Despite its focus on the written word, the publishing industry has its fair share of unclear jargon. When I started working at Little, Brown, I kept a cheat sheet at my desk to help me decipher notes from copyeditors and acronym-filled requests from other departments (the copyediting section looked a lot like this).
While you probably don’t need to learn the terms and copyediting marks I had on my original list (especially now that most manuscript copyediting is done electronically), maybe you’ve wondered what the difference is between developmental editors and copyeditors or between line edits and copyedits. If so, please think of this as your personal editing cheat sheet.
This week’s focus is developmental editing; next week’s focus will be copyediting and proofreading. This progression mirrors the typical publishing process, which begins with broader developmental notes and ends with smaller corrections. My definitions are drawn from my years of experience in children’s and young adult publishing; the terminology and processes may differ in other areas of publishing. With that said, let’s dive in!
Authors can receive developmental edits at various stages of the writing and revision process. They might receive developmental notes from a critique partner, a beta reader, or a freelance editor. Literary agents may send developmental edits to their clients, as well as occasionally to prospective clients with a request to revise and resubmit. At large trade publishers, authors might receive developmental edits directly from the editor or publisher who acquires their book, or they might receive these notes from another member of the editorial team who works closely with the acquiring editor.
While developmental edits can refer to any feedback that helps authors strengthen and, yes, develop a manuscript, three of the most common formats are critiques, editorial letters, and line edits.
Critiques are often the first type of feedback authors receive on a manuscript. Critiques tend to be relatively short and can be delivered verbally (e.g. a face-to-face conference critique session) or in writing (e.g. a brief letter of around 1-3 pages). The purpose of a critique is to give broad feedback on a book’s core elements: concept, characters, plot, pacing, etc. Think of critiques like the front page of a newspaper; they are intended to share the biggest and most pressing pieces of feedback, but probably won’t delve into more nuanced details.
A typical editorial letter goes deeper than a critique, offering both global and detailed feedback. While a critique might note that a book’s ending reads abruptly, an editorial letter might provide additional specific examples and ideas—such as brainstorming how the main characters could take more action to resolve the plot, considering story threads that remain unaddressed, or noting explanations that may read as overly convenient.
Editorial letters vary in length, depending on a manuscript’s length and needs—an editorial letter for a 100,000 word young adult fantasy would look different than an editorial letter for a 50,000 word young adult romance. If critiques are a newspaper’s front page, editorial letters are closer to a full-length feature; they ask questions and suggest changes that require time, consideration, and brainstorming.
The term line edits can be used to describe any notes that are made directly on a manuscript. Most line edits are now made electronically via comments and track changes, though they can also be marked by hand on a physical manuscript. While I’ve seen this term used to describe copyediting and proofreading, in my experience line edits most often refer to developmental notes sent by a developmental editor (as opposed to copyedits from a copyeditor or corrections from a proofreader). Line edits can stand alone or can be paired with a critique or editorial letter.
Depending on the manuscript and editor, line edits can include larger questions (e.g. “Would the characters return to the manor in this chapter if they already know that Mrs. Maplewood isn’t there, or would they go straight to the hospital? Consider moving this scene or further clarifying their reasoning.”). Line edits can also focus on smaller details at the paragraph and sentence level (e.g. “Consider combining these three similar lines to avoid repetition.” or “What is Mrs. Maplewood’s tone and expression as she delivers this news – is she solemn, emotional, relieved, etc.?”). Line edits are typically the most detailed and time-intensive form of editing.
While developmental line edits may include comments on elements like word choice and sentence structure—such as if a phrase doesn’t seem to be the best fit for a character’s voice or if several sentences open in the same way—a developmental editor’s primary focus is not grammar or style rules. For those areas, copyeditors and proofreaders are the experts, as we’ll discuss next week.
Your Editor Friend,
P.S. If you found this letter helpful, please consider sharing it with a friend or subscribing to receive new letters straight to your inbox. If you’d like to say hello, share feedback, or submit a question that I might answer in a future letter, please email me or ask me a question anonymously! I’d love to hear from you.