Levels of editing

The types of editing fall into three general categories: content editing, copyediting, and proofreading. I offer primarily content editing (substantive editing, developmental editing, and rewriting) and have collaborations with editors who offer light copyediting and proofreading. Content editing is an integral part of the drafting process and delves deeply into a document’s purpose, audience, overall organization, and smaller moving parts like paragraphs, sentences, and word choice.

Content editors have the reader always in mind — her knowledge, interest, and expectations — and continually juxtapose the reader’s needs with the writer’s product. Content editors help the writer shape his process in order to successfully translate what he produces to what the reader needs.

Developmental evaluations

Developmental (or structural) editing addresses a document’s content, organization, presentation, scope, and tone. It can be a one-time event or an ongoing process as the writer works. As a one-time event, it can take place at any stage—while the document’s substance and shape are still evolving or after a complete draft has been generated.

A developmental evaluation addresses:

  • The document’s conceptual framework and how (and where) this is articulated
  • The rationale motivating the work, how clearly it’s articulated, and whether it resonates strongly with the target audience
  • Writing style, tone, and terminology
  • The document’s organizational structure: do the sections and paragraphs meander among the related topics or are they clearly organized into a nesting hierarchy with consistent branches?

An optimal developmental edit has two parts. It includes a developmental evaluation, which examines the conceptual and structural elements of a document and places these against the traits and needs of the target audience. This comes to you in the form of a conversational report. Accompanying this narrative is a copy of your document with strategically placed comments that build on the points raised in the evaluation. This combination of general and specific feedback provides the optimal jumping-off point for writers as they plot their path forward to a strong final product.

As a process, developmental editing supports the writer as he reshapes his early drafts into the polished product that most clearly expresses his intentions and easily carries contented readers along for the ride. Writer and editor work together as the process unfolds. The editor is brought in at strategic points to review different pieces of the work using different lenses, moving from a high-level perspective to intensive work on paragraph or section organization, and back again.

Developmental editing, in addition to strengthening the final product, saves the writer time. To have another set of eyes on your document while it’s still in formation means that you don’t spend hours (or days) crafting sentences, paragraphs, and whole sections that you ultimately realize aren’t in the right place, aren’t pointed in the right direction, or don’t bolster the point you thought you wanted to make. Writers consistently find that the time commitment of developmental editing is well worth the efficiencies gained.

This is a really valuable stage in a document’s life that many people aren’t aware of. Email me if you’d like to discuss.

Substantive editing

Substantive editing is the fundamental kind of hands-on editing. A substantive edit focuses on order and flow, and delves into the document’s structure at four levels: sections, paragraphs, and sentences, as well as the document overall. My goal in a substantive edit is to move the document toward a form in which every element of the context, rationale, and contribution is easily understood by people with varying familiarity with the topic, from experts to newcomers.

The document overall and its sections. Taking a big-picture view, I explore the following questions: Are the terms and concepts used consistently and woven together in a clear pattern? Is the reader prepared early on for what is presented to him later? Is the overall message precisely the one you intend to send—are the problem, its gravity, and the connections between abstract concepts and concrete ideas made crystal clear, in a way that then leads the reader to get on board with your recommendations or conclusions? Does the reader maintain his momentum at all times? Can he proceed through the entire piece without having to read anything twice? Is the bond of trust between you and your reader seamless and ever stronger as he reads along?

Paragraphs. The substantive edit focuses strongly on paragraph structure. Paragraphs are one place where it can be difficult to keep your diverse audiences (or even homogeneous ones) with you. It is at the paragraph level that a writer’s background knowledge—and the invisible mental patterns that it produces—interferes with the writer’s ability to craft text that makes immediate sense to the reader. Even if the relevant content is present, the order in which it’s introduced is often fairly random (at best, it’s the reverse of what readers need). Familiar and new information must be linked together deliberately, with general or familiar information appearing first and serving as handholds for the new or more specific information that follows.

Sentences. Writers tend to make sentences and paragraphs that wear out our readers. A substantive edit examines how new and old information is introduced within a sentence, ensuring that old or familiar information comes first and is followed by the new. A substantive edit also ensures that the emphasized point in each sentence appears where readers expect it to—at the end. (Writers often get to the main point and then keep talking, leaving afterthoughts where the punch line ought to be.) And this edit reworks sentences that make the reader wait too long for the verb, that point at which she knows how everything fits together. The result of this work-out is a cleanly flowing narrative that readers can follow effortlessly, leaving them time and space to think about the substance of what you’re saying.

In sum, a substantive edit:

  • Ensures that the emphasized point in each paragraph and section is positioned properly—at the end
  • Flags insufficient (or nonexistent) introductions to topics
  • Highlights concluding points that were not clearly introduced earlier (in the document, chapter, or section), and suggests ways and places to introduce them
  • Identifies components of the rationale or context that remain unspoken or the knowledge assumed
  • Identifies solutions, answers, or conclusions that lack a corresponding statement of a need, gap, or problem
  • Reorders paragraphs whose component parts are not clearly linked
  • Flags paragraphs whose point is not clear or that shift among multiple points, suggesting reworked structure based on a paragraph’s surroundings
  • Revises sentences that do not link well together (i.e., do not have familiar material presented first, as an anchor to the new)
  • Revises sentences’ emphasis positions so that they’re occupied by material that deserves the attention

The intensiveness of a substantive edit can be moderated somewhat—for example, according to how much time a writer has to devote to processing the feedback—by the writer and editor deciding whether paragraphs or sentences will be flagged and commented on or whether the recommended modifications will be made directly in the text.

This one’s my favorite. Email me if you have a report or blog post that you love (or have to write) that needs a fresh pair of eyes.

Copy editing

Copy editing (also called line editing, technical editing, or mechanical editing) ensures that a document conforms to the rules of grammar, syntax, and punctuation; is internally consistent; and complies with any relevant style guides. A copy edit does not restructure a document or its sections and paragraphs, and it leaves the logic and conceptual development alone. A heavier copy edit takes a somewhat closer look at sentence structure, revising sentence length and components for clarity and flow.

A copy edit does the following:

  • Ensures correct spelling, grammar, punctuation, and sentence mechanics
  • Brings the document in line with a style guide or internal style sheet (if necessary)
  • Ensures consistency in word usage, formatting, etc.
  • Clarifies meaning and improves readability by suggesting changes in word choice and sentence structure (for heavier copy editing)