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Differences between developmental editing, copy-editing and proofreading a novel

Posted on 12th July 2017

In a bit of a follow-up to a previous blog post, I thought I'd write a case study example of a recent project I worked on. I will anonymise all elements but let's call the author Joe Bloggs and keep the manuscript as a generic novel.

When Joe contacted me, he explained that he'd had the manuscript "edited" (his words) and that he just wanted me to proofread the novel before he would submit it to a publisher. However, when I looked at the file, I determined that it needed a copy-edit.

Why did I think it needed a copy-edit and not a proofread?

The file wasn't formatted and appeared to have a lot of inconsistencies. The number of changes I could see it needed from my brief look at the sample meant I also thought that for this to be published, a second check would be required after I'd copy-edited the book.

I went back to Joe to explain this and I quoted.

However, Joe really didn't want me to copy-edit the file; he insisted I was to just proofread the file and in so doing ignore the formatting issues or any queries related to the content and style. His reasons for this were that it had been edited before and he was submitting it to a publisher (rather than self-publishing, with the author assuming that the publisher might want to edit or then copy-edit and proofread the text in-house). I conceded, strengthening my Ts and Cs about it not being in a publishable format by the time I'd finished but accepting that the publisher would deal with these elements.

And this is where things got tricky. It's nigh-on impossible to proofread a book that needs a copy-edit, no matter how hard one tries. In the end, I amended the spelling, grammar and punctuation, as per a proofreading service, but I also queried quite a lot of content. This meant that though I had done the proofread, before the author submits the work to the publisher, he will need to address the content issues. New errors might creep in, not just spelling and grammar but possibly even new content issues, and this leaves someone like me feeling a little uneasy – I like to do my best but I am also aware that time/budget/personal issues might mean a client is adamant about the service level they want.

How does this relate to the differences between developmental editing, copy-editing and proofreading services

One stage of external editing doesn't mean all plot issues will be found. Perhaps more importantly, the edit he'd had no doubt looked at the bigger picture, not the smaller details, and this is where the content queries were. A developmental edit is not the same as a copy-edit and if lots of changes happen after the main edit, it's unlikely to be ready to go straight to a proofread.

A developmental edit rarely focuses on the finer language details, whereas the copy-editing service will address consistency, style, repetition and word choice. This level of work is too much interference at the proofreading stage and might lead to a lot of queries, leaving the author with a lot to do and no final stage of checks.

As with most things in life, you can't hurry the publishing process and skipping stages can be detrimental to the book and the reputation of the author and the editor or proofreader. Knowing this book will be going through the full manuscript process for a publisher meant I was willing to do the proofread, with added copy-editing comments for content issues, but I might not have felt so comfortable offering this level of work if the manuscript was going to be self-published.

Written by Kate Haigh.