The term editing covers a wide variety of responsibilities. Some editors provide general services, covering many aspects of the field, while other editors specialize in specific types of editing. When you’re shopping around for an editor to polish your manuscript, it’s vital to ensure that both you and the editor understand what level of editing is expected.

While there are any number of editing specialties (acquisitions editing, fact checking, indexing, and page design, to name a few), most authors are looking for an editor whose skillset falls under one of three umbrellas:

  • Proofreader
  • Copyeditor
  • Substantive editor

Proofreader

The proofreader provides the lightest editing services of the three. The proofreader is primarily responsible for the final pass over a document, checking for spelling issues, punctuation issues, inconsistent spacing, basic errors with grammar, egregious factual errors, and the like. The proofreading pass is usually done just prior to publication, in conjunction with the efforts of a copyeditor and/or substantive editor.

In many cases, larger publishing and editing firms employ proofreaders. A freelance author often won’t need the services of a dedicated proofreader, as those services will be provided by a copyeditor or substantive editor.

Copyeditor

The copyeditor is what most people think of when they think of an editor. Rather than just a light pass like a proofreader, the copyeditor is a master of one or more style guides and is responsible for preparing a draft manuscript for final publication. This includes one or more passes through the manuscript to check for and correct spelling, capitalization, and grammar issues; problems with syntax; noun–pronoun agreement; and the like.

A copyeditor will also often format the draft manuscript in proper manuscript format, including:

  • Applying proper fonts, font sizes, margins, and line spacing
  • Ensuring headers and footers are correct
  • Ensuring in-text citations, footnotes, endnotes, and bibliographies are formatted correctly
  • Ensuring that elements of the manuscript match the appropriate style guide, such as deciding whether to spell out numbers or leave them as numerals

In short, a copyeditor takes what you’ve written and polishes it; their job is to make you, the author, look as good as possible.

Substantive Editor

The substantive editor holds a somewhat different role than the proofreader and the copyeditor. While the proofreader and the copyeditor ensure that the text and format of a manuscript are ready for publication, the substantive editor focuses on the content—the substance—of the manuscript. The substantive editor’s primary focus is to ensure that your content makes sense, flows well, and is engaging.

The substantive editor works closely with the author to initiate changes and reorganize the content to help it best fulfill its purpose. While a copyeditor may change words or even sentence structure to correct style issues, the substantive editor may change words, sentences, paragraphs, or more to improve clarity and flow. The substantive editor is responsible for eliminating repetition; correcting instances of passive voice and confusing sentence structure; clarifying central elements such as plot points, dialogue, and flow of action, if applicable; pointing out instances where tone may not match the author’s intentions; fact checking; and more.

Despite digging deep into the content, an effective substantive editor will maintain the author’s voice and general style. The substantive editor is not a coauthor; instead, he or she provides a third-party view of the manuscript and points out issues to which the author may be blind.

Many substantive editors also provide copyediting and/or proofreading services, but not all do. When hiring a substantive editor, make sure to clarify exactly what services will be provided.

—Christopher Kugler

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