Which editorial service do you need?

Knowing which editorial service to choose can be tricky. Everyone’s heard of proofreading, but what is it really? And how does it differ from copyediting or line editing, or even developmental editing? And when might you need an editorial project manager?

If you contact an editorial services professional via a reputable source such as the directory of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) (of which I am an Advanced Professional member) or ACES: The Society for Editing, they will be able to help you decide. But it can be useful to have a sense of the different services beforehand, so you can target your search towards the most suitable editorial professionals.

The flowchart below (click to enlarge) provides a step-by-step way to identify which editorial service you likely need. In the following sections, we’ll walk through each service in turn.

A flowchart to help you decide which editorial service you need
(click image to enlarge)

Services that happen before editing starts

First off, you might not even need an editor yet. Instead, one of the following might be suitable for you:

  • No help at all! if you’re currently writing your manuscript and are getting along just fine on your own, thankyouverymuch, then good on you. You might want to digest the content of this post so you can start laying plans for the future, but otherwise you’re all set for now.
  • Writing coach or manuscript critiquer: if you’re repeatedly hitting stumbling blocks in your writing or aren’t sure of the shape of your end product, then you might benefit from help from a coach, mentor or manuscript critiquer. Numerous such people can be found via Google, and the CIEP directory again has some options.
  • Ghostwriter or copywriter: if you’re not interested in doing the writing yourself, or are looking to commission writing for a business or charity, then you’ll need a ghostwriter (the name usually given to people who work on book-length projects) or copywriter (usually shorter projects). You can find these people in various places (Scribe Media has a good guide for ghostwriting) but be prepared to pay for quality.

Editorial services ‘proper’

  • Proofreader: many people think of this service when they really need one of the following three. That’s fine: in reality, if you go to an editorial professional asking for ‘proofreading’, many of them will just provide you with whatever level of service you actually need (based on a discussion of your requirements) without worrying about the terminology. Traditionally, though, proofreaders are the very last pair of eyes on a manuscript, looking for small residual errors and checking the layout.
  • Copyeditor: a copyeditor works on text that is in good shape but needs to be checked for clarity, consistency and accuracy, usually at the sentence level. They will also carry out the technical work needed to prepare a text for design or typesetting, if needed.
  • Line editor: a line editor does a similar job to a copyeditor, but on a deeper level. They will look more closely at sense and flow, and they might suggest moving sentences, paragraphs and even whole sections around. But they won’t look at the broader structure of the manuscript (unlike developmental editors) and they won’t usually prepare a text for design or typesetting (unlike copyeditors).
  • Developmental editors: as you’ll have worked out by now, in this group of four editorial services, we’re moving from micro to macro. Developmental editors are there for the big picture. They look at the structure and coverage of a manuscript as a whole, even up to the level of repurposing text or changing its focus.

In addition, there is editorial project management. This service sits outside the flow above because it covers multiple stages. Editorial project managers plan schedules and budgets, send work out to others, monitor whether requirements are being met (quality control), and generally strategise and problem-solve. Traditionally these people usually worked in-house, but many editorial project managers are now freelance (I started out in-house but have been freelance since 2009). They work with traditional publishers, but they can also help organisations without publishing experience to set up and run processes where text is the end product.

Feel free to get in touch if you’re interested in any of these five services for a non-fiction project.

Additional editing-related services

The infographic covers the major services involved in creating and polishing text and its associated elements. But there are also other services you might need, such as:

  • Reference research: many editors, especially those with a background in academic editing, offer a service specifically devoted to identifying, researching and styling references. I find that my business and charity clients particularly appreciate this service, as they often don’t have a background in producing and formatting references.
  • Market suitability research: this relates to the commercial viability of your project. Many editors (me included) don’t get involved in this side of things at all, but some developmental editors do. You can also look for people who call themselves commissioning editors or agents.
  • Permissions research: permissions editors trawl through a manuscript looking for everything that might need permission (quotes, lyrics, images, data… essentially anything produced by a person who is not the author). They then advise on getting permission to use this material, and potentially do the actual work of applying. Many CIEP editors provide this service (again, you can check out the directory).
  • Indexing: indexers create, well, indexes. Even in today’s digital, searchable world, indexes are vital parts of many non-fiction books. In the UK, the Society of Indexers is the place to look.
  • Legal review: especially if you’re publishing a memoir or autobiography, you may need to get a legal review, for example to protect yourself from accusations of libel. Sidebar Saturdays has a useful introduction to this area.

Whatever stage you’re at and whatever service you need, there is a host of knowledgeable, experienced editorial professionals out there who will be happy to partner with you to achieve your writing and publishing goals. Good luck!

Last updated 2 June 2023

About Hazel Bird

Hazel works with non-fiction clients around the world to help them deliver some of their most prestigious publications in areas such as charity and peace work, digital and technology, and business and leadership. An editor since 2007, she aims to see the big picture while pinpointing every detail. She has been described as ‘superhuman’ and a ‘secret weapon', but until Tony Stark comes calling she's dedicating her superpowers to text-based endeavours.

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