Do I Need An Editor?

When I started writing my novel (I’ve currently nearly finished the second draft!) I joined the online writing site Scribophile. Before I joined Scrib, if you’d asked me what editing was, I’d have said that after you’d written your book, you gave it to an editor, and they corrected any mistakes you’d made.

But then I began to see different terms bandied around. Copy editor. Content editor. Line editor. Beta reader. And so on. And I had no idea what the difference between them all was, and at what stage you should use them. I didn’t know if the process was different if you self-published compared to if you published traditionally. Since then, I’ve been trying to untangle in my head exactly what all the different types of editing are and when you should do them.

Things are further complicated because some types of editing have more than one name, and descriptions of what they involve can overlap or differ depending on where you get your information from.

With the advent of self-publishing people are choosing to do some of these types of editing themselves rather than paying professionals to do it. Whether that’s a good idea or not depends on your own particular skillset!

Anyway as far as I can determine, this is a description of the stages of writing a novel and where the different types of editing fit in:

Stage 1: planning/outlining and writing the first draft

At this stage you can get the help of a developmental editor. Developmental editors will help with a range of activities from organising your concept, creating an outline, finding plot holes in your outline or first draft, addressing dead ends in subplots, decisions on point of view, and reviewing the big picture.

A substantive editor does the same thing as a developmental editor, but works with a finished first draft. They will also comment on whether your characters are interesting, or if you should scrap or expand side characters. They can look at the big picture, themes and plot holes. They can also address plausibility of the plot, and the flow of action and pace throughout the novel.

Sometimes the terms developmental editor and substantive editor are used interchangeably. The term content editor seems to cover the same concepts as substantive editor, although content editor seems to be a catch-all term which encompasses all types of plot and structure editing, and can be applied to non-fiction as well as fiction.

Stage 2: decent first draft/second draft

The term I’ve seen that applies to this stage is that of Alpha Reader. It’s not a term that’s widely used and not something many people seem to do. Alpha Readers are non-professionals who give a substantive edit, but in less detail than a professional would.

Stage 3: producing a polished draft (in terms of plot, readability and character arc)

Note I don’t state which draft the polished one is! It could be anywhere from 2nd to … 20th … and so on. And how do you define a draft anyway? That’s a topic for another day.

Anyway, you’ve got a polished draft. Next is the beta reader stage. Beta readers are non-professionals who comment on your novel as a reader. The basic idea, like with video game beta testers, is that you are trying to unearth any bugs to improve readability.

You can ask your beta reader for general feedback or give them guidance on the areas you want them to focus on. There is no strict standard of what should be done and how it is reported back. It’s up to you and your beta reader to agree on the work that will be done.

It seems acceptable for beta readers to report back at any level from “it was great/terrible” through to enormous reports on plot, character arc, and line edits. Beta readers can be trusted friends or family, or they can be recruited from reading or critique groups, or websites such as Facebook or Goodreads.

If your beta reader finds problems or holes in the manuscript, now you can tweak or rewrite as needed to produce a revised polished draft.

Stage 4: producing your final draft

When you have completed your most polished draft you can look at the more technical areas of editing. At this stage it’s likely you will have already made steps to correct some of the textual nuances as you went along, but this editing stage will focus solely on finalising that process.

Line editing is designed to edit at sentence and paragraph level. It refines the sentence structure and flow of the text, polishing and tightening.

Copy editing involves corrections to grammar, punctuation and word usage.

Copy editing and line editing can be done at the same time and are sometimes lumped together under the heading of copy editing.

Stage 5: final typeset copy

The final round of editing is proofreading and this should be done in the copy of your work that you intend to publish. It encompasses picking up typos, spelling mistakes, missing words, the odd error, and checking setup and pagination.

Stage 6: publish!

Yay, now you have a book!


If you intend to publish traditionally your publisher may supply certain types of editing for you. Although I imagine you would want something to at least polished draft standard to send for querying. If you are self-publishing the process is up to you.

So far on Scribophile, I have received a variety of edits that encompass different elements of substantive editing, alpha reading, line editing and copy editing. It can be difficult to get big picture views on a whole novel on a critique site, but if you persevere, it’s possible. There are also options for beta reading on the site, as well.

And I have to say, Scribophile has been invaluable! So a shout out here to any of my critique group – you know who you are 🙂

I have also purchased a copy of the book Self-Editing for Fiction Editors. This book covers various aspects of substantive editing and line editing, and I would definitely recommend it, whether you intend to self-publish or not.

So, I hope that’s helpful. If your understanding on any type of editing differs from mine, please let me know in the comments, and I will do more research. There does seem to be a certain amount of overlap between the different types of editing, but it felt like a useful exercise in clarification for me, and I hope it is for you, too.


  1. This is a wonderful, informative post. Anyone attempting a novel should read this. 🙂 I hadn’t realised a developmental editor could even help with a mere outline.

    At what point in your process did you start getting feedback? For plot/first draft or later?

    1. magicwriter

      I had a rough plot for my novel plus a few chapters written when I joined Scribophile … as I continued writing chapters I posted them to Scrib for feedback as I went along. I found it really motivational to have people to help me keep on track to finish that first draft 🙂

  2. Thanks for posting the information. I had no idea there were so many types of editing. I have started writing my first novel (still on chapter 1) which I wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t joined Scribophile. So much good information and encouragement on this site.

      1. Kristen Kooistra

        Same here! I’ve never managed to make it past the first chapter before Scrib. Now I’ve got a full story and I’m on the something draft. Which I get what you’re saying. Some of my chapters have been revised several times, others none. So how do you say what draft you’re on?

        I loved the support while I was writing and the interest kept me going.

  3. Sierra Kummings

    This is EXACTLY what I needed to read. I have to admit, my head has spun tossing around terms like this, trying to figure out who I needed help from at what stage. Thank you for this!

  4. Such a helpful and useful post.
    I’m pretty sure that some majority of writers are not familiar with the terms and the job descriptions.
    I agree that Self-Editing for Fiction Writers book is also helpful, and informative.

    I am going to save this article for future reference. 🙂

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