The Three Types of Editing and When You Should Use Them

Scott SummersWriting Guidance

A title card which reads, "The Three Types of Editing and When To Use Them"

A title card which reads, "The Three Types of Editing and When To Use Them"

If you’re not a natural writer or someone familiar with the writing process, you may not realize that there are different types of editing available to you, depending on your needs.

That can be a huge problem, especially since editors are the unsung heroes of the writing world. A great editor improves the quality of a piece by working with writers (and non-writers) to improve the text through feedback and formatting.

If you’re looking to create the best documentation possible, familiarize yourself with the different types of editing out there. Almost everyone thinks that an editor only comes in at the end of a piece, but revision can happen at every stage of the writing process.

Here’s a look at the different types of editing and when you should use them:

But First:  A Sample

We can’t really talk about the different types of editing without having a sample to demonstrate the difference between each kind of edit. So, here’s a terribly-written draft of an email that we’ll use to demonstrate how each kind of editing is used throughout the process:

Dear sir or madam,

I’ve been coming to Toms grocery store since I was a little kid, it’s a great Store and does a lot for the community.

Anyway…I’m a photographer by trade specializing in food photography. I’m writing because i wanted to know if you’d be interested in working together to create new advertisements for your store.

Recently while shopping in the store, i noticed the same advertisement photo on the wall that’s been there the last thirty years. Its almost as old as I am, my dad even made a comment about it!!!

I know that Toms probably doesn’t have a huge advertising budget but I think we can work something out, after all we both want the same thing…for Toms to be around another thiry years!

Let me know if your interested!

Peter Picturesque


Studio 123, north blvd.

Anytown, US of A


Okay, so now we’ve got a basic outreach email that we can work with. It’s poorly written — I’ve made sure of that! — so let’s carry it forward through the different types of editing and see how each editor might handle this documentation.

Developmental Editing

Typically reserved for longer works like book manuscripts, developmental editing is a type of editing that can lead to a major overhaul in a piece long before it sees the light of day.

An editor in this category may provide insights beyond the body of work that they’re developing. They may also be subject matter experts with a highly-technical understanding of the field where the work may exist.

Because developmental editors can suggest such sweeping changes to a document, they’re often the first place you should stop if you’re looking for advice or guidance on how to structure your outline and improve your draft.

So, what would developmental editing look like for our sample? Let’s take a look:

The most robust of all types of editing, the copyedits in developmental editing (shown here) can add huge structural changes in the piece.

The highlighted change is a great example of a developmental edit. Not only am I suggesting a few grammar and spelling checks. I’m also pointing out that moving the paragraph into a different position will add strength and clarity to the piece.

It’s a sweeping change that will affect the entire document, and it’s something that should happen at the developmental stage, while the document is still fluid and it’s easy to change things around. You might even consider this type of editing before you start writing.

As more work goes into a document, and as the edits and revisions are finalized, it’s harder to make huge changes without trampling over the piece. Instead, consider developmental edits up front. They’re the most extensive type of editing you’ll see, and it’s better to do them early.


Most clients I see who are asking for a proofreader are actually looking for a copyeditor. These types of editing are different but similar, so the confusion is understandable.

From the Society for Editors and Proofreaders, the copyeditor’s job is to take the raw draft and ensure that it’s ready for publication by making the text “easy to follow, fit for purpose and free of error, omission, inconsistency and repetition.”

From a copyediting perspective, the emphasis is less on huge, sweeping changes and more on structural and informational opportunities. Should sentences be shortened? Do you need to add a link into a set of text? Is everything worded correctly, and is the text accurate and consistent?

Copyediting may be a good fit for you when you’ve got those larger, structural issues out of the way and you’re looking for someone help you review and fine-tune your piece.

Let’s take a look at an example of copyediting in our email:

Copyediting is often the most confusing of all types of editing.  When people ask for proofreaders, they're expecting this kind of markup, which is actually a copyedit.

Especially if you’re a big picture thinker and you’ve got the majority of your ideas together, copyediting can be the difference between coming off as a professional or an amateur.

Making sure you’ve got the grammatical structure in the right place and that you’ve seized every opportunity to put your best foot forward helps you make a strong first impression.

A 2015 study demonstrated that copyedited work improves perceptions of professionalism, organization, writing, and value when compared with non-edited versions of the same document. Taking the time to tune the language makes an impact!


Of all types of editing I’ve touched on in this article, proofreading is probably the most misunderstood. The word gets thrown around in middle and high school with this lovely chart of proofreader marks, and that’s what sticks.

While it’s true that proofreaders check spelling, grammar, and punctuation, that’s only the surface of a proofreader’s duties. They may also check the manuscript to ensure that the text and associated graphics are logical. They’ll make sure page numbers, headings, and footers are appropriate and usually tackle any formatting anomalies.

While the majority of revisions should be conducted during the copyediting phase of the editing process, a proofreader will still make sure that the text is stylistically consistent and may note changes (based on budget and timing) that should be made before the final document is released.

What’s an example of a proofreading correction in our sales letter? Let’s take a look:

Proofreading is one of the only types of editing that handles formatting issues as well as basic markups, as shown here.

You might notice that some of these marks were actually caught in other stages of editing. That’s because other editors may also be capable proofreaders and a good editor catches what they see even if it’s “farther downstream” in the editing process.

All the marks illustrated here are the types of editing a proofreader would aim to catch. However, you’ll notice that there aren’t any major suggestions designed to overhaul the document. A proofreader is the last stop before publication, and the light editing that the proofreader does is intended to finalize the piece, not rewrite it completely.

Which Types of Editing Are Right For You?

In a perfect world, all three types of editing play some role in your writing process, even if they only do so informally.

Editing can get expensive, so it wouldn’t make sense for you to have every single email professionally edited in three complete stages before you send it out.

However, you can still take advantage of editing by borrowing a second set of eyes from a grammatically-inclined friend or colleague. Alternatively, if you’ve got enough time to get away from what you’re writing for a little bit, you can try to handle some portion of the editing by yourself.

There’s an old saying that 80% is good enough. That’s probably a good formula to follow when you need an editor. Most of the things you write (inter-office emails, texts to your friends and family, etc.) probably require a professional editor.

That other 20%? The letters to the board, the sales email, the press release, the new product labeling, or the updated LinkedIn profile? Those key pieces of business documentation matter and you should handle them accordingly.

It’s ultimately up to you to determine when you need an editor and what type of editing you need, but when the time comes, consider how far along you are in the process and when you should bring an editor in.

Having the right kind of editor at the right stage of the piece can be a game changer for your business. When that time comes, let me know! I’m always happy to jump in.