Chatting · Writing Advice

The Blurry Line: Between the Developmental and the Copy Edits

Line editing is an often misunderstood and surprisingly nebulous stage of the writing process. To make sure we’re all on the same page in terms of vocabulary, I’ve copied a common definition:

A line editor is attentive to the writer’s individual style (for that reason, the job is sometimes called stylistic editing) A line editor works line-by-line, tightening up sentence structure so the language is sharp and clear. They look closely at how a writer’s word choice and syntax contribute to the tone or emotion of a piece of writing. Finally, a line editor is concerned with the overall pacing and logical flow of a piece… Where line editors are concerned primarily with questions of style, copy editors are concerned with mechanics.

This description makes the process sound nice and linear. In fact, I fell into the same pattern when I wrote my earlier post on the complete start-to-end editing process for a manuscript, placing it after the beta-read, and before a professional copy edit. I thought of it as a dividing line between the unwieldy draft and the polished manuscript. I also wrote that post before I’d actually completed those editing stages on Storge. The information is still useful, albeit generic, and not pulled from personal experience. That’s why today I want to do a deep dive on just this one step, to clarify some of my older points and elaborate with my experience in editing Runaways.

The first thing to remember is that writers never obey definitions. After all, you have to know the rules so you can break them! The line editing stage is extremely nebulous at best. How long it takes and how many rounds you complete largely depends on the style and quality of your previous developmental edits, how long you’ve had to develop your writing style, if you’re comfortable in the mood and tone of the story you’re trying to tell, and your personality. Some people pay closer attention to details, others are impatient to fix issues as they arise and bounce between steps as needed. Both are totally valid ways to write.

When preparing a book to share with beta readers, eventually you reach a threshold where you have to decide “this is good enough.” In most cases, sharing the draft with readers means they will comment on the high-level issues with the story: all elements that fall under the developmental edit. Meticulously editing for style and tone could be a complete waste of time if your readers end up recommending that entire chapters need to be rewritten, reordered, or scrapped. However, if the prose is not polished enough, the clunky writing may be enough to distract the reader from the larger issues they should be focusing on, and diminish their enjoyment of the book as a whole. Most beta reader feedback is a combination of the two types, and so all the edits in between rounds of feedback become a combination of developmental and line editing. Once you get to a certain point in the story, the changes you need to make to things like the character arc or to clarify world-building are less in the form of scrapping-and-rewriting whole scenes, and more making subtle tweaks to word choice and sentence structure to convey a certain tone properly.

For a Runaways example, when Cecelia disappears in chapter 1, I wanted to portray the Teagan parents as good folks who are worried about their missing daughter, but trying to keep calm so they can find her, and keep Hannah from panicking. Most of my feedback said that the parents seemed too callous and unconcerned because a few lines of dialogue just hit off target. While that plot-point hasn’t changed, I altered the sentence-level structure so that Hannah perceives how her parents really feel and it adds to the growing tension of the inciting incident. Other scenes need to be rewritten completely in order to fix the pacing, such as the sequence of introducing Hannah to the Seelie Court. Some scenes are fine as they, but contain some clunky sentences, which my wonderful reader, Arva Bake, highlighted in yellow. This flagged the problem lines without changing the feedback on the story. Green highlight also told me where my delivery had an excellent impact, and red markup showed inconsistencies.

As I write the next draft, I’ll work my way through the feedback from the developmental to the line edits, before doing another round and starting the process again. In each new draft, my final step is to go through the prose with a fine-toothed comb and make the writing as clear and engaging as possible. This includes doing grammar and punctuation checks, which fall under the purview of a copy-edit. This is why I now refer to line edits as the blurry line between stages of the process. Resolving one issue often bleeds into polishing that section in other ways as well, and it’s impossible to draw a clean differentiation between them when you are doing edits yourself.

When both you and your beta readers are satisfied with the manuscript, then it is time to hire a professional editor, or several. When employing a professional, the distinctions between developmental, line, and copy editing DO matter. There’s often a significant difference in price tag for more intensive edits, and it’s recommended that you hire different people for each stage, to get fresh sets of eyes on the story with every change in focus. Understanding the difference between the three is important when discussing these terms in industry, and they provide us as authors with a helpful vocabulary to describe what elements of the story we’re focusing on when we self-edit. I hope this was a helpful guide for you!

If you found this post useful, please let me know what you think! Do you have any other questions about the editing process that I can answer? Next week, I’ll be travelling for a school conference, but I’m hoping to put up a short story for the Inklings Challenge! If the post is a few days late, that might be why. Catch me scribbling away on the plane while I don’t have any internet to distract me. If you feel so generously inclined, you can support my writing by leaving me a tip on my Kofi or donating using the secure box below. Until next time, thanks for reading and happy writing!


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