The Three Types of Editing and When You Should 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. While most people have heard of a copy editing and/or a copy editor, more advanced editing techniques like developmental editing or structural editing might slip under the radar.

That can be a huge problem, because editors the unsung heroes of the writing world. A great editor does more than correct spelling errors and grammar mistakes. A seasoned editor can often point out plot holes, detailed feedback, and a stylistic edit that vastly improves the quality of a piece.

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 to correct minor errors, but it’s possible for an editor to help projects stay on course by conducting a manuscript evaluation much earlier in the process.

Today, let’s take a look at the different types of editing and when you should use them:

But First: A Sample Edit

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.

A developmental editor may provide key insights beyond the body of work that they’re developing that help with content creation and content flow. They may also be subject matter experts with a highly-technical understanding of the field where the work may exist. This is particularly helpful in a nonfiction setting, where the author needs to get the technical details exactly right.

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. Their editorial input can help you solve content problems before they show up in your text.

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. While I am 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.

This is a small structural edit designed to correct content flow, but it’s a sweeping change that will affect the entire document. That’s what developmental editing is all about. It’s typically the most extensive type of editing you’ll see, and it’s often less about minor errors and more about big, sweeping changes that affect the entire document.

In a perfect world, this sort of developmental edit is something that should happen in the earliest stages, 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 becomes more difficult to follow editorial input without trampling over the piece. Instead, consider getting an editorial assessment early and working with a developmental editor up front to solve those big, structural problems before they happen.

Copy editing

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

The copy editor’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 copy editing perspective, the emphasis is less on sweeping changes and more on structural and informational opportunities. Should sentences be shortened? Do you need to add a link to a set of text? Is everything worded correctly? Is the text accurate and consistent? This kind of stylistic editing can help writers maintain the proper tone and voice throughout their content.

Copy editing 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 to help you review and fine-tune your piece. The kind of editorial input you get here will consist of line editing, a line-by-line edit of your piece, along with some insights and detailed feedback regarding how you might improve the piece by working with what you’ve got.

A copy editor isn’t likely to say, “Hey, you need to cut out this entire character and move the content from Chapter 6 up to Chapter 4 to eliminate a plot hole.”

Instead, they’re more likely to assume that you’re past part of the stage where massive content editing is likely to take place and will instead recommend changes within a narrower scope.

Let’s take a look at an example of a copy edit 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, a copy editor can be the difference between coming off as a professional or an amateur.

The manuscript evaluation a copy editor provides will be technical enough to eliminate most grammar errors, punctuation errors, and spelling errors. You’ll also get suggestions around phrasing and content flow that can help you improve your piece. All of these little details help you seized the opportunity to make a strong first impression.

2015 study demonstrated that copy edited 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. Some clients think that proofreaders are copy editors. Some people think that they’re practically beta readers. 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 will check for spelling, grammar, punctuation, dialogue tags, and all the rest, but that’s only the surface of a proofreader’s duties. The other side of proofreading comes down to format editing and content flow from a visual perspective.

A proofreader can help with formatting your content. They’ll check the manuscript to ensure that the text and associated media (graphics and video) are placed in a logical way near the text that refers to them. Typically, they’ll also ensure that the page numbers, headings, and footers are appropriate, and will usually tackle any formatting anomalies. Seasoned editors in this field are usually well-versed in formatting software and may have substantial experience in the desktop publishing world.

While the majority of revisions should be conducted during the copy editing phase of the editing process, a proofreader will still make sure that the text is stylistically consistent and may note changes (based on budget, timing, and previous edits) 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.

Whether you’re publishing traditionally or coming to authorship from a self-publishing perspective, a proofreader is usually the last stop before publication. 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.

If you’re a savvy and self-aware writer, you might be able to get by with some self-editing techniques or by chatting with potential beta readers early to hash out the same problems a developmental editor might help you solve. You might even be able to talk a grammatically-inclined friend into acting as your copy editor. Alternatively, if you’ve got enough time to get away from what you’re writing for a little bit, you can try to self-edit your work.

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 won’t require the substantial editing you’d get from 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 an editorial assessment may be in order. You should handle that documentation accordingly.

It’s ultimately up to you to determine when you need an editor and what type of editing techniques can help you most. When the time comes, consider how far along you are in the process and when you should bring an editor in. An editorial assessment early in a project can save a ton of headaches farther down the road.

Having the right kind of editor at the right stage of the piece can be a game-changer for your business. If it’s a one-off copy edit or an occasional editorial need, hiring a freelance editor might be the right move for you. If so, let me know! I’m always happy to jump in.