differences between fiction and non-fiction. Often non-fiction books are commissioned, so a structural edit brings content into form; the edit shapes a book that doesn’t quite exist yet and is often done by a commissioning editor.

 With fiction, this is my most requested service. Often the author has a finished manuscript but is struggling to it get accepted by agents or publishers. Like evaluation stage, I look for what is and isn’t working, but this level differences in that I give focused and detailed suggestions regarding dramatic structure, offer recommendations about world building or advise on character development. Often the story doesn’t meet readers’ or genre expectations. When I do this type of editing, it typically results in a twenty-plus page report plus heavy commenting in the text.

What stage is this in the publishing process? For fiction this can happen before or after acceptance for publication. With commissioned non-fiction titles it happens as it’s being written or after the first draft.

Step 3: Line editing and copy-editing

Here I’ll present a slightly unpopular opinion: I believe line editing and copy-editing are two separate jobs.

In a copy-editing, the goal is to make a manuscript adhere to a style, to correct punctuation and grammar, to ensure accuracy and clarity, to query facts or unclear statements, make sure the tone is appropriate for the audience and check that references and citations are in order. It’s very much the nitty-gritty aspects of writing.

During a line edit, I work more with the language and tone and flow; it’s more about how the text sounds and feels. I ask myself, is it nice to read? I have copy-edited manuscripts that could have benefited from a line edit. However, the author wanted it that way, and in the end, it’s the authors choice. Every editor repeats our (unspoken) motto: ‘It’s not my book’.

What stage is this in the publishing process? When a book is going through a line or copy-edit, it has already been developmentally edited, has been accepted for publishing, or the author is ready to self-publish.

Step 4: Proofreading

Once the book has been typeset and made into proofs, a proofreader looks for any typographic errors made during the typesetting process or for errors that the copy editor, managing editor or author missed along the way. They’re looking for anything that might be called a mistake in the final print. Proofreaders are the final pair of eyes on the text before it goes to press; it’s a vital job with a high level of responsibility.

What stage is this in the publishing process? This is the last and final editing stage!

These are the different stages of editing, which are useful to know as every house may call it something different. It’s always good to ask if you’re not sure. A word of caution for anyone working with self-publishing authors: they don’t always know the stages a manuscript goes through in-house, so if you hear them ask for ‘just a proofread’, they may not be aware of exactly what they need.

Kelly Urgan is a freelance editor and writer based in London. She is the founder of Editegrity which provides a variety of editing services, specialising in history, fiction, and memoir. Recently she’s been writing for her blog  My Bookshelves Are Full about the books she’s reading and her attempt to make progress on her TBR pile. 


  1. Thanks for contributing to editorial month on BookMachine @Kelly-Urgan

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