Some of you may have noticed that I recently made some changes to the beta reading section of this website. Namely, while I still offer (free!) beta reading, after consulting with several professional freelancers I’ve decided to include a wider range of editing services . This strikes me as a good opportunity to talk about what exactly the differences between beta reading, developmental editing, and line editing are and—regardless of whether you seek those services here, elsewhere, or not at all—how to figure out what’s right for your book.

Beta Reading

Beta reading (as I’ve said a few times before) is when you find a few trusted readers to test-drive your novel. A beta reader will read your work and tell you what they think about it as a reader. If you’ve got a really good beta reader, they’ll also let you know why they felt that way, and they’ll point to a couple of specifics about the text to explain their reactions. Some detail oriented beta readers might highlight poor writing practices and repeated grammatical errors, but for the most part beta readers are not going to do line edits.

Although there are some professional beta readers out there, many beta readers work for free—it’s a great way to improve your own writing, fosters goodwill in the writing community, and some people just love doing it. Since many beta readers are also writers, you may also find some readers who are willing to do critique swaps.

Generally, it’s recommended that you find 3-5 beta readers for your manuscript so that you can compare the feedback and see if any patterns emerge. For the best results, beta readers should enjoy your genre and should be people who you can trust to give honest feedback. This means that your mom, significant other, and best-friend-since-kindergarten are not prime candidates. If you’re looking for places to find beta readers or critique partners, Absolute Write is a great place to start.

When to Look for Beta Readers:

  • You think your book is almost ready to go, and you want to make sure that it works
  • You have a reasonably polished draft and you want some ideas about which direction to go when you make revisions

When Not to Look for Beta Readers:

  • You finished your draft yesterday and spellchecked it this morning, but haven’t done any other self-editing
  • You are aware of major structural issues with your story—this might be a good thing to work through with your critique group or some trusted writing buddies, but it isn’t the time to seek out readers
  • You aren’t emotionally prepared to take criticism
  • You haven’t finished your manuscript
  • You haven’t started your manuscript

Developmental Editing

Developmental editing is when you pay someone to go into your story, take it apart, and look at all the pieces to figure out how they work. A beta reader lets you know that something is wrong with your story (and most of the more astute ones will also tell you what). A developmental editor will tell you why the thing isn’t working and will propose possible solutions.

Developmental editors, like beta readers, do not do line edits. They tend to look at macroscopic elements of the story like character, plot, and pacing. Because developmental editors are mucking around with the story structure, it’s a waste of their time and your money for them to move commas—adding an oxford comma doesn’t count for anything if the entire scene needs to be rewritten.

This type of editing varies significantly in price, experience, and style. If you’re looking for a professional editing service, it’s usually in your interest to shop around a bit to find the editor who you think is the best fit for your work. Some offer sample edits, which are a good way to see if they provide the sort of feedback that you’re looking for. Others have testimonials from past clients, or else can point you towards published books that they’ve worked on.

When to Get Developmental Editing

  • You are aware of structural problems with your story and could use help fixing them
  • You suspect that there are structural problems with your story but could use help identifying them
  • You have finished writing your story and want help finding ways to tighten the plot, further character development, or improve world-building
  • You have sent your book out to beta readers or agents and have gotten consistent, negative feedback
  • You are still working on your story and want help developing ideas (some though not all developmental editors are willing to consult with writers who are still in the process of writing)

When Not to Get Developmental Editing

  • You have just finished writing your story and haven’t had time to self-edit
  • You aren’t emotionally prepared to take criticism
  • You haven’t started your manuscript
  • Your book is polished and you’re opposed to making any major changes to the story

Line Editing and Copy Editing

Many editors also offer line-editing services. This is something that you want to look into as you begin to polish your work. Some do copy-editing as well, where they focus on making sure that your work is error free and professional before it’s released into the world.

There is a big difference between line editing and copy-editing. Line edits focus on word choice, sentence structure, grammar, and general writing mechanics with the goal of improving clarity and readability. If you have too many adjectives or you’ve used the word “lugubrious” four times in five paragraphs, someone doing line edits will let you know. Copy editing means that the editor is polishing for correctness and style (not style as in panache—style like AP, MLA, or Chicago). A copy editor will make sure that your work is error free, but it is not their job to worry about whether or not your writing is actually good.

When to Get Line Editing

  • You’re satisfied that you won’t make any major changes to the story itself—no new scenes are going to be added, no old scenes are going to be deleted, and no substantial revisions need to take place
  • You’re planning to self-publish and you’re getting close to putting your book on the market
  • You’re planning to query your book for traditional publishing, and you want to make sure that your writing is as sharp and as clean as possible
  • You’re satisfied with the plot, characters, and story structure, but beta readers have pointed out repeated issues with writing mechanics

When Not to Get Line Editing

  • You might make major changes to your story, or are still in the process of revising
  • You’re about to send your work out to a developmental editor or to beta readers
  • You haven’t beta tested your work or consulted with a developmental editor yet—make sure that your book is ready for fine tuning before you pay someone to fine tune it
  • You haven’t spell-checked your work or taken care of obvious errors

When to Get Copy Editing

  • You are about to self-publish your book, and it’s otherwise ready to hit the market
  • Your book is as perfect as it will ever be and everything exactly where you want it

When Not to Get Copy Editing

  • You are planning to use traditional publishing–traditional publishing companies will generally have copy editing done for your manuscript after they acquire it, so doing it yourself is usually overkill
  • You have just finished self editing and you’re about to send it out to beta readers or developmental editors
  • There is any chance that you are going to make significant changes to your manuscript
  • You haven’t spellchecked your work or taken care of obvious errors