It’s a question of priority and need.
Less about roles, I see two broad ways we approach editing: developmental editing and copyediting. One isn’t better or more important than the other. They’re just different tools in developing story. One supports the approach; one finalizes the landing.
For my personal writing projects, when I’m working on something larger or more complex, I seek out an editor early. At Technical.ly, our reporters (and contributors) flag larger or more nuanced stories they’re approaching too and need to discuss their approach. In both cases, it’s a developmental edit.
This kind of editing is a question of story structure and tone and approach. You want notes and guidance that go wide. A developmental editor could be a wiser, more experienced storyteller, or someone familiar with the form or even just a fresh set of well-read eyes. It’s time intensive. When done well, these are instrumental acts that meaningfully change story arc.
Developmental editing happens early and may involve other touchpoints. You can learn to be a great developmental editor but you need a love for stories and their forms.
Copyediting is something different but no less crucial.
It’s the analytical and obsessively detailed review for sentence structure, publication style and grammar/syntax. You must be detail orientated and an excellent and precise reader. In this act, you’re ideally working independently; only when the copy is really rough or article missing important pieces do you need to go back too much to a writer. When done well, these enhance a writer and impact the overall quality of the publication.
Copyediting happens at the very end of the process, likely near final submission and publication. I’m not sure you can learn to be a great copy editor, though you surely can get better and more familiar with a house style. Great copyeditors always seem to me to have always been precise and accurate.
Any one great who has an Editor title does both things well. Others in the role gravitate toward one or the other. A publication and a writer needs both but they remain different.
(Photo via Unsplash by Hannah Grace)