Grammergency #6: Help! I Need an Editor
Written by
Annie Tucker
February 2015
Written by
Annie Tucker
February 2015

Last week, I spent four days at the San Francisco Writers Conference, meeting with fiction and nonfiction authors in various stages of the writing and publishing process. One of the most frequent questions people asked me was, “What does an editor do, and what kind of editor do I need?” So I thought I’d dedicate this week’s Grammergency post not to a specific grammatical issue but to breaking down the general title of editor into three distinct roles.

Developmental Editor

Whether you are in the midst of writing a book or have a complete first draft, a developmental editor is the first kind of professional editor you should consult. Developmental editors help authors address all of the big-picture aspects of good storytelling, including structure, sequencing, pacing, scene and character development, dialogue, and point of view. Only after all of these pieces of the puzzle are in place should you move on to the next stage of editing.

Copy Editor

A copy editor picks up where the developmental editor leaves off and serves as the first line of defense against all grammar, syntax, punctuation, and formatting errors that occur in your book. Using The Chicago Manual of Style and select dictionaries as their go-to resources, copy editors ensure that every project they touch upholds industry standards. The most thorough copy editors also call out language repetition, ensure consistent usage of all special terms and formats within a manuscript, and often perform light fact-checking.


A proofreader is like a spot cleaner who comes in toward the end of a book’s publishing life cycle and takes care of any last-minute typos, misspellings, and formatting errors that the copy editor may have missed or that have been introduced into the manuscript since the copyedit. Depending on the publisher’s preferences, the proofreader enters the ring either just before or just after the text goes to layout.

One cautionary note: although some authors have a good grasp of grammar and punctuation and thus assess their manuscript as ready to go straight from developmental editing to proofreading, with no intermediary copyediting step, it’s extremely rare that copyediting isn’t essential. Professional copy editors have an intricate understanding of how authors’ general grammar and punctuation skills differ from Chicago style guidelines, and how to make adjustments as needed to close that gap—often in ways proofreaders don’t—so they’ve earned their rung on the editing ladder.

Assuming all book editors are the same is like lumping all MDs into a single specialization—you wouldn’t want to go to a neurologist for a broken ankle any more than you’d benefit from consulting a proofreader for your developmental needs. Now that you know how to distinguish between a few different breeds of editors, you can take full advantage of the particular strengths of each type to make your manuscript as strong as it can be.

Have a grammar question? Leave it in the comments below.

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  • Annie Tucker

    Hi Amber, Kristin Bustamante recently published a great post on that subject:

  • Amber Noone

    Annie Tucker, thank you for this. Great information! does one find a Developmental Editor? I'm in the midst of chaos and need some help.


  • Rose O'Connor

    Great article. Thank you so much for sharing. 

  • Patricia Robertson

    Shelah, interesting software program. I would be worried that it would be like relying on spellcheck to catch all spelling errors. I know what you are saying about cost of all these editors. Fortunately my copy editor is very reasonable. He's a retired newspaper editor who reads extensively, and a friend. With what's happening with newspapers throughout the country, maybe you could find someone to copy edit through them. (I'd give you my contact but he's not looking for business.)

    I've done developmental editing. I usually do a quick read through to get impression of the book: does the plot work, are the characters well-developed and believable, is the writing good. I'm a quick reader so this doesn't usually take that long. Then I go back and look at these problems and make specific suggestions for ways to correct them in the manuscript. If I see copy-editing issues, I'll note those as well but they are not a focus. Cost depends on how much work needs to be done, although if there are major problems, I might just address the biggest issues and send writer back to work on them before addressing smaller ones.

  • Sally Ketham

    Thanks for the informative post! Finding a good editor for the various stages of the writing process is definitely an asset. My only gripe is the cost involved! For my 90,000 word manuscript I splurged and spent thousands on a developmental editor, but had to pull back when it came to copy editing. I instead used a software program called,, which didn't catch EVERY mistake in grammar/style/diction etc, but cleaned up the writing a TON (and for only $30/year subscription). But still, it would benefit from a proofreader.

  • Patricia Robertson

    Lydia, I used to think the same in terms of copy editor and proof editor. You can not have too many eyes on the proof before publishing. My copy editor is very good, but he still misses small things that a proof editor catches. Also, copy editor doesn't usually do much with formatting. Their focus is grammar, punctuation, sentence construction, etc. My copy editor also notes places where the material doesn't flow well or needs further clarification. All very helpful. Copy editing takes place before proof. Once I get proof back I need to go over it very carefully to check details, make sure formatting is right. It's always helpful to have someone else look at proof as well.

  • Lydia Sherrer

    Great post, thank you for sharing! I always thought there were two types of editors, content editors and line editors equivalent to your development editor and copy editor. I guess I assumed the proofing would be done by the line editor as the last round of editing. Why would you need two different people for these two stages? Just to get a different set of eyeballs? Or do they actually look for different stuff?

  • Mary L. Holden

    The Chicago is what I use for fiction; I use AP Style for nonfiction. And, for self-published manuscripts, I like to develop a personalized style sheet that adapts to the author's voice. Thank you for this post!

  • Patricia Robertson

    I wouldn't publish anything without a copy editor. I like to think I have a good grasp of grammar and punctuation but I'm always surprised at all the errors my copy editor catches. Besides, language is a living, breathing entity that is changing. It's hard to keep up on the changes so I rely on my copy editor for that. (I still find it hard to believe that there are times when the period is placed outside of the quotation mark - that never happened when I was in high school and college.)

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    This is so helpful Annie -- I have to confess (with some embarrassment) that I didn't really understand the nuances until I started working with my SW editors. And it is so important to know which kind of editor your project needs at a certain moment.