The Seven Editorial Roles

Freelance book editor roles and services vary widely, depending on an author’s needs and the skills of the editor. Some editors only focus on grammar and spelling, whereas others go deep into a manuscript (ms.) and help shape the major elements as well as organization. And then some editors do it all!

Whether done by many different editors or just one editor, these are the seven possible roles freelance book editors get involved in.


Role 1: Beta Reader

This is an early stage of the editorial process that some authors seek, mostly for genre fiction, that gives the writer a reader’s impression in broad strokes (liked it, didn’t like it, etc.). The role of the beta reader is similar to that of book reviewer: they provide feedback, but not direction. Many writers use friends, family, and a writing group for beta readers, but others hire out for this service to ensure a knowledgeable critique performed on time.

Corresponding editor profile: Bookworm 

Role 2: Manuscript Assessor

A manuscript assessment (also called manuscript evaluation, editorial critique, or manuscript critique) is often done when an editor first receives a manuscript (ms.). An editor carefully reads a ms. and writes an in-depth feedback letter for the author to use in further development. This covers the global elements in the ms., including suggestions for making changes in chapter organization, chapter contents, overall flow, and other “big picture” issues. For fiction, this involves the book’s structure, plot, voice, style, characterization, dialogue, and ending, among others. Such an assessment will also help editor and author to determine the next step for the ms., whether it’s developmental editing, line editing, or a broader approach involving the skills of a book/writing coach.

Corresponding editor profiles: Bookworm, Teacher

Role 3: Book/Writing Coach

Editors act in this role when a manuscript assessment reveals that an author needs ongoing support to go from initial idea to fully developed first draft of a ms. After the coach guides the author to complete a full book, the ms. still needs to undergo the full editorial process. This is most commonly needed in nonfiction genres, particularly when authors haven’t studied writing before. Initial material provided can be a collection of blogs, articles, and early sketches.

Corresponding editor profile: Teacher

Role 4: Developmental Editor

The developmental editor (also called content editor) comes in for work on a ms. that has not yet been fully developed. It is different from the manuscript assessment: Think of a manuscript assessment as a 5K run and developmental editing as a marathon. Not only does the editor write a detailed report (five to ten pages), but he or she also goes into the text to provide page-by-page commentary. The developmental editor deletes or inserts words and sentences, asks probing questions, makes suggestions, moves pieces around, or simply says, “Great job here.” Developmental editors might rewrite passages, transitions, dialogue, and so on, as examples of how the author could improve the book.

Corresponding editor profile: Teacher

Role 5 : Line Editor

A line editor comes in after developmental editing and involves an editor looking at every sentence in a ms. to determine if it belongs, reads well, and is correct. The primary focus is on making words and sentences clear in meaning and eliminating inconsistencies. Line editors suggest ways the author can revise a word, sentence, or paragraph. Some common problems an editor might find are awkward sentence constructions, point-of-view issues (especially in fiction and memoirs), overused or redundant words and phrases, inconsistent verb tenses, and purple prose. Some editors refer to developmental editing in conjunction with line editing as a substantive edit.

Corresponding editor profile: Teacher, Grammar Guru

Role 6: Copyeditor

A copyeditor does their work after line editing and focuses on the mechanical aspects of writing, addressing grammar, spelling (some tricky hyphenated words especially!), and punctuation. When a book is being published by a publisher, this stage is usually done by the publisher through a freelancer. For self-published books, an independent freelancer often handles the job. Content consistency is also addressed (Are Jane’s eyes blue or green?), as well as factual information (How many islands are there in the state of Hawaii?).

Copyeditors are often tasked with fact checking the manuscript carefully or flagging questions for the author. Copyeditors use various style manuals, such as The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago) for popular trade books. The major difference between copyediting and line editing is the depth of the work: whereas line edits address the manuscript’s style, voice, and other deeper questions, the copyeditor is instructed not to fix or improve style or any elements of craft but ensure the ms. adheres to Chicago and the style sheet.

Corresponding editor profile: Grammar Guru, Detail Lover

Role 7: Proofreader

A proofreader comes in at the final stage of the editorial process. Their work is done after a book has been copyedited, formatted in a book design program, and typeset for publication. Proofreaders give the typeset text a final line-by-line scan to catch unsightly errors, formatting issues such as bad breaks, extra or missing paragraph returns, missing page numbers, and more.

The proofreader also compares the copyedited manuscript to the laid-out proofs to ensure the copyeditor’s edits were carried over and that the copyeditor didn’t miss any necessary edits. Traditional publishers use freelancers for this stage, and self-published authors hire freelancers directly (or some self-publishing companies provide this service as part of the publishing package authors pay for).

Corresponding editor profile: Grammar Guru, Detail Lover

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