Developmental Editing vs Copy Editing: What’s the Difference?

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Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.

Development and copy editing are two types of editing involved before publishing a book. One focuses on the whole manuscript, while the other looks at it in parts.

I often see questions about which one you need, and my answer is always the same: both. But it’s important to understand what each offer is and at what stage to use them.

Keep reading to know the difference between the two edits, what they include, and which editing service you must choose.

What is Developmental Editing?

A developmental edit is an editing process where editors fix the plot, flow, focus, and other book elements. As the name suggests, developmental edits are the most extensive edits done during the development phase of the content.

For my fiction books, this scope of editing involves my editor rethinking the story arcs and characters I’ve created. A professional editor does not look at the language conventions and other mechanical aspects. Instead, the focus is on the “bigger picture.”

Some consider this editing level as part of the revision process. In non-fiction books, the developmental editing step involves rearranging the arguments, strengthening claims, and producing maximum impact. Honestly, it’s really one of the vastest areas of editing, in my opinion.

What is Copy Editing?

Copy editing or copyediting is one of the levels of editing that focus on language errors and vague language. A copy editor does not perform comprehensive editing during this level of editing. Instead, this type of edit will look for grammar and spelling mistakes.

I use copy editing for both my works of fiction and content creation. Copy editing is the same whether you’re dealing with a Fantasy manuscript of an article about cats.

Copy editing may also fix the sentence structure in both short and long-form content. It’s one of the major steps in editing that will help prevent grammatical mistakes to produce a purchase-worthy book.

What Does a Developmental Edit Include?

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As the broadest edit, developmental editing covers several aspects. Take a look at the deeper editing services that a developmental editor may offer.

Genre and Theme

One of the differences between editing at the developmental and surface level is that the former uses a broader lens. A comprehensive edit may ask what type of story the author is writing and if the elements are presented interestingly for future readers to enjoy.

If you’re a developmental editor, ask the writer why they chose to write the book. Why is their book important? Is the book’s importance reflected in the piece? I was asked these questions when I first paired with a good editor.

Since the edits are comprehensive, submitting a digital content format to the experienced editor for considerable author revision is better.

Story Elements

The content development process includes exposition, conflict, climax, and denouement. Content producers plan these elements to build a structure for a book. Make sure to hire an editing service that will provide meaningful suggestions in this aspect.

Any first-time author will benefit from this form of professional editing. It will fix fiction authors’ dramatic scenes, character development, and the sequence of events.

For non-fiction books, this comprehensive step requires the developmental editor to clarify the author’s point of view and ideas.

Readers’ Expectations

A developmental or story edit will help the author build or maintain a reputation among readers. If the writer is on their tenth book, they need to ensure it’s as high-quality as their previous ones.

A developmental editor and writer must build a strong relationship because they will go back and forth with the content level feedback. They should have a common goal of satisfying readers by producing professional content.

Also, in my experience, it even boils down to readers’ expectations of common tropes and devices within the genre you’re writing. For example, I write Fantasy Romance, so my readers expect to have details such as a hero’s journey, the chosen one, enemies to lovers, and so on. Without these elements, my readers will lose interest.

Remember, a good book isn’t judged by the book cover design but by its content! (But also…book cover design is super important LOL)

What Does Copy Editing Include?

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The copyediting focus involves minor details like wrong grammar, bland language, and factual errors.

Spelling and Grammar

Copy editors are responsible for typos, spelling mistakes, and surface-level grammar errors. Their editing specialties include verb tenses, pronoun-antecedent consistency, punctuation, and more.

A proper edit at this level usually requires an editing tool like Grammarly or ProWritingAid. However, it’s essential for professional copy editors not to rely entirely on these software programs.

A copy editor also checks the document for language errors that are bigger. They need to ensure adherence to language structure on the sentence level.

For instance, a copy editor may change some sentences from passive to active voice. They also fix non-native language structures to make the writer sound more fluent.


Copy editing is the form of editing that ensures consistency. The individual editor should have sharp attention to detail to produce knowledgeable content with the same descriptions of characters and settings.


A copy editor enforces flow through proper sentence structures. They also see to it that there is a lively sentence variety in the paragraphs. The professional tightens phrases to streamline the idea or story.

When You Must Choose Between Services

Choosing between the two kinds of editing can be challenging when you’re trying to publish a book.

If you’re a first-time or self-published author, hiring developmental and copy editors is better. These professionals will examine your manuscript from the bigger picture to the tiniest details to ensure it fits the publishing standards.

You can hire a professional to do substantive editing, as well. Substantive editing may act as a bridge between copyediting and developmental editing. It focuses on the organization and presentation of the entire text, from the title to the ending.

But if you’re submitting the manuscript to an agent, try hiring a high-quality developmental editor instead. Don’t worry about your tiny grammar mistakes. The agent will look at how compelling your story is and whether it grabs readers’ attention or not.

Once you get a thumbs up from an agent, you can hire a proofreader or copy editor. They will fix typos, grammar slip-ups, and formatting errors on your manuscript.

Examples of Developmental Editing

Below is an example of a passage that requires editing:

After nursing Jonah, I saw my eldest daughter Sheila enter the room. She had dark brown hair like her father’s and light-gray eyes like mine. Her mismatched curly hair often made her feel different in the family, but she never felt unloved by her mother. I felt excited to tell her the good news.

Did you notice the POV change in the third sentence? Developmental editing looks at the manuscript to keep the POV consistent. It also ensures that the story shows more actions done by the characters than vague descriptions of emotions. Here is the edited version:

After nursing Jonah, I saw my eldest daughter Sheila enter the room. She had dark brown hair like her father’s and light-gray eyes like mine. Her mismatched curly hair often made her feel different in the family, but I never made her feel unloved. I jumped up from my seat and instantly blurted out the good news.

Examples of Copy Editing

After a round of developmental editing, a copy editor may check the passage for spelling, grammar, and punctuation issues. Here is the copy-edited passage:

After nursing Jonah, I saw my eldest daughter, Sheila, enter the room. She has dark brown hair like her father’s and light-gray eyes like mine. Her mismatched curly hair often made her feel different in the family, but I always made sure she felt loved. I jumped up from my seat and instantly blurted out the good news.

The copy editor’s first edit is the insertion of commas between the appositive, Sheila. They also changed “had” to “has” in the second sentence to show the correct verb tense.

The copy editor rewrote the third sentence to eliminate the double negative to remove the vague language.

Summary of Developmental Editing vs. Copy Editing

So, I’ve shown you the difference between the two levels to editing, developmental and copy editing.

Hire a developmental editor if you need help with your plot, characters, theme, and genre. But a copy editor is suitable for you if you need cursory editing for spelling and grammar mistakes.

You can also try hiring an all-in-one editor who can do developmental and copy edits to help you maximize your editing buck.