What is the Difference Between Copyediting and Line Editing?

What do you need — an edit or a copyedit?

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.

A copyedit:

  • 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.

 

For further reading, check out:

What is the Difference Between Copyediting and Proofreading?
Critique Vs. Comprehensive Edit: Which Should You Choose?
Traditional or Self-Publish: What’s Best for You?

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42 Comments

Margreet

Thank you! The examples really help to show the difference between the two types of editing.

There is just one sentence that doesn’t make sense to me. I guess that is because English isn’t my first language and I keep putting the emphasis on the wrong words: “– after the editor who bought your manuscript has taken you through revisions given final sign-off your book’s content.”

Reply
Natasa

Hi Margreet,

Glad the examples were helpful!

The sentence you pointed out wasn’t correct, it should read “- after the editor who bought your manuscript has taken you through revisions and given the final sign-off on your book’s content.”

Does that make sense? Your editor in a publishing house would do the line edits and other revisions before giving the final approval for the manuscript to go to the copyeditor.

Reply
Batool

Thank you. The sentence makes sense.

Reply
divasivine

This is the first understanding of line vs. coy edit thatmakes the difference clear to me

Reply
Joan

It’s my understanding that a developmental editor is hired to read your manuscript and help the writer to ‘boost it — take it up a few notches so that the story captivates it readers. Ive also heard that the developmental editor’s role is to critique the manuscript and say where it needs improvement. Which version is correct, if any. I am confused; what is the primary role of a developmental editor. Thanks in advance

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Roger

My understanding is similar: a developmental editor does what you say, first providing a longish letter with recommendations for increasing quality at the highest levels (concept, overall structure, marketability, macro-level relevance, etc.) and then spending time helping the writer improve the structure and writing quality of individual chapters, paragraphs, sentences, etc. So in short, developmental editing is line editing to the extreme. Similarly, line editing is developmental in nature (re: aimed at developing the writer’s message to its best expression of the writing craft).

But a developmental editor would stop short of copyediting or proofreading in most cases—or risk not getting paid for what amounts to a separate task! 🙂

Reply
CMcG

This article was great. I’m a developmental editor in the government sector and have struggled to find a good way to help internal clients understand the difference between the line editing phase and the copy editing phase of my work with them. I’ve never seen the distinction articulated better than here. Thanks!

Reply
Philip

Great article, I finally got the scoop on the difference between the online editor and the copyedit. Thanks

Reply
Philip

This is a correction on my website address – sorry.

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Linda

Thank you for the clarification. I’ve just l learned that, as a freelance proofreader and copyeditor, I have really been doing proofreading, line editing, and developmental editing, all for the price of simple proofreading. That’s something to think about. It’s nice to know just how valuable what I do is to others.

Reply
How to Edit Like a Pro

[…] [T]he 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? —NY Book Editors […]

Reply
Jennifer Harshman

While speeding through this article, I noticed that there is an unnecessary space at the beginning of your first bullet, and the word “principal” should be “principle.” Copy editor? Guilty as charged. 😉

Reply
John Doe

Thanks for the great article. I’m just getting into the editing industry, and I’m wondering: Do magazine, book, and newspaper editors generally give writers the authority to approve or reject individual line edits or and/or copy edits? I recently began assistant-editing a magazine. Some of the magazine’s writers have refused to be edited, and the editor-in-chief—who has even less editing experience than myself—naively (in my opinion) consented. This means we’ll be printing articles with copy errors that we do not have permission to correct. I have insisted that she not publish writers who refuse to be edited, in the future, and she agreed. I understand that it’s poor etiquette, at the very least, to line edit someone’s work without letting them sign off on each edit. But is it acceptable to copyedit a writer’s work, without having them sign off on each edit—especially when the editor is working under a tight deadline?

Reply
Natasa

Hey John,

I can’t speak to the magazine or newspaper industry, but in book publishing, the author needs to approve line edits and copy edits.

Reply
Margaret Welwood

When my husband and I edited a business magazine, I changed the writers’ wording at will without getting them to sign off. I got their feedback only when I was questioning their information.

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Lauren

The article-which, by the way, is very good-has one confusing element: you are discussing the difference between a line edit and a copy edit yet after a couple of paragraphs using these two terms you begin to use “general editor” and even more confusing, “developmental editor.” I am assuming you begin to refer to copy editors as a developmental editors but from what I understand, dev editing is not the same as a copy editor. Pls explain.

Reply
Natasa

Hi Lauren,

“General editor” is just another way of saying “developmental editor”. (These are the editors who do line edits.) Copy editors, on the other hand, do the copy editing.

Hope this clears it up.

Reply
Mohamed Rachidi

It is a great article! I have any way a remark. In Example 1, the copy-editor corrected 30 and put “thirty” instead. In fact, it must remain ” 30 seconds” because numbers used in expressions denoting time (seconds, minutes, hours, days, months…) are put in figures. Both CMS and APA agree on that.

Reply
Chet Zeshonski

That’s not true for Chicago. See CMOS 9.2 in the 16th edition.

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Tom Thomas Pulikkattu

It is a wonderful experience to read different perseptions on editing in general and line editing & copy editing in particular. I offen write but I never new what difference the editors make to the manuscript. All I know that the whole manuscript will be improved in all aspects. Hence, I thought that it was not my coup of tea and never tried my hand on such impotant work. Now I understand the difference of line editing and copy editing.Thank you for the information.

Reply
rita

Very clear explanation. I wish I had lots of teachers with such style of teaching back in my school days.
Happy Reader 🙂

Reply
Copyediting vs. Proofreading: What's the Difference?

[…] Comprehensive Edit – In-depth, intense, thorough, a comprehensive edit tackles a manuscript line by line. The editor cuts down on wordiness and tightens the language to create a more enjoyable read. This type of edit hunts down clumsy or awkward sentences that take away from the rhythm of your prose. For more information on a comprehensive edit, especially a line edit, click here. […]

Reply
Deborah

Thanks VERY much for this.

Reply
Rick

Thanks for this overview, which offers good information. As a corporate editor who does line editing and copy editing, I also noticed the word “principal” should have been spelled “principle.” Otherwise, nice job.

Reply
Batool

A very well written article that contrasts the different levels of editing. However my question is the use of commas before an and, in the bullets following the Copyedit section – as in “Corrects spelling, grammar, and syntax.”

Reply
Bityabitya

i thank u for this guidance

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sandy soli

The New York Times is indeed italicized but not bf. And thanks for reminding writers that the opening T in “The” is capitalized. Anyone writing for publication could benefit from Chicago (sorry–my tablet does not support ital).

I am a copy editor, but occasionally I encounter
last-minute problems that must be solved before going to press, such as an accidental font change or lack of photo credit.

Reply
Roger

I believe that in this case, the writer bolded “The New York Times” only to show the changes the copyeditor made in that example. That’s what she did for the other copyedits, anyway.

Reply
Kelly

This is a fantastic resource.

Reply
vaishali

Hi, This is a very helpful and detailed information.
Only thing I found is “rules and principals” should be “principles” right in above write up? Correct me if wrong, thanks!

Reply
Rishi

So the line editing is about the semantics where copyediting is much similar to find syntax errors in compilation. Or vice versa?
Any way, I am gonna read this article again.

Reply
Cate Hogan

A very helpful article, thanks! I’ve been trialing editors for my current romance WIP, including industry stalwarts from The Big Four, to freelancers and hobbyists, *budget* options and the gurus who cost a pretty penny. From 9 to 5 I’m an editor myself, so it’s been great experiencing the process from a writer’s perspective. I’ve documented some tips below on what to look for in an editor (and what should send you running), which you might find interesting.
http://catehogan.com/25-things-look-for-romance-editor/

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Marty H

This was an interesting but not especially helpful article. We are a team of two “copy editors,” and we do all the things after the sub editor has done his stuff. We read this article and laughed: “Read the thing, and fix it!” That’s our job. And it involves both line and copyediting, which we both do.

Reply
Judi

The “t” in “the” is not capitalized (or italicized) when a periodical is mentioned in running text. “This morning she read the New York Times.” New York Times would be italicized (can’t do it on my phone).
CMOS 8.168

Reply

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