Many authors don’t fully grasp the difference between a line edit and a copyedit. There are some similarities between the two: both pay detailed attention to your use of language, and involve mark-up on the pages of your manuscript. But make no mistake, these are two completely different processes, handled by professionals with different skill sets, and should occur at very different times during the writing process.
What’s a Line Edit?
A line edit addresses the creative content, writing style, and language use at the sentence and paragraph level. But the purpose of a line edit is not to comb your manuscript for errors – rather, a line edit focuses on the way you use language to communicate your story to the reader. Is your language clear, fluid, and pleasurable to read? Does it convey a sense of atmosphere, emotion, and tone? Do the words you’ve chosen convey a precise meaning, or are you using broad generalizations and clichés?
An editor may draw your attention to:
- Words or sentences that are extraneous or overused
- Run-on sentences
- Redundancies from repeating the same information in different ways
- Dialogue or paragraphs that can be tightened
- Scenes where the action is confusing or the author’s meaning is unclear due to bad transitions
- Tonal shifts and unnatural phrasing
- Passages that don’t read well due to bland language use
- Confusing narrative digressions
- Changes that can be made to improve the pacing of a passage
- Words or phrases that may clarify or enhance your meaning.
The purpose of working with a general editor in this way is not just to improve your current manuscript, but to give you the creative tools to become a better writer in ways you can carry with you to future projects.
In That Case, What’s a Copyedit?
By contrast, the goal of a copyedit is to address flaws on a very technical level – to make sure the writing that appears on the page is in accordance with industry standards. This is like an incredibly high-end proofread.
- Corrects spelling, grammar, punctuation, and syntax
- Ensures consistency in spelling, hyphenation, numerals, fonts, and capitalization
- Flags ambiguous or factually incorrect statements (especially important for non-fiction)
- Tracks macro concerns like internal consistency.
Internal consistency means your plot, setting, and character traits don’t have discrepancies. For example if on page 41 you write: Rosemary wore her blond hair in a bun, and then on page 67 you write Rosemary brushed her long black hair, it’s a copyeditor’s job to point that out.
There will be some overlap between the work of a general editor and a copyeditor. Most developmental editors will point out technical errors or logical inconsistencies when they jump out, because they’re trying to make your writing better, and because editors tend to be perfectionists by disposition (guilty as charged!). But it is not the specific purpose of a line edit to comb through your prose, fix your grammar, typos, capitalize proper nouns, or change all spellings of colour to color because we’re in America, not Britain.
This is the job of a copyeditor, and it requires a rule-based understanding of standard American English usage that traditional editors don’t have. As such, your copyedit will come with a “style sheet” that explains how these rules and principals apply to specific things in your manuscript. So while your general editor will probably not have the Chicago Manual of Style committed to memory, your copyeditor might.
There is one other reason that line editing and copyediting aren’t the same job: copyediting should always come after line edit, never at the same time or before. The page-by-page, sentence-by-sentence content of your manuscript should be completely finalized before being fine-tuned on the level of a copyedit. Because what is the point of spending time (and money) proofreading portions of an early draft that might be significantly altered, or even completely cut, by the time the final draft rolls around?
At a publishing house, a copyeditor is usually the last person who touches the text of a manuscript before it goes into production – after the editor who bought your manuscript has taken you through revisions and given the final sign-off on your book’s content.
So, to make a sweeping and totally reductive generalization, the job of a general editor is to help you tell a better story, and the job of a copyeditor is to make sure the grammar on every page is correct.
Just in case you’re still a little unsure, here are a couple of examples that show how a developmental editor and a copyeditor might work on a similar piece of text. These examples are adapted from an earlier post you might want to check out, called The Biggest Mistake Beginning Writers Make.
EXAMPLE 1) Original passage:
She reluctantly handed over her purse, and nervously waited to have it placed back in to her hands. She felt a rush of relief as the Security Guard finished his search after 30 seconds and handed it back to her.
The same passage, after a line editor has helped the author rewrite it so that it reads more fluidly:
She was reluctant to hand over her purse, and felt a rush of relief as the Security Guard finished his search and placed it back in to her hands 30 seconds later.
And the same passage, after it’s been copyedited for grammar and usage (with edits in bold):
She was reluctant to hand over her purse, and felt a rush of relief as the security guard finished his search and placed it back into her hands thirty seconds later.
EXAMPLE 2) Another Original passage:
The rising light of the sun was quickly brightening. Dawn was turning into morning. Alex finished reading her copy of the “New York Times” and put the paper down on the table, and then grabbed her ipod and put on Beyoncé’s Crazy in Love and went out for her mourning run.
After a line editor has helped the author to rework it so that it reads more fluidly:
The dawn light brightened, giving way to morning. Alex tossed “The New York Times” onto the table, grabbed her ipod, and then put on Beyoncé’s Crazy in Love as she headed out for her morning run.
*Notice here, the line editor caught and fixed a couple of technical errors, like the typo on the second use of “morning” and the inclusion of “The” as part of the newspaper’s title. But even more is fixed…
After the passage has been copyedited for grammar and usage:
The dawn light brightened, giving way to morning. Alex tossed The New York Times onto the table, grabbed her iPod, and put on Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” as she headed out for her morning run.
If you have any other questions about the differences between line edits and copyedits, let us know in the comments.