I've noticed references to different kinds of editors such as copy editor, line editor and development editor. I'd like to know the different categories of editors and their job descriptions.

  • I originally downvoted this as an unfocused, apparently aimless question which could have been answered by a simple Google search on the question title. I'm not sure the rephrasing is enough to change my mind on this. – Standback Feb 24 '11 at 23:05
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    @Standback - You will find much disagreement about the exact definitions. Chicago (#15, I haven't looked at #16's chapter 2 yet) mostly avoids talking about copy-editing and proofreading because of the assumptions about publishing workflow that those terms make. I think this is a very valuable question for this site to have. – Charles Stewart Feb 25 '11 at 9:36

A copy or content editor is the main editor for a project. They're the one looking at the big picture. Are there plot holes? Are the characters consistent throughout the piece? They also do editing for grammar, spelling, typos, etc. but they focus mainly on the story itself.

Line editors edit the piece line by line. They're looking primarily for grammar and spelling problems. They're generally paid less than copy editors since their job is usually easier.

A formatting editor does all the formatting for the book. They do the headers and page numbers, line spacing, and any special formatting that the publisher wants for their manuscripts.

A proofreader is usually the last person who goes over the book. They're looking for anything the others would've missed. They'll look and see if a page number got messed up some how, a typo that got missed, a sentence that got cut off, etc. They're generally unpaid interns or people who are paid with a free copy of the book.

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  • Line editors [are] generally paid less than copy editors - It depends on the brief and the skill set. It makes economic sense, and is common in academic publishing, for the project editor to delegate a line edit to an editor with subject expertise, and leave it to a less highly skilled copy-editor to work with the author to get the final copy. – Charles Stewart Feb 25 '11 at 9:27
  • [P]roofreader[s] [are] generally unpaid interns or people who are paid with a free copy - This made me smile, and yes, it is probably true most of the time. Of course if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys, and this valuable quality step won't work so well. I rather think the Harry Potter books got a higher class of treatment than this. – Charles Stewart Feb 25 '11 at 9:31
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    "Unpaid interns or people who are paid with a free copy of the book"? Sir, you cut me to the quick. Proofreading is your last line of defense before the child of your mind is released into the wild, uncaring world. Good proofreaders catch the big mistakes and the little ones, and polish everything in between. I work as hard at proofreading as I do at content editing, and frankly harder than I do at DTP. And if I were paid in free books, I couldn't pay for my groceries. – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Feb 25 '11 at 16:37

The different kinds of editing come about through differences along two dimensions: first, the role of the edit in the journey from author's first draft to final typeset; second, the constitution of the editing as a process.

An answer of mine to a different question explains a difference in terms of role:

There are different kinds of editing. Proofreading is traditionally the last check of a text that has been prepared by typesetters, where it is assumed that the text is pretty much ready for publication. Then it is a matter of "fix spelling errors and very minor grammatical errors", but calling attention to the author of wider difficulties is entirely inappropriate. This is because time is usually very tight, because the publishers has a deadline, and large fixes cause costly work for the typesetter.

With editing before that stage, generally called copy-editing or developmental editing, bigger changes to the text are appropriate, and discussion with the author becomes useful.

The next big difference is in terms of what activity the edit unit is. The most important difference here is between line edits, which means the activity starts with the editor receiving the manuscript, who then works through the text and ends when the edited manuscript is handed back. The alternative is an edit which involves some kind of interaction and iteration. Proofreading almost always consists of a line edit, but earlier editing might follow one or other form. Cheapskate publishers might have a "copy-editing" process that consists of the project editor delegating a first line edit to someone, passing the edited version back to the author to correct, and then perform a second line edit themselves. Such a minimalist editing process would not be called developmental editing, which is more of a collaborative, exploratory process between editor and author. Developmental editing generally is a kind of high-grade copy-editing.

Note that there's lots of hedging words, like "traditionally" and "generally", excepting only the definition of line edit. That's because the variously named roles are not fixed, but evolve as the publishing workflow changes, as it inexorably does. For instance, the proofreading activity is quite different now, where electronic formats allow much more automation in the typesetting process, than was the case thirty years ago, when proofreading most often meant a demanding reconciliation of the final draft approved by the project editor to the original version submitted by the author, to eliminate the many errors that the editing process was sure to have introduced. So it is no surprise that there is difficulty finding crisp, widely agreed-upon definitions.

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    This answer has received a downvote: I'd like to polish this answer, and I'd be grateful to know the objection to what I wrote. – Charles Stewart Feb 25 '11 at 9:39

Formal definitions vary. Here are some resources explaining various versions of the distinctions:

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