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The Differences: Substantive Editing, Copy Editing & Proofreading

by | Mar 3, 2014 | The Writer's Tool Box | 4 comments

substantive editing

Many people struggle to differentiate between the various types of editing, but knowing the difference will help you to communicate with your editor more effectively. If you don’t understand the difference between copy editing, proofreading, and substantive editing, you could easily, mistakenly ask for a copy edit when you were really hoping to have someone look at the overall structure of your writing. Because of this confusion, the copy editor will spend all of his or her time dissecting your document searching for grammar and spelling mistakes, instead of focusing on the organization of the content.

It might help to think about substantive editing, copy editing, and proofreading as different parts of the publishing process. When a writer submits an unedited manuscript, the developmental editor will work with the author to reorganize the content. Then the manuscript is sent to the copy editor who needs to examine the document carefully, looking for issues with grammar, spelling, punctuation, and style. Next, the document is sent to the designer who formats the text. The proofreader receives the designed “proof” and goes through everything once more, this time looking for typographical errors and any mistakes that may have been missed previously. Let’s take a closer look.

Substantive Editing (also known as Developmental Editing and Structural Editing)

The developmental editor works closely with the author. Together they establish their goals for the project. They also have to discuss and identify the audience. It is important to flesh out these details at the beginning of the project so the editor and the writer are on the same page. They both need to understand the project in order to work together effectively. Once the goals are outlined and the audience is identified, the developmental editor can help the author develop his or her story. It is up to developmental editors to help authors see the big picture, but it is important to note that they do not write or rewrite anything for the authors. They advise them how best to rework their projects in order to deliver clear content. These editors specialize in examining the overall structure and can help with the organization of the content. They help authors fill in blanks and eliminate repetitions. They may suggest that the chapters be rearranged. They are not concerned with grammar or spelling. Ultimately, the developmental editor’s job is to help the author deliver clear, coherent writing to the intended audience.

Copy Editing

Next, the manuscript goes to the copy editor who is primarily concerned with grammar, spelling, punctuation, and style. Copy editors ensure proper word usage and fix awkward phrasing, suggesting alternatives when needed. Ultimately, the copy editor will ensure consistency and accuracy. Some projects require a heavy copy edit while others only need a light copy edit. If the writing is in pretty good shape, a light copy edit will suffice. Generally, copy editing will take more time than proofreading since it usually involves going over the text multiple times.


Once the manuscript has been designed, the proofs are sent to the proofreader who will go over everything one last time. It is up to the proofreader to spot typographical and mechanical errors and any other mistakes that may have been missed by the copy editor. Once the document has been designed, the proofreader can also look for formatting issues, scrutinizing design and layout. This is the last opportunity to make changes to a document before it goes to print (or gets posted on the Internet), and while it might not take as long as copy editing, it is just as important!

Do you need substantive editing? Fill out the application to get a quote from writing coach and developmental editor Stefanie Newell.


  1. Ibn Akbar

    Great Article! It's important to determine these differences before seeking an editor. Chemistry between writer and editor is highly important. No writer wants an editor that completely alters the originality of the writers words. A good editor has a firm understanding of the writer's premise, and moves forward with that in mind.

    I am a well experienced editor who enjoys, and is accustomed to working with a wide range of writers and ideas.

  2. online proofreading

    It is important to have proofreader who will go over everything one last time. This will decrease the chances of error.

  3. Steven


  4. Zomdo

    Good to see.


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