Copy Editing vs. Line Editing: What’s the Difference?

Ellie Diamond
Published: Nov 03, 2020
Last Updated:
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To the uninitiated, editing is just editing. Someone takes a passage of text and polishes it up, and then they hand it back to you. It all seems so simple until you contact an editor requesting their services and get questions like these in return:

  • Do you want copy editing or line editing?
  • Do you need a developmental edit or an editorial assessment?
  • Will you need index editing and fact-checking?

Each of these types of editing (and the others that exist) shape and affect your content differently. Which one you need depends on what type of content you’re producing, how complete it is, and what you want to do with it.

Read on to learn more about copy editing vs. line editing—plus, a comparison of other common types of editing services. Once you’ve seen what each type of edit does with your content, you can decide which service suits your needs.

Common Types of Editing

What is copy editing? Is it the same thing as line editing? And how does that compare to proofreading?

The best way to clarify is to look at some examples. Let’s start with the most common types of edits—the ones you’ll need for almost any piece of writing.

Line Editing

As the name suggests, line editing deals with a piece of content a single line at a time. Someone doing a line edit will examine your content closely for issues in style and meaning. It’s not a grammar edit but a commentary on how effective your language is. You might see comments like:

  • You use this word four times in this paragraph. Consider replacing at least two instances.
  • These two sentences are redundant. Pick one.
  • You need a transition between these two sentences.
  • Awkward sentence structure here.

As with any editorial comments, the intention is to help you smooth and tighten up your writing. The more open you can be to the editor's feedback, the better the final product will become.

Copy Editing

Like line editing, copy editing focuses on the detailed elements of your writing. That’s why the two often generate confusion. The difference is that while line editing looks at style, copy editing focuses on mechanics.

A copy editor will review your manuscript for grammar, spelling, and syntax errors. They’ll look for accuracy as well as consistency—for example, if you spell out “sixty-six” in one paragraph and write 66 in another. The comments you receive from a copy editor may look something like:

  • This verb should be past tense.
  • Use a hyphen here, not an em dash.
  • You said earlier that he lived at 16 Maypole Lane. Here it says 14. Which house number is correct?

A copy editor may also look out for factual errors, but may not conduct a thorough fact-check—more on that later.

Developmental Editing

Developmental editing is also known as substantive or content editing. The editor will look at your manuscript as a whole and provide feedback on various elements. For a fiction manuscript, that might be things like plot, character, and setting. For nonfiction, you’d get feedback on issues like tone and flow.

You’ll usually get two things from a developmental edit:

  1. An editorial report that covers the editor’s overall feedback, including what the editor would change and what they think you should keep. For example:
  2. The second section doesn’t seem like it belongs. It might fit better later in the manuscript, perhaps after the chapter about zombies.
  3. An annotated manuscript, where you’ll see the editor’s detailed notes on your original work. You might see comments like:
  4. Lost your train of thought here.
  5. This section is a bit confusing. Can you clarify?

Developmental edits usually happen in the early stages of a manuscript’s development. They give you the chance to fix big-picture issues before you hand the piece over to a copy editor or line editor.

Editorial Assessment

If your manuscript isn’t ready for a developmental edit but you’d still like some high-level feedback, ask for an editorial assessment.

Unlike a developmental edit, an editorial assessment doesn’t usually include an annotation of your manuscript. Instead, you’ll get a letter that’s similar to an editorial report, but even broader in scope. Your editor will offer general comments such as:

  • The narrative flows very smoothly in general, but you lost me near the middle. I’d clean up Chapters 5 through 7.
  • Your research is thorough, but something is getting lost in translation and I’m not sure what position you’re taking. Are you advocating for or against organized zombie hunts?

Editors don’t expect completely polished manuscripts for editorial assessments. You should submit what you feel is a solid first draft, but don’t worry about making it perfect.

Structural Editing

Structural editing is exactly what it sounds like it would be. An editor comments on the structure of your manuscript, including whether the pieces are in the best possible order and if they think it flows well.

The following types of comments are typical:

  • You’ve made too many chapter divisions, and it makes the manuscript choppy. Consolidate your chapters into half as many or fewer.
  • Part 4 seems out of place. It would work better as an introduction.
  • Consider a more linear structure for this section. Multiple flashbacks make the narrative hard to follow.

The goal of a structural edit is to tell you whether your manuscript makes sense and is engaging, though it won't delve into style or tone.


This one is relatively self-explanatory, but it’s a step that’s easy to miss.

Writers and marketers may not be aware that fact-checking isn’t necessarily part of the developmental or copy editor’s job description. Always clarify with an editor whether the piece will be fact-checked. If not, consider hiring a fact-checker or adding the service to your editing package.

Index Editing

Not all manuscripts have an index—a list of references and the pages on which those topics appear. If yours does, you’ll probably need an index editor.

An index editor may go through an index that you created and check for accuracy, or they may create an index from scratch. The second option may be the way to go if you’re writing a book-length nonfiction manuscript with an extensive list of references. Professional index editors have access to software that can speed up the process considerably.

Format Editing

Format editing is primarily a design process. A format editor will look at your manuscript and check things like margin alignment, font consistency, heading structure, and so on. A format editor may say things like:

  • Your indents are uneven in this section. Please fix.
  • Align this image to the left.

The format editor keeps your readers from getting distracted by avoidable errors like these, so your message stays front and center where it belongs.


Proofreading is usually the last stage in editing, and it’s the most detailed. A proofreader will go through your manuscript with a fine-tooth comb to look for spelling errors, typos, grammar mistakes, and so on.

It’s the proofreader’s job to make sure you don’t publish A History of the “Untied” States of America or claim that your company offers innovative “turkey” solutions. (Unless you’re a caterer, you probably mean “turnkey.”)

After the proofreader finishes with your work, you’ll get back a marked-up manuscript alerting you to any lingering errors. Many proofreaders today use the comments feature in Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or similar software to document their notes.

When Do You Need Which Editing Services?

Now that you’ve got answers to burning questions like “What is copy editing?” and “What’s the difference between an edit and a proofread?” you can start figuring out which service best suits your content.

Long-Form Content

If you have a longer piece of content, such as a book manuscript, you’re more likely to need big-picture edits—the kinds that focus on structure and ideas. That includes:

  • Developmental editing
  • Editorial assessments
  • Structural editing
  • Format editing
  • Index editing

Depending on your process, your manuscript may not need all of these types of editing. Not every manuscript goes through an editorial assessment, for example.

You may also find an editor that provides multiple services. The person who does your structural edit may also offer format editing, index editing, and fact-checking. Every process is different—just make sure that you’re clear about what’s included.

Shorter Content

If you publish shorter content, like articles and white papers, you probably don’t need a developmental, structural, or format edit. You’re fine with a copy edit, line edit, and proofread. For the shortest and simplest content types, like blog posts and short articles, these edits may happen all at once, possibly alongside fact-checking.

The Takeaway

As you shop around for editors, look for a match between the type of editing you need and the editor’s experience. Ask how an editor works, what the process is for submitting your manuscript, and what the turnaround time is for getting feedback. Ask what experience they have in working with your type of content, and if there’s anything they need from you to make the process as smooth as possible.

Remember, your editor’s job is to help you get your message across. It’s a humbling process, but the results are well worth it.

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