Updated: Nov 13, 2018
Editing a document usually involves a few rounds of several distinct steps. Each editor has his or her own process, but many generally follow the one briefly described below.
Step 1: The Assessment
Assessments have a twofold purpose. First, they help writers understand their documents’ strengths and weaknesses. Second, they help editors establish prioritized lists of focal points to help them stay organized in editing. Assessments start with a conversation between editor and client. To choose the best editing direction, the editor will need to understand the client’s publishing expectations. The editor will read the document, sometimes two or three times, checking content, organization, and presentation against expectation. The editor will finish the assessment with a detailed letter analyzing the document part by part. The letter will pay close attention to the document’s shortcomings and will include a detailed plan to remedy them. Finishing a comprehensive assessment may take the editor a considerable amount of time. The assessment precedes substantive editing, of which it is a crucial part.
Step 2: The Substantive Edit
After an assessment, and once editor and client agree on an editing direction, the editor will start the substantive edit (sometimes called a “structural” or “comprehensive” edit). First, the editor will revise the table of contents or write a new one. With this road map, the editor will read through the document again and flag material for rewriting and reorganizing, directing the client on fixing flagged material and offering hands-on help when needed. The substantive edit will continue with an exchange of editorial direction and actual content revision until both editor and client are satisfied with the revised document. Substantive editing is a judgement-based correction process that needs regular negotiation with the client. It’s different from copy editing, which is mostly a rules-based correction process, and similar to stylistic editing, which is evenly a judgement- and rules-based correction process. Substantive editing can take the editor and client a considerable amount of time to finish together.
Step 3: The Stylistic Edit
The stylistic edit (sometimes called the “line” edit) addresses issues with the client’s expression of ideas. The editor will pay close attention to sentence complexity, how verbs are used, expression conciseness, the development of ideas, and the use of jargon and technical terms. The stylistic edit will help adjust the client’s writing to match the reading level and other expectations of the intended reader. After the stylistic edit, the client’s writing should be clear, logical, and concise.
Step 4: The Copy Edit
The copy edit is a highly detailed process of correcting errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, style, usage, and diction. The editor will impose a mechanical style to maintain consistency in the editorial decisions he or she makes. A mechanical style directs editors on the treatment of spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and other typographic arrangements. The editor may be asked to typecode the manuscript. If so, he or she will identify and mark the location of special elements for the designer or typesetter to supply. These elements may be headings and subheadings, tables and titles, and captions and extracts. The editor will check facts for accuracy and check that correlating parts match each other. After a copy edit, a document's content should be correct, coherent, clear, and consistent.
Step 5: The Proofread
Once copy editing is finished, the document may be sent to a typesetter or designer for typesetting. Afterwards, the manuscript is electronically displayed or printed for the proofreader, sometimes also the editor. Proofreading is the quality check before publishing and a step distinct from editing: proofreaders don't concern themselves with editing language, the editor's job; they read proofs to resolve errors either left in or added to the manuscript by the author or editor. Proofreaders are also responsible for ensuring that the typesetter or designer has correctly done his or her work according to design specifications, flagging lapses in typeset material or design where present for correction.
Want to know more? I invite you to read Editors Canada’s Professional Editorial Standards, which covers almost everything about different editing types and processes.