Is It Okay to Combine Editing Services?

Sophie Playle

A client has approached you to help them with their novel manuscript. They either don’t know about the different stages of editing, or they only have a budget for one round of editing.

What do you do? Should you combine your editing services?

The different stages of editing

Generally, there are three different stages of editing. In an ideal world, a manuscript will receive professional input at each stage.

The first stage takes a look at the novel as a whole. The author will receive feedback on how the novel might be received by readers, how it hangs together, how the different components work (plot, characterisation, pacing, etc.) and where they can make improvements through redrafting. Professional services for this kind of feedback include developmental editing and manuscript critiquing.

The second stage addresses the manuscript at the sentence level. The story itself should be in its final formation. This kind of editing addresses readability, sentence structure, grammar, punctuation, spelling, consistency in style and consistency in story facts and logic at the scene level (e.g. making sure a character’s surname doesn’t change halfway through or that a character is pregnant for ten months). Professional services for this kind of feedback include line editing (sometimes called stylistic editing) and copy-editing (sometimes called line editing … I know – go figure!).

The third stage is the final check. No suggestions on the story will be provided. No major sentence-level stylistic changes will be suggested. At this stage, any lingering typos or errors in grammar, punctuation and consistency will be the main focus. You’ve probably guessed it: this is the proofread.

When authors ask for the wrong service

It’s common for authors who are planning to self-publish to get in touch with an editorial professional and ask for a proofread when they really want a copy-edit. I can completely understand this misconception. Most people know what a proofread is, but fewer people understand the concept of a copy-edit.

Unless you work in publishing, you may not have come across the term. And even if you have, it’s a much more difficult service to define than proofreading. A copy-edit can contain quite a scope of tasks, depending on who you ask.

If you’re an editorial professional and an author asks you for a proofread, what should you do? Firstly, make sure they understand what the service entails. A good way to prevent authors asking for the wrong service is to make sure your services are clearly defined on your website.

Technically, a manuscript can’t be proofread until it’s been copy-edited. A proofread is the final editorial check. In other words, a proofreader checks that errors haven’t slipped through the editing stage.

If an author hasn’t had their manuscript edited prior to a proofread, essentially they’re asking for a copy-edit. They may still think of the service as a proofread, but the editorial professional will be conducting a copy-edit.

Before you agree to work with the client, you might also ask to see a sample of their manuscript.

(In fact, this is generally a good idea anyway as it will help you understand the scope of the work, how to quote, how much time you’ll need to complete the job, etc.)

If the author has asked for a proofread (thinking their work needs a quick once-over to catch any lingering errors) but you realise the writing needs much more intervention to bring it up to a publishable standard, you have several options:

  1. As long as the author understands the exact nature of your service, go ahead and provide what they’ve asked for. After all, they’re making an informed decision. You’ll have to do the best you can within the parameters of the service you’re providing. For example, you’ll correct obvious errors in grammar, punctuation and spelling, but perhaps you won’t make suggestions on difficult-to-understand sentences.
  2. Suggest to the author that the manuscript would benefit from a more intensive form of editing, and agree to only provide the service you think the manuscript needs (or turn them away if you can’t provide the service). It can be obvious when a text needs line editing or substantive editing instead of a light proofread. However, without reading the whole manuscript it can be hard to know whether a novel would benefit from a developmental edit or manuscript critique as a first step. Often, though, if you can see story-level problems in the sample (e.g. muddled point of view, an imbalance of scene and narrative summary) it indicates there will be problems with the novel as a whole.
  3. Do your best to provide the greatest value you can within the client’s budget and expectations. This is probably the trickiest path to navigate because both parties need to feel as though they’ve received fair value from the exchange. If you go down this route, it’s crucial to be completely clear on what you will and won’t do as part of your service, and the results the client should expect.

Can you combine copy-editing with proofreading?

Kinda. Sometimes. Maybe.

A proof-edit blends copy-editing and proofreading.

This isn’t really a ‘real’ service because, as I said above, you technically can’t proofread something unless it’s been edited first.

However, a ‘proof-edit’ is a term sometimes used when the client doesn’t have the budget for both editing and proofreading; they want a service that’s more intensive than a straightforward proofread but in which catching technical errors (rather than making stylistic suggestions) is the priority.

The main benefit to this type of service is that it costs less than paying for two rounds of editing. The main drawback is that because the text is only being looked at once, it’s likely more errors will go uncorrected. And, of course, the bigger elements (like plot and structure) won’t be addressed.

Often if an author asks for a proofread without having their manuscript edited beforehand and you choose to go ahead and provide this service, you’ll basically be providing them with a proof-edit.

If you do this, make sure you’re being compensated appropriately. It’s a bigger task than proofreading something that’s already been edited.

Can you combine developmental editing with sentence-level editing?

In a word, no.

I see a lot of editing companies offering ‘all in one’ services. Authors will also often ask me to let them know if I notice any obvious ways their stories can be improved while I’m copy-editing.

This is either incredibly hard to do or a completely pointless exercise, for the following reasons:

  1. Different types of editing require different types of focus. When editing a long piece of text like a novel, I have to hold a lot of information in my head at once. There’s only so much I can pay attention to at any given time. If I’m scrutinising the text for spelling errors and mistakes in punctuation, I may not be absorbing all the nuances or subtext or trying to keep plot lines straight. If I did, I wouldn’t be using all my brain power to focus on the sentences themselves. This is why an author should be totally happy with their story before they hand it over for copy-editing.
  2. It doesn’t make sense to edit sentences when the story needs to change. I could meticulously edit every sentence in a manuscript only to then tell the author that their chosen narrative style doesn’t work, or that there are huge plot holes in the story, or that the ending needs to be completely rewritten. Which means all those meticulously edited sentences will likely be deleted, and the author will have to pay again to get the redrafted material edited.

The only way it makes sense to combine developmental editing with sentence-level editing is when the developmental editing is done with a very, very light hand and doesn’t address global issues – but then this basically ends up being line editing.

Alternatively, a copy-editor might be able to provide guidance on a few of the most crucial scene-level issues for the author to address, and then copy-edit the redrafted scenes. Even so, the issues I’ve outline above still apply.

Summing up

So, is it okay to combine editing services?

It’s best not to, but if budget and time are an issue, a client might consider it.

There can be huge pitfalls, though, and the amount of value the client will receive from combing editing services will depend on where the main weaknesses of the writing lie.

If the writing is pretty clean but the story needs major work, an author might decide to spend their budget on developmental editing and combine copy-editing and proofreading.

If the story is solid but the writing needs a lot of correction, it would make sense for the text to be both line or copy-edited and proofread.

An author might not be aware of the weaknesses in their writing, though, and this is where it gets tricky for an editor who’s asked to conduct a specific service. Assessing a sample of the writing is critical, but there’s only so much we can determine without analysing the whole manuscript.

In the end, the ultimate responsibility for editorial quality lies with the publisher – whether that’s the author themselves or a publishing house.

The publisher should know exactly what the manuscript needs. Self-publishing authors who lack the experience to know this kind of thing should err on the side of caution and enlist as much help as their budget allows.

Knowledge of the different editorial services available is key.

Sophie Playleis a professional fiction editor. She specialises in developmental editing, critiquing and copy-editing, and loves working with authors and publishers who are passionate about high-quality storytelling. Speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction are her genres of choice. She's an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and has a Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more:

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