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Have you ever sharpened a chef’s knife with an at-home sharpener? If so, you probably noticed something: there’s not one slot, but two. You first put the blade in the wider sharpener to hone it. When it’s ready for more precise sharpening, the finer slot provides a final polish.

Editing your writing works the same way. You have to get the order right. Why correct your punctuation when you’ve written an article about snail mail and thought you were supposed to write about literal snails? Why proofread when you need a major adjustment in your writing style? You have bigger corrections to make first. 

Then, as you tighten up your work, you can start getting to sharper levels: line edits, copy edits, and finally the proofread.

If you’re working on an important article—or even a novel—it’s worth understanding that, much like there are five types of writing, there are also five major types of edits: developmental, structural, copy, line, and mechanical. 

Copy editing vs. line editing can cause a bit of confusion among even the most seasoned of wordsmiths, so let’s talk about these two types of edits in particular. 

Here’s what you’ll need to know about the difference between copy editing and line editing.

line editing vs. copy editing

What Is Line Editing?

If you type “what is the difference between line editing and copy editing” into any search engine, you might be surprised by some of the answers. In fact, some sources say there are no differences. 

Line and copy editing can refer to the same process: sentence-specific editing meant to enhance meaning and clarity. But clearly there’s more to it than that.

What Does Line Editing Mean?

What is line editing? First, let’s revisit the distinction between meaning and clarity.

  • For clarity, a “copy edit” will try to polish the sentences themselves. That means an emphasis on grammar, syntax, and issues like passive and active voice styles.
  • For meaning, a “line edit” can dig into the context behind the words. What was the author’s intention? Do the sentences get that across?

As a rule of thumb, consider “line editing” as a form of “line-by-line editing.” It means an editor will try to prune every weed in your article or manuscript, down to the sentence level.

When Do You Need Line Editing?

Line editing shouldn’t be your first step after writing. Your first read-through should focus on big-picture changes (also known as developmental editing), because there’s no point in line editing a piece that will be rewritten anyway.

Think of it as an upside-down pyramid. At the highest level, you’ll do the broadest editing. Did you take the right approach? Adopt the right voice? Develop your theme?

As you complete each round of edits, your focus should narrow. Once you think you have the right chapters in place with structural editing, for example, only then is it time to zoom in and do a line edit.

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What Is Copy Editing?

After a line edit has polished an article or manuscript’s writing, it’s time for the copy edit. This is a softer form of editing that focuses on the mechanics of sentence construction.

What Does Copy Editing Mean?

Remember that The Simpsons episode when Mr. Burns hires a room full of monkeys with typewriters to see if they’ll churn out a classic novel? One monkey gets close:

“It was the best of times; it was the blurst of times.”

Mr. Burns ends up frustrated. But the joke is that a monkey somehow managed to be nearly as good as Charles Dickens. 

The point? If you’ve got the right theme in place (“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times”) then the copy edit can help iron out the wrinkles of poor word choice (“worst” vs. “blurst”). 

That monkey was on the right track. They just needed a copy editor.

When Do You Need Copy Editing?

Let’s go back to the upside-down pyramid structure of editing. If an “edit” or “revision” is the highest, broadest look at theme and story structure, and line editing is what happens when you narrow your focus to sentence construction, then what is copy editing?

Think of copy editing as a polish on the line-by-line writing itself: word choice and arrangement. This will happen before the last stage of editing, the proofread.

Line Editing vs. Copy Editing: The Final Verdict

Let’s say you’re in a writer’s critique group, and you often talk about “big-picture vs. line edits.” No one is going to dock you points for saying line editing vs. copy editing, and vice versa. 

But if you know why some editors separate these into two stages, you’ll start to see differences in the quality of editing in your own work. Sharpen that blade like a professional. Commit to the process. If you do, there’s a good chance it will come across in the quality of your writing.

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