What's the Difference Between Line and Copy Editing?
Updated: Sep 26
When discussing the writing process, we often place an emphasis on invention, drafting, and simply putting words down on the page. While composition is essential, the editorial process is as important when it comes to producing a publishable project for readers. Despite their collective significance, many writers conflate the different stages of editing. Here, we will focus on line editing, copy editing, and what distinguishes the two (as well as where they share common ground).
What is line editing?
Line editing examines creative content, writing style, and language use within the manuscript itself. With a line edit, issues are identified at the paragraph and sentence level. Someone conducting a line edit will point out run-on sentences, overused words, and verbose passages. They will also suggest ways to ensure a manuscript’s tone is even and point out passages that are more plodding than others. Essentially, a line edit seeks to improve the manuscript’s dynamism, language, and tone by identifying areas of strength and weakness within the writing itself.
When does a line edit take place?
A developmental edit (or manuscript critique), by contrast, will sum up macro-level feedback and chronic issues within the writing, then synthesize that in an editorial letter for the author. During a developmental edit, the utility of different plot lines, characters, and passages are interrogated. It would make sense, then, that a line edit comes afterward, once concerns raised in the developmental edit have been addressed. After all, a developmental edit may result in extensive rewriting, and it would be a shame to polish sentences during a line edit that might ultimately get cut due to developmental concerns.
How about copy editing?
The copy edit comes after the developmental and line edits. While both line editors and copy editors address sentence-level issues, a copy edit primarily addresses technical flaws in the manuscript. That means a copy editor will correct spelling, grammar, punctuation, and syntax. They will also ensure consistency as it relates to hyphenation, numerals, fonts, and capitalization. In addition to safeguarding the technical professionalism of a manuscript, copy editors will pay close attention to internal consistency. They’ll make sure plot points do not contradict one another, that character names are consistent throughout, and that the writing adheres to professional standards. In most cases, that means a copy editor will work with a style guide, like the Chicago Manual of Style, to guarantee the manuscript’s quality meets industry standards.
But I thought that was proofreading?
While copy editors and proofreaders have similar goals—namely, to ensure a manuscript adheres to technical industry standards—there are some key differences. Proofreading should be one of the last steps prior to publication. Armed with a facsimile of the finished product (a “proof copy”), a proofreader will hunt for typographical errors. They identify minor text and formatting errors. These errors might not have even existed in the word-processor file the author created, and instead came about as the book’s interior was designed. For that reason, proofreaders often make corrections within a “proof copy,” or a mocked-up version of the book that looks and feels like the one readers will eventually access.
If the specifics of these stages are still tough to parse out, perhaps the questions below will further break down a line editor’s concerns, compared to those of a copy editor.
Editors conducting a line edit might ask themselves:
How can this page-long exchange of dialogue be replaced by a sentence or two of summary?
Where does the narrative’s pace lag, and how can that be remedied?
Is there a reason for the author’s shift from first-person to third-person narration? If not, which approach is best for the manuscript?
Should this plot point be addressed in a dedicated scene, or through exposition?
Copy editors may consider the following:
Are all compound nouns (backpack vs. back-pack) written consistently?
How does the author write numerals for height, weight, shoe size, and speed limits? Is the author consistent with their usage? What would the Chicago Manual of Style dictate?
Sometimes the character’s name is written as Katie, but elsewhere as Catie. Which is right?
If you think your book is ready for a line or copy edit, then please contact our team at email@example.com and share a bit about your project. Latah Books is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to helping authors publish meaningful, well-crafted books.