Jennifer Dinsmore Editorial
Free Your Words
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What Does an Editor Do? (And When Do You Not Need One?)

I have a question for you: What image comes to mind when you think of an editor? One hunched over a paper-strewn desk, red pen in hand? Perhaps a cigar-smoking, white-haired old guy who sits behind a desk and barks at hopeful authors that their story was no good! (Okay, that last image is totally taken from the Little Women adaptation featuring everyone’s favourite mom-who-talks-to-Christmas-lights, Winona Ryder.)

When I started freelancing I was shocked once I realized how unfamiliar many writers are with what an editor does or even which type their work needs. The process of turning a manuscript into a book happens in many stages, and there are different types of editing required for each. How about we pull back the curtain?


There are four main types of editing: Substantive/Structural Editing, Stylistic Editing, Copy Editing, and Proofreading. (Fiction and non-fiction/academic editors may use different terms for each level, but the principle remains the same.)


As the name suggests, substantive, or structural, editors work to improve a manuscript’s organization and content. This is the earliest stage and is best for authors who have gone through a few drafts and are now looking for critical, unbiased feedback. (In academic circles, this type of editing is called Developmental Editing.)

Substantive/Structural editors will highlight redundancies, make suggestions as to where more content or rewriting may be necessary, and locate incorrect or inconsistent facts. They compile these concerns for the author, along with suggested improvements. It is then up to the author to consider each and incorporate them into the manuscript as they see fit. Most times you’ll end up going through another few drafts.

Takeaway: At this stage, the editor is helping to develop a piece of writing, taking a look at its substance and structure.


Stylistic editors focus on a work at the sentence-level, considering language and narrative style. They will highlight and correct wordiness, eliminate jargon (editing for plain language), rid excessive use of the passive voice, un-mix metaphors, and suggest smoother transitions between scenes or sections.

At this stage, editors will also consider or determine the correct reading level for the piece, and make sure it is audience-appropriate. Depending on the type of project they may even create tables and figures. Stylistic editors work closely with an author, negotiating any suggested changes.

Takeaway: This stage is best once you have the structure down, but the prose needs a little extra punch.


This level most resembles those preconceived notions of editor hunched over desks. Above all, copy editors work to ensure a manuscript is consistent, clear, and accurate (especially if non-fiction). They also check for proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

This stage is best for a next-to-final draft. When story and plot are set and the prose needs a good polish before you start querying agents or submitting to publications.

Takeaway: Think of copy editors as a mechanic for your words. They make sure everything is in working order and ready to go!


Proofreaders will comb through a work and correct errors in both text and design. These editors focus on fixing minor typos, ensuring all pages are numbered, and checking citations are correct.

Depending on the project, a proofreader may also confirm any changes introduced in earlier stages have been incorporated and no new mistakes were introduced in the process. This is the final stage of editing and should occur once a text has been formatted.

Takeaway: Don’t simply proofread if you have not at least already completed a thorough copy edit. Proofreaders are here to sweep away the crumbs, and do not dive deep into a text.

There are some variances to each type of editing, and an editor should explain these at a project’s outset. Each manuscript is as unique as the author itself, and special attention may be needed for one aspect over another.

For a detailed breakdown, see Editors Canada’s Definitions of Editorial Skills, as well as their Professional Editorial Standards. These outline what authors should look for at each level, and what you can expect from the editor you hire. Editors certified by Editors Canada are tested to ensure they are knowledgeable about these standards and can demonstrate their skills.

In the end, an editor’s goal is always to make the material consist and clear, and verify that its content, language, and style suit its purpose and appropriate. A good editor will never try to overtake an author’s voice or style, but will give constructive feedback for where they can improve.

Now that we got all that out of the way, let’s answer the question …


Editing is a crucial step in the writing process, and deciding to hire an editor before the work is ready can be detrimental to the entire project. Not to mention paying for unnecessary services can make a big dent in that nest egg. Before you invest, consider the points below.


It’s said time and again, but first drafts are always a horrible mess. It’s really best to revise that yourself! A first draft will inevitably need some major revisions, and you are the only one who can untangle all the plot threads.

You may even feel as though you are still writing, so an editor is definitely not ready to step in.By learning to self-edit writers will get better at identifying their own weak spots, spotting repeated words and phrases, and recognizing redundancies. It will definitely help improve your writing overall. Who doesn’t want that?


You’ve got this! These are likely your most polished pieces, and may have been sent out before. So, if you are making small tweaks to fit one publication’s word count over another, don’t worry about hiring a professional. The exception is if shopping an unpublished manuscript to agents and publishers; you may want to consider paying for an evaluation or thorough copy edit.


Many writers (and editors) share guest posts across platforms. These are sometimes done on a tight turnaround, and likely don’t need a professional editor. (It may even cost you more in the long run!) Established bloggers, however, may plan their posts far in advance and hire copy editors or proofreaders to ensure the information they are sending their audience is polished and clear.

That said, people don’t want to read a typo-riddled blog post, so be sure to read it through a few times. Reading aloud will catch a surprising amount of things your eyes skip over.


Be selective in choosing an editor. Know first what in what they specialize, so you can rest assured they are the right editor for helping guide you further down the path to publication. Many (myself included) offer free sample edits to help figure out whether their skills match your project. Importantly, it will also help determine whether there will be a good working relationship.

The cost of these services will vary by editor. Some may charge by hour, by page, or by word count. The Editorial Freelancers Association has a chart of average industry rates writers can expect to pay.

Hope that clears some things up! Post any questions below.

Until next time, Happy Writing!