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Copyediting. Line editing. Developmental editing. What’s the difference?!

Copyediting. Line editing. Developmental editing. What’s the difference?!

“Editing” is a pretty all-inclusive term. Many people use it interchangeably with “proofreading,” thinking the goal is the same. You want clean written content, right? Isn’t that what matters?

Well, yes. But clean content is not always the only thing that matters. Editing can be an all-encompassing process, depending on the writer’s end goal. If it’s simply clean copy you’re after, then a thorough proofread might be all you need. But what if you want to make sure your ideas flow, your language is hard-hitting, your message or story is as clear as it can be?

That’s where some more in-depth editing can be your friend. In the writing and editing industry, wordsmiths commonly throw around terms such as “copyediting,” “line editing” and “developmental editing.” But when you’re a business owner or a creative writer who just needs help making your words flow, does it really matter what type of edit you request? What’s the difference between them, anyway?

Read on to learn about the three most common types of editing and what sets them apart:

Developmental editing (also known as comprehensive editing)

Developmental editing takes into account the big picture of your written content and considers how all of the smaller details that comprise that big picture work together. I commonly use the “forest-through-the trees” cliché to explain developmental editing to my clients. If your written content is the forest, we aim to better understand the forest by examining all of the trees that collectively create it. We focus on organization, flow, momentum and pacing. In creative work we consider plot and character development. We work on voice, story or brand consistency and style. Line editing and proofreading are included in a developmental edit. We aim to better understand the big picture by thoroughly examining all of its pieces – one at a time and then as parts that work together.

Line editing

Line editing considers the big picture of how you communicate a story to a reader. Where attention in developmental editing is on the big picture and the many facets that comprise the big picture, line editing more heavily focuses on the big picture and the writer’s general style. Do you focus on fresh details, or do you use clichés? Do you drill down into specifics, or is your writing more broad? A good line edit will point out over-used words and phrases, lacks in consistency and confusing passages or transitions. A thorough line editor will suggest how and where the writing can be tighter, simpler and more concise.


Copyediting is a lesser known cousin of developmental and line editing that drills down into the more technical aspects of putting words together. Copyediting takes into account grammar, punctuation and spelling, and pays particular attention to consistency across content, often adhering to a specific style guide, such as AP, Chicago, MLA or Turabian. This type of editing ensures that content is properly formatted (for example, all bullet points are visible and properly indented, captions match images, no sentence is missing a period, etc.) and clean.

A copy edit will also point out any factual or descriptive inconsistencies. For example, let’s say you are describing a school classroom with an east-facing window. Then, further along in the piece, a character marvels at the blazing sunset as she stares out that window. A good copy editor will catch the discrepancy – you can’t view a sunset from a window that faces east. Or, let’s say you are preparing a presentation for your company on the history of a product. One slide says the product launched in 1961. Another slide says that the developers celebrated the 50th anniversary of the product launch in 2001. A good copy editor will catch that error: The difference between 1961 and 2001 is 40 years (not 50).


And finally, there is that darling of the editing family called proofreading. Despite what many people think, “proofreading” is not the same as “editing.”  Where editing takes a harder, closer look at both the whole and the parts of a piece of writing, proofreading is really where the grammar police show up. Proofreading sticks exclusively to the mechanics of a piece of written content to ensure proper grammar, punctuation and spelling throughout. At its best, proofreading might be considered “editing-lite.” It is often the final step before publication or sharing your writing with others.

So does it matter what type of editing or proofreading service you seek? That depends on your end goal. A professional editor can help you tremendously – and I would submit that every writer, website owner, business owner, anyone with written content they want or hope to share with others – needs one. Your words belong to you. You want them to adequately reflect who you are.

Do you want Grandma to eat dinner with you? (Let’s eat, Grandma!)

Or do you want to eat Grandma? (Let’s eat Grandma!)

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