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What are the differences between line and developmental editing?

As an author, you’ve no doubt heard the terms ‘line editing’ and ‘developmental editing’ before. But what exactly do they mean? This blog will hopefully help demystify these phrases and explain the differences between line and developmental editing, with examples included throughout.

What are the differences between line and developmental editing?

Line editing

Line editing is checking the writing line by line. It usually includes the following checks on a completed manuscript:

Thorough consistency checks, for example spelling of names, narrative point of view, physical descriptions of characters etc.

Despite writing and checking several drafts of your book, a few inconsistencies may remain. This is normal! An editor will carefully check that blonde haired Suzanne doesn’t become brunette Susan halfway through the story. Or that Suzanne’s first person point of view doesn’t randomly change to third person narrative in chapter fifteen. As an author, it can be really hard to keep track of everything, especially if you’re more of a pantser than a planner. Thankfully, that’s what line editors are for.

Unnecessary repetition of certain words and/or descriptive phrases

In 5 Easy Ways to Make Your First Novel Better, I talk about avoiding indirect repetition. Readers are clever; they do not need to be told something twice.

Example of indirect repetition: ‘Quickly he glanced round, no one was in the room, it was completely empty.’ This says the same thing twice: ‘no one was in the room’ and ‘it was completely empty’. If nobody was in the room, it would be empty. Your readers will understand that without the need for indirect repetition.

As an author you may also develop certain writing ‘tics’. For example, always using the phrase ‘ramrod straight’ to show a character standing tall. Or favouring the dialogue tag ‘he snarled’ over and over again. A line editor, with their trained eye for detail, will flag these repetitive words and phrases for you.

Use of clichés and/or overused/stock phrases

Clichés and/or overused phrases won’t impress anyone. Unforgiving readers detest unimaginative cliches, especially in a genre they read and know well. You need to keep your reader engaged, not exasperated. Here’s a list of the top ten clichés in crime fiction, for all you crime fiction authors out there!

Homophone errors

Homophones can be tricky. If you are more concerned with creating worlds, stories and three dimensional characters, leave the nit-picky homophone checking to a line editor (I love homophones!). However, if you want to try to get it right yourself, a few common homophone mistakes include:

  • sceptre/spectre

Correct uses:

The queen carried the golden sceptre to the throne.

The spectre haunted the abandoned mansion for years.

  • sliver/slither

Correct uses:

She asked for a small sliver of chocolate cake.

The snake began to slither through the long grass.

  • slaver/slather

Correct uses:

The dog began to slaver as soon as it smelled the meat.

She began to slather sunscreen on her porcelain skin.

Timeline or action errors

Timeline or action errors can be confusing for your readers. They will notice if a serial killer kidnaps a victim on a Friday and locks them away for three days, but then the police find the body on a Sunday morning, just two days later. It doesn’t add up.

This doesn’t just apply to a week by week, or hour by hour timeline, but illogical sequences of actions too.

For example: ‘The headline he saw shocked him. With shaking hands he opened the pages. It read ‘ANOTHER VICTIM FOUND DEAD IN ALLEYWAY‘. This is an example of an illogical sequence of actions. The character saw the headline – opened the newspaper – read the headline.

Although a minor inconsistency, this reads as though the character opens the newspaper to read the headline inside, whereas the headline would be on the front page. A good line editor will notice this inconsistency for you, before your readers have chance to.

General readability

General readability is a difficult concept to define, but it’s obvious to a reader when the pace and flow of a book is off. Laboured atmospheric descriptions, extended internal monologues and too much minutiae can slow a story down. A line editor can make suggestions for tightening up descriptions, shaping characters’ thoughts more clearly, or being ruthless about unnecessary ‘dumps’ of information or dialogue.

Consistent formatting, for example italics, speech marks, slang/jargon etc.

Depending on your editor and their service inclusions, a style sheet is often used to ensure formatting is consistent throughout your manuscript. Numerical dates, regional dialect expressions, chapter heading choices and use of italics, among other considerations, are checked.

For example, some authors choose to portray a character’s thoughts using italics, whilst others reserve italics for conveying written communication within the story such as emails and/or letters. Formatting is ultimately your choice as the author, but a line editor can advise you accordingly.

A few common questions about line editing include:

When is the best time for a line edit to be done?

The best time for a line edit to be done is after a manuscript has been written and edited to a reasonable standard by the author themselves, but before the final proofreading polish.

Can a line edit be done as I write my book?

It can, but some editors may not offer that as an option as it means each chapter, or few chapters, are treated as separate entities rather than a whole story. This could then lead to further changes needing to be made down the line once the book is complete, which creates more work for the editor and therefore more cost to you as the author.

What software is usually used for line editing?

Microsoft Word is most commonly used for line editing. Depending on what is included in their particular service, some line editors may make corrections and suggestions directly onto the manuscript using Track Changes. Others may make suggestions for corrections and/or improvements using comment bubbles in the margins of the manuscript. Some may make suggestions on a separate document, using more of a report format. A few may combine two or more of these elements.

A line editor should be happy to provide you with a sample of their editing skills (usually a fixed word count or perhaps a chapter). A sample edit not only helps an editor determine the level of editing required for your manuscript(s), but also shows you what their editing service includes. Some editors provide free sample edits, whereas others provide paid samples, which are often offset against the cost of a full manuscript edit should you go on to book them.

Developmental Editing

Continuing the differences between line and developmental editing, developmental editing is much more involved than line editing. Developmental editing usually includes working intensively on the ‘big picture’ elements of a manuscript before publication. For example:


Theme(s) is/are a big element of any novel and should be woven through your pages like thread. Often authors don’t realise their book hinges on a theme and instead think of it in more literal terms. For example, a serial killer being hunted by the police could actually be a quest for power, or a chaos vs order, or a good vs evil theme. Identifying your theme(s) may add a richness or a deeper layer to your novel, which a developmental editor can help you with. Literary Devices has A Huge List of Common Themes which is really useful for identifying themes.

Major plot holes

Major plot holes are trouble. Readers will DEFINITELY notice them, especially avid readers of your genre. Perhaps you’ve written your manuscript without a plan and now things don’t quite add up, or you did have an outline but there’s a bit in the middle of your story which now seems too far fetched. Or maybe you feel like your novel is fine but the plot isn’t as tightly knitted together as it could be. It’s alright – major plot holes can be fixed, but first they need to be identified. That’s where a developmental editor comes in.

Overall chapter by chapter flow/structure

Fixing an overall storyline structure could be as simple as making an epilogue a prologue, to instantly immerse and intrigue your reader. Perhaps leading with a murder or a shocking event as the hook, then flashing back, could fix the flow. Often working backwards from a crime rather than working towards it can transform a psychological thriller, for example. A developmental editor can help you to look at your book objectively and suggest rejigging, or deleting, or developing chapters to help the flow and structure of your manuscript.

Point of view confusion

As mentioned before in the line editing section, point of view needs to be clear. It is essential for the sanity of your reader! Head hopping, as it’s often referred to, creates knots and tangles in your story when it needs to be smooth and streamlined. Perhaps you have more than one protagonist, both written in first person narrative, and their voices are indistinguishable from each other, causing confusion. Maybe you’ve written your whole novel in third person omniscient viewpoint, overseeing absolutely everything, when it would work much better written from a first person point of view instead. A developmental editor will work with you to make sure your readers are clear about your viewpoint(s).

Major character inconsistencies, for example personality traits, past experiences, voice distinguishability etc.

Where a line editor will focus on physical characteristics and behaviour of characters, a developmental editor will work on identifying major character inconsistencies, for example personality traits and distinguishing features that aren’t appearance based. A developmental editor will really get to know your characters and what they would and wouldn’t do. They will then be able to make insightful suggestions accordingly, as well as encourage you to consider their motivations/impulses/thought patterns etc.

Location(s)/world(s) relatability and/or plausibility

Some authors are capable of creating whole galaxies, or alternative life forms, in extreme detail. I am in awe! Some authors set their stories in countries they have never been to, or describe situations they have never experienced, for example a foreign prison or a grisly crime scene. However, it must be tricky to keep track of it all without intricate planning, research and on-going notes and reminders. This is when an objective but professional opinion is key. Have you made your make-believe world a compelling enough setting? Does that courtroom scene seem plausible? Would those chain of events really happen in that particular situation? A developmental editor will question these types of issues, enabling you, as the author, to dig deep for the answers and ultimately improve your book.

A few common questions about developmental editing include:

When is a developmental edit done?

This can vary and often depends on how much guidance you, as the author, feel you need. A developmental editor can be involved as early as the planning stages of a story, during the writing of the novel, or once a first draft has been finished.

Can a developmental edit be done as I write the book?

Yes it can, although this may be classed as more of a writing coach service. Always clarify exactly what your chosen developmental editor offers. More on this below.

Is developmental editing more expensive than line editing?

Developmental editing is usually much more of an investment than line editing because it is more time intensive and collaborative. A developmental editor will usually have to assess your completed manuscript before agreeing to/beginning a thorough developmental edit. Many developmental editors offer this as an initial separate service, to determine the exact level of editing needed prior to any binding author-editor arrangement.

Investing in editing

Although this blog outlines the differences between line and developmental editing, this list is not exhaustive. Individual freelance and/or self employed editors determine which service(s) they provide and what exactly they include. Make sure you understand exactly what you are getting from the outset by requesting a sample edit.

It is worth finding an editor that is extremely familiar with, or specialises in, your novel’s genre. For example, I am both a line and developmental editor who specialises in darker themed genres e.g. mystery, whodunnit, domestic noir, grisly/gritty crime fiction and psychological thrillers, as well as other crime related sub-genres. I know these genres – their tropes/motifs, their structures, their readers’ expectations etc. I am obsessed! However, I would not be the best person to developmentally edit epic fantasy or historical romance novels as I don’t know their conventions as well as crime fiction.

Even if, after a manuscript assessment, your editor confirms a developmental edit is needed, it is still your choice whether to go ahead with investing in the edit, either with them or with another editor completely. It is important to find the right editor, at the right price and timescale, for you!

If you have any further questions, or comments, about the differences between line and developmental editing, please feel free to contact me! For more information, check out these other related posts:

What does a line edit look like?

5 Tips That Will Make You Better at Creative Writing

What are the basic differences between editing and proofreading?

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