What’s the Difference: Copy Editing vs Line Editing

Finding the right editor can be a tricky process, just like understanding all of the different forms of editing. For that matter, every author needs to perform their own self-edits of their manuscript at each stage of editing. And once the developmental editing stages are complete and the story’s structure and character development are solidified, it’s time for the copy editing and line editing to begin.

But what’s the difference between the two?

Line Editing

Line editing focuses on writing style and voice at the sentence and paragraph level. It also assesses creative content from an overall perspective (i.e., a verification that the developmental editing process is otherwise complete). This includes perspective in storytelling and the balance of showing versus telling. However, the line editing stage is not meant to exclusively review your manuscript for errors, but rather assess and, possibly, adjust the way language is utilized.

These are a few questions a line editor will ask as they work through your manuscript:

  • Is your language clear and concise?
  • Is your language enjoyable to read and comprehend?
  • Do your word choices reflect the genre and tone of your manuscript?
  • How does your diction bring your story to life in the reader’s mind?
  • Does your prose convey definitive purpose, or is their an abundance of generalizations, similes, metaphors, etc.?
  • Is your language and word choice consistent throughout?

The answers to these questions should be included in their feedback, whether that comes in the form of a comprehensive letter or via tracked changes in Microsoft Word (or whichever writing program you’ve agreed to use) or both. Additionally, a copy editor’s feedback should also note any overused or unnecessary words or sentences, repetitions (information or metaphors, similes, etc.), any dialogue or descriptions that could be shortened, scenes or chapters that need transitional work, ways that pacing could be improved, and more.

Copy Editing

Copy editing focuses on grammar and addressing flaws on a technical level. This includes homophone usage (think “affect” and “effect”) and a consistency check on punctuation (capitalization, hyphenation, and numerals). A copy editor should use a style guide, which will provide an accredited standard for their editorial style—and that style guide should match your genre (i.e., fiction vs. academic writing vs. memoir, etc).

Additionally, a copy editor will flag any unclear or inaccurate statements (ex., fact checking statements in nonfiction or historical fiction) and keep a running tally of any issues with internal consistency (ex., if a character is described as wearing glasses but is later said to have never worn glasses).

When it comes to finding the right editor, it’s important to note that many general editors as well as developmental editors will likely perform some of the duties of a copy editor; however, working with someone whose sole task is to perform a copy edit (or copy and line edit together) is crucial. This is because many other editors can—and will—correct technical errors when they are glaringly apparent, but it is not their duty to assess and correct every single error.

From a general workflow perspective, a copy edit would typically follow a line edit. However, just as other editing functions can sometimes be done simultaneously, so can these two under the right circumstances. The needs of the manuscript will determine whether or not these edits can be done simultaneously, so this will vary from manuscript to manuscript.

Just remember: a line edit is meant to improve your prose, while a copy edit is meant to perfect it.

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What’s the Difference?
Copy Editing vs Line Editing