Line 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.

Editing doesn’t happen at once. Trust me. It’s not a process you should rush. It contains several steps that focus on different writing aspects to prepare a manuscript for publishing. Two editing stages you’ll encounter are line editing and copy editing.

What’s the difference between the two? As an author of any kind, you should know this. 

I’ll cover the difference between line editing vs. copy editing. Discover their specialized responsibilities, when to use each editing type, and some examples I whipped up.

What is Line Editing?

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A line edit focuses on manuscripts’ style, language choices, and content. This form of editing addresses big-picture issues, although it’s not as broad as developmental editing.

Before becoming an author and content creator, I worked as a freelance line editor for a few years. I learned the ins and outs of the specialty and now apply them to my own writing. But I know many writers who simply don’t know the importance of line edits.

Line editors may focus on the pacing of different pieces of writing. They may also improve word choices, remove repetitive phrases, and fix the sentence structure of authors. Some line editors offer extra services for character consistency and plot improvement.

The process of line editing works line-by-line rather than paragraph-by-paragraph. They make sure that readers understand every sentence through proper syntax, word choice, tone, and emotion. Another term for line editing is stylistic editing.

What is Copy Editing?

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Copy editing or copyediting is a type of editing that focuses on the sentence level of a piece of writing, like line editing. But it brings attention to technical errors, such as punctuation, grammar, and spelling errors.

Copy editors may also fix poor word choices and awkward sentence structure. But they usually charge more for these extra services. These professionals are not responsible for big-picture edits like plot inconsistencies and poor argumentation.

For example, I use a copy editor sometimes to help spot inconsistencies in my books from one to another in a series. She makes sure I use the same spelling on made-up fantasy words in each book, checks for capitalization of names and places, etc. 

A professional copy editor is in charge of mechanical issues and polishing issues. They make sure everything follows basic writing conventions before the paper undergoes proofreading.

Line Editing vs. Copy Editing

Line editing and copy editing are two completely different processes. Check out the various writing aspects they cover.

Spelling and Grammar: Copy Editing

Some people believe that copy editing is an easy process because this stage of editing only focuses on the technical level. But guaranteeing consistency in spelling and grammar is a humbling process.

It’s not enough that you can spot any spelling error. You should also ensure the spelling is the same throughout the type of content. For example, if you use the British spelling “utilise” in one sentence, do not use “utilize” in another.

These types of edits also concentrate on spotting homophones, these are words with the same sound but different spellings and meanings. Copy editors find misuse of “its” and “it’s” or “flower” and “flour” by the author during the writing process.

Copy editors also spot typographical errors like double spacing and repeated words. It can be challenging for a non-professional when a letter is an uppercase “I” or lowercase “l.”

Word Choice: Line Editing

Some levels of editing also check the word choice. But vocabulary is the primary task of a line editor. These expert editors guarantee strong and precise word choices. If the writer produces creative content, using “deep” words is acceptable, but cliches are not.

Some typical errors and cliches in any piece of content include “All that glitters isn’t gold.” or “Only time will tell.” But remember, overused phrases aren’t always cliches.

This type of edit also ensures that academic writing uses simple word choices. For example, instead of saying “in all cases,” you can say “always.” This level of edit should also prevent jargon to make the piece accessible to general readers.

For instance, “dialogue” can be a substitute for “dialectical interface.”

Capitalization: Copy Editing

The copy editing or copyediting task also includes capitalization rules. This aspect might seem easy. Some even consider them “stupid errors.” But capitalization is one of the major types of errors that writers commit.

Generally, we only capitalize proper nouns and the starting word for every sentence. This editing process ensures that the name of characters or person always starts in capital letters. Specific terms for places, things, and events should also begin with a big letter.

Titles should also be in capital letters. Movies, plays, songs, and articles should be capitalized.

Different types of editors spot capitalization issues, including copy editors and proofreaders. The only difference between editing and proofreading is that proofreading corrects mistakes missed by the editor. As you see, professional editors come in teams.

Punctuation: Copy Editing

Aside from spotting errors in grammar and factual errors, copy editing also involves any sentence edit in punctuation. A copy editor should be a careful reader of punctuation symbols. For instance, they should differentiate between hyphens and dashes.

A good editor can perform fast, high-quality editing on a book manuscript with a focus on style. For instance, some style guides recommend the hyphenation of certain compound words. Others ask you to separate the two words, while some prefer closed compounds.

Writers can also fix avoidable errors in colons and semicolons. Remember that colons introduce or define something. Meanwhile, semicolons separate two main clauses or connect items on a list when each has a comma.

Another common punctuation error is when the writer includes the comma incorrectly. Some believe we can add commas everywhere, but we only add them in certain places. For instance, we use commas for introductory clauses and direct addresses.

Mood and Tone: Line Editing

A professional line editor should strike the right tone and emotion for the piece of writing. For the book editing process, a sound edit includes proper tone adjustments for dramatic and climactic scenes.

For example, the narrator should convey a grieving tone during the death scene. They should not use cheerful or motivating words. This type of editing concentrates on the internal consistency of the manuscript.

A nonfiction editor strikes the right tone differently. For example, one should avoid SMS or slang spellings. Editors are also responsible for removing contractions like “they’re” or “we’ll.” This type of editing is also present in content editing.

One way to achieve an academic tone is by only including facts. Research papers and dissertations have no room for personal opinions.

Some line editors act like developmental editors of sorts (although this is a different specialty altogether). They ensure that the characters have the right traits while also possessing character development.

You’ll need an actual developmental editor for heavy developments such as world-building, plot, flow, etc. Take it from me. I once skipped heavy developmental edits and published a six-book series where I had the main characters’ necklace a ruby, but the third book accidentally slipped and made it an emerald. A developmental editor would have caught that. Instead, I had a reader catch it, which is the last thing that should happen. 

Conciseness: Line Editing

Professional editors ensure that your sentence structure is concise, whether in a book or academic editing. This task is also common in structural editing to cut down sentences and remove unnecessary phrases.

Editing for conciseness is also essential for formal documents in companies. Business letters, memos, and proposals should remove unnecessary qualifiers and redundant pairs. These types of editing also involve changing from the passive to active voice.

The actual line editing process also includes locating and deleting unnecessary modifiers. You can also replace words like “the reason for” or “due to the fact that” with a one-worded “because.”

Developmental editing has a different take on conciseness. It focuses on keeping the paper’s thesis direct. A developmental edit ensures that every sentence contributes to the main message, and nothing goes to waste.

Flow and Structure: Line Editing

One of the commonalities with copyediting services and line editing is that they correct mistakes in flow and structure. The same is true with developmental editing. These types of book editing focus on the form at different levels.

Line editing does not fix logical inconsistencies and poor flow between chapter divisions. Instead, they focus on the flow and structure at the sentence level. The editor sets the current manuscript to ensure each sentence flows smoothly with the next one.

A line editor ensures that the topic sentence is the first sentence of the paragraph, telling the readers the paragraph’s focus. Then, they check for transitions between each supporting detail.

Some ways to show transition include using transition words and the same key terms. “However,” “additionally,” and “consequently,” are some transitional devices you can use but not abuse. You can also repeat critical terms or phrases between sentences.

Style Guide: Copy Editing

Copy editors are in charge of giving feedback on issues regarding the writing style. They make sure to produce a perfect manuscript before production through adherence to a specific style guide. Some writing styles include the Chicago Manual of Style, APA, and MLA.

If you’re editing a book, check if all chapters follow a single style. These guides will dictate how to introduce quotes, where to look for essential citations, how to spell certain words, and more.

This comprehensive edit also includes following the brand style guide. Brand style guides support the marketing initiatives of companies. They help with brand equity and awareness.

Copy Editing vs. Line Editing Examples

Here’s an example of an original passage that needs copy editing and line editing:

I believe that coffee has anti-inflammatory properties associated with decreased depression. This is something that James taught me (James is a very big coffee lover). James states that caffeine blocks mood-depressing chemicals in our brain. Caffeine also aids in releasing dopamine into the prefrontal cortex of the brain.

Here is the line-edited version of the text and the changes made:

Coffee has anti-inflammatory properties associated with decreased depression. As an avid coffee lover, James taught me this information. He also states that caffeine blocks mood depressing chemicals in our brain, making us happier and more energized. In addition, caffeine helps release dopamine into the prefrontal cortex of a brain.

  • Made the topic sentence less personal for a formal tone.
  • Rephrased the second sentence for better flow and conciseness.
  • Changed “very big coffee lover” to “avid coffee lover” for brevity.
  • Used a pronoun in the third sentence to avoid repetition.
  • Used “also” in the third sentence to connect it with the second sentence.
  • Added an extra phrase in the third sentence for sentence variety.
  • Used the transitional device “in addition” in the last sentence.

Once the work has been line-edited, it’s time to make copy edits. Here is the final version:

Coffee has anti-inflammatory properties associated with decreased depression. As an avid coffee lover, James taught me this information. He also stated that caffeine blocks mood-depressing chemicals in our brain, making us happier and more energized. In addition, caffeine helps release dopamine into the prefrontal cortex of the brain.

  • Removed the dangling modifier in the second sentence.
  • Changed the verb tense from “states” to “stated.”
  • Added a hyphen to the adjective “mood-depressing.”
  • Changed the article “a” to “the.”

Some copy editors may also offer services for fact-checking the package. In this example, the information stated is legit and backed by research.

When Do You Need Line Editing?

Think of the editing process as a broadest-to-detailed procedure. You can only receive detailed notes from a line editor once you receive the broadest editing for your story. Before hiring a line editor, beta readers should also examine your work.

You only need line editing once the chapters of your books are already correctly structured. Make sure you’ve followed the editing comments of a developmental editor, meaning you’ve resolved issues with your story or arguments.

As you complete these rounds of edits, an editor can examine every line of your work for clarity, proper tone, and conciseness. 

When Do You Need Copy Editing?

You already know that editing starts with the “big picture” until the minor details. Copy editing is more detailed than line editing. You can hire a copy editor once the line editor finishes their work.

They will also polish your work line-by-line. This time, they will focus on the mechanical errors, including your spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

Also, see our post on copy editing vs copywriting or take our copy editing test.

Check All Aspects of Your Writing

Editing is multi-faceted. First, you have to look at the bigger picture: the flow and structure of chapters, overall tone, and conciseness. This task is the job of a line editor

Then, look at the more minor details: spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors. The copy editor is in charge of this process.

I hope this guide on line editing vs. copy editing helped you understand the difference. If you strive for perfection, make sure all your written documents undergo these stages.