Three Types of Editors and When to Use Each

We all make mistakesWe all make mistakes. Mistakes in writing, however, can cause major problems. While it’s the job of editors to find and correct those mistakes, did you know different kinds of editors look for different kinds of mistakes?

People often confuse one kind of editor with another and don’t realize the differences. This post gives a brief overview of three very common kinds of editors, what they do, and when is the best time to use each one.

Developmental Editors

Would you be surprised to learn there’s a kind of editor who “edits” your work before you even write your first word? If you’re writing a book or a series of smaller items like white papers, guides, or even blog posts, you might want to talk with a development editor.

A development editor can help you determine

  • What topic to write about
  • What kind and how much information should be gathered
  • How much information should be presented
  • How the information should be arranged

These editors don’t edit words so much as ideas and the development of those ideas. They help authors create and structure outlines so material is presented in a logical fashion. They also help authors use language appropriate to the intended audience.

The best time to use a developmental editor is at the beginning of your writing project. Their ideas and suggestions can save authors a lot of time and effort during the planning, research, writing, and editing stages.

Most often, however, a developmental editor is called in when the author has finished the first draft and the publisher decides the manuscript is worth publishing, but needs extensive reorganization and rewriting.

In this latter case, the development editor analyzes the manuscript and works with the author to restructure and rewrite the work. One thing most developmental editors do not do is write content, at least not without an agreement with the author or publisher. Once a developmental editor begins writing prose, they become a co-author or ghostwriter.

Copy Editors

When people think of editors, they most often think of copy editors. These editors edit writing to clean up any and all writing mistakes and make the writing more effective.

There are two kinds of copy-editing: substantive (sometimes called heavy editing) and mechanical (sometimes called light editing).

Substantive editing includes rearranging and deleting sections of text, suggesting new sections or paragraphs be written, suggesting (or even rewriting) changes to the document’s section headings, and ensuring a consistent and appropriate tone. Developmental editors and copy-editors doing substantive edit are doing similar work. The difference is that development editors work on the ideas and structure of the document before the text is written, while substantive editing is done on already written material.

Mechanical editing is the most basic kind of editing. It focuses on grammar, spelling, word choice, punctuation, and formatting. At this level the editor is looking at individual sentences to ensure they make sense and won’t confuse readers. Making sure numbered graphics like illustrations and tables are properly numbered, internal references are correct (e.g., see section 4), words are used consistently, and facts are checked are part of mechanical editing.


Proofreaders are a special kind of editor. For those outside the writing industry, proofreading and copy-editing are often used interchangeably. There’s actually a difference. Copy-editors edit the author’s words, proofreaders edit the proof.

What’s a proof? The proof is the final version of the document before it’s published. In the print world, the proof is created by the printer using the final version of the manuscript. The proofreader compares the final manuscript version to the proof to ensure a problem wasn’t introduced during the printing process. Some of the things proofreaders check is that lines of text aren’t accidently dropped from pages, page numbers and references to page numbers are still accurate, and words are hyphenated correctly.

The Clash of Editors

It’s ironic that while the number one goal of editing is ensuring meaning is clearly communicated, there is often disagreement about what to call the different kinds of editing, the work each kind encompasses, which editing rules should be followed, and how much rewriting editors are allowed to do on their own. So while the topic of editing seems pretty straightforward, it’s actually a cauldron of clashing ideas. If you want to hire a professional editor, be sure you talk about and agree on what kind and extent of editing is to be done.

Sometimes even professional editors have different definitions for the terms used here. Some use developmental editor and substantive editor interchangeably. You may ask a copy editor to edit your work and be surprised he or she did mechanical editing when you expected substantive editing.

About Writing Jim

As Writing Jim, Jim Driggers is a freelance writer and editor. He helps small business owners use writing more effectively. His clients gain sales by him improving their marketing content. His clients reduce costs by him writing guides that help them systematize their business and remove employee confusion and misunderstanding. His clients give themselves the time to focus on what they do well when they leave their writing to Writing Jim.

For help with your print or online content (either writing or editing) or help systematizing your business processes, contact Writing Jim at [email protected] or 925-231-5825. Visit for more information.

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