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The 4 Types of Editors, What They Do, How They Help Your Fiction, and When to Involve Them

When you’re first getting started on your novel or short story or whatever work of prose you’ve decided to tackle, you don’t think about the editing process and who might edit your work, because you are the editor. At least at the beginning stage of your writing you are. In this post, we’ll go into the different types of editing and editors there are, when, why, and how to leverage each of them, and how to evaluate where you are in your craft to help you make those important decisions—because they are important.

So, editors. There are four types of editors out there:

  1. Developmental Editors

  2. Substantive Editors

  3. Copy Editors

  4. Proofreaders

As a fiction writer, you may use all or none of them, though using none would not be advisable if you’re looking to publish your work. Each type of editor provides their own particular value add to what you’re trying to achieve through your writing. Knowing what type of editor you require for the type of work you’re doing is something you should be aware of, whether you’re a newbie to the writing game or an experienced pro. You want to make sure you put out the best writing you can, which includes not just ensuring you have no typos but that you’re headed down the right path in terms of word choice, sentence structure, genre, theme, overall structure, pacing, style, repetition, grammar, whether your writing is factually accurate, and so on.

These editors may be paid by you or, if you’re publishing traditionally, *potentially* by the publisher. They may also be friends or acquaintances of yours with those type skills, which would be a wonderful thing if you’re that lucky to have friends with such skills. So, let’s get started on defining what each editor does.


Lots of people in the writing and publishing industry often confuse developmental editing with substantive editing, or they view them as the same thing. They’re not. Developmental editing is more of a collaborative effort between a writer and an editor (the developmental editor). The collaboration begins either as the writer is just starting their writing project or soon after they’ve already begun writing. In years past, developmental editing was more prevalent at traditional publishers. These days, editors at traditional publishing houses simply don’t have the time to work with writers to the degree that they have in the past. They’re busy not only acquiring books, but also keeping up with the technological advances that affect their industry, helping their marketing teams market books, promoting those books, potentially creating profit and loss statements, and doing a lot more administrative type work than they’ve had to do in the past. These days, it’s more likely that unless you’re already a published and selling author for a house, you’re probably going to hire a developmental editor (DE) on your own.

Now that we have that cleared up, let’s talk about what developmental editors do. DEs, as they’re called, help writers as they write. As mentioned above, they may begin collaborating with a writer at the very beginning of the process (before the writer has started writing), or some time soon afterwards. Their job is to guide the writer through the process, from idea to structure, plot, voice, characterization, form, genre, and so on, but from the thirty-thousand-foot view. What that means in reality, however, varies by editor. That’s why it can get confusing deciphering the difference between DEs and SEs, or substantive editors.

If you’ve gone through an MFA program in fiction, you’ve “workshopped” your work. You have written as you’ve attended your writing classes, turned your packets in, and each week or every two weeks or whatever the cadence is at your program, you’ve then provided and are provided feedback, which you use to improve your manuscript. This is, in essence, what a DE does. They start out with you, the writer, and they provide feedback that helps guide you along the right path towards completing a manuscript that has form, structure, a clear and compelling story, hopefully a plot, and all of the elements that make a good book.

What DEs don’t do is line edit. They don’t necessarily “get into the weeds,” if you will. Or not too much into the weeds. They won’t necessarily point out grammar issues, misspellings, etc. They’re more big-picture facilitators who know a story and how best to pull it out of you.


Substantive editors, or SEs, do most of the things DEs do, but they do dive further into the weeds because they’re working with a manuscript that’s already been written. They aren’t there to motivate you and correct you and steer you down the right road as you write your book. SEs come into the picture once your book is already written. They read your book, and if it’s a novel, they’ll pay close attention to all of the things that will improve your novel so that it can be the best book it can be prior to your submitting it to a literary agent or, again, if you’re lucky enough to already be working with a publisher, to your editor at the publishing house. Sometimes it’s the same person, sometimes it isn’t. It all depends on how the house uses its editors. The seniority of the editor may also be a factor in what their contributions are as well.

When you submit your book to a substantive editor, they’ll read the entire manuscript. Depending on their schedule, the edit could last anywhere from a week to a month or more. It completely varies. But usually it’ll be just a few weeks from delivery of the manuscript to your receiving their edits. Those edits will usually come as in-line edits, likely in a Microsoft Word document, and probably with comments and question bubbles all along the side of the document.

A letter normally accompanies the edited manuscript. The letter will go into more detail of what their thoughts are, provide clarity and context to their in-line comments, and give you their opinion on what needs to happen next from the standpoint of your rewriting your work now that you have their feedback. Then it’s up to you to either make the changes, disregard the edits you don’t agree with, or rewrite whatever sections of the novel you want to if you’re looking for a more comprehensive revision for the next round of editing. This back and forth will go on for as many rounds as is deemed necessary (or not, depending on who’s paying for the editor’s time).


Copy editors aren’t looking for plot points, how to improve scenes, or whether or not the structure of your novel is what it should be. Copy editors are looking to make mechanical corrections. They’re looking for grammar mistakes, punctuation, word choice, inconsistencies in the text, hyphenation, spelling errors, redundancies, and so on. They’re the editors who come in and clean up the mess that you don’t see or that you or your DEs and SEs missed or ignored.

It’s amazing what they find, especially when you thought you were turning in a near-perfect manuscript to them. If there are facts in the book that need to be verified, they may do that as well. Again, depending on the parameters within which the editor works with the writer or employer regarding their editing, what they actually do may vary.

Copy editors will also potentially work to certain levels. They may do light copy edits, or medium copy edits, or heavy copy edits, again, depending on the situation. Copy editors also tend to use guide books such as the Chicago Manual of Style. What copy editors don’t do is alter the writer’s intent. They have to walk a tightrope of sorts when it comes to the author’s stylistic preferences, which can be a difficult thing to do. The closer relationship the copy editor has to the writer the easier the copy editor’s job will be.


Proofreaders typically come into the editorial process at the very end of the engagement. Their job is related to what copy editors do, but normally their role in the process is about finding and documenting any errors in the manuscript before it’s considered “final.” Proofreaders come to the manuscript having spent no time reading or revising it, so they aren’t blind to the errors the previous editors may have missed due to having read the manuscript as closely as they have for as many times as they have.

Proofreaders catch spelling errors and page break issues, line issues, textual errors, and basically anything else that is wrong with the manuscript prior to its being sent to publication. They’re the last of the editors to sign off, and once they do, you’re off to the races.

Editing your work prior to sending it out into the world, whether that be to magazines, journals, newspapers, online publications, or to book publishers is critical to being taken seriously. You may be the best writer in the world, but if there are issues, whether large or small in your manuscript, it’ll project that you’re an amateur, and that’s the last thing you want to do after spending so much time working on your manuscript.

Much of this article is geared towards writers who have not yet been published by traditional publishers with the budgets necessary to pay for these types of editorial services. That said, it’s always best to put your best foot forward, so if you have the means to hire one or all of the four different types of editors, we recommend you do so. Remember, you want the best manuscript you can produce to be the one you send out into the world, and having editors help you is a great way to make that happen.

*If you’re looking for a developmental editor or a substantive editor, feel free to drop us a line at We’d be happy to help.


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