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What Happens in the Different Editing Stages

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This post originally appeared on a writing forum I frequent called LegendFire. If you’re looking for a place to exchange feedback or get inspired or talk poetry and prose more generally, you should check it out!


“Writing without revising is the literary equivalent of waltzing gaily out of the house in your underwear.” ― Patricia Fuller

One of the biggest mistakes I made when I first started writing was to equate the word “editing” with merely correcting grammar and spelling. Although that is certainly an integral part of the writing process, it is by no means the exclusive one. It wasn’t until I became a professional fiction editor that I realized there were names for the multiple stages of editing that a published work of writing undergoes and a recommended order of doing them. In the fanfiction community especially (where I got my start as a writer), “beta readers” will often edit multiple levels at the same time, but for writers who are considering selling their work, it can make sense to go through the more formal editorial process.

In the following article, I discuss the three levels of editing: first comes developmental editing, then copyediting, and finally—just before the piece is published—proofreading.

Aspiring authors can help critiquers by signaling what kind of editing they’re looking for, i.e., saying whether one is willing to rewrite entire sections of a piece, or whether one wants to keep the bulk of the text intact but just have it polished. By using the jargon associated with the different levels of editing, authors can communicate their needs quickly and also begin to learn the language of professional publishing.

Developmental Editing

Put simply, developmental editing means editing for content. In fiction, this is the stage when the editor comments on plot progression, characterization, showing vs. telling, and other higher-order concerns. In non-fiction, this is where the editor comments on the strength of the argument, the order in which the material is presented, and whether one section needs further expansion or another section can be shortened. Since anything is subject to possibly needing a re-write, style and grammatical issues are ignored. The time spent pointing out these little things might be wasted if the writer deletes and rewrites the paragraph from scratch!

Developmental editing can be accomplished by printing off a copy of the manuscript and writing in the margins, or by leaving comments through the word processor itself. Once you have finished leaving comments, it is most helpful for the writer if you can also summarize and explain the biggest issues in a letter format, which is a better medium for talking about issues that affected wide swathes of text or multiple parts of the manuscript. If you find yourself tempted to make changes to the text itself, you are probably getting into copyediting territory. Restrict yourself to comments only and you can help avoid falling into that trap.

The stages of writing that most often undergo developmental editing are outlines and synopses, as well as first and second drafts. The author often makes changes according to the comments received and resubmits his or her work for another developmental editing pass. If the editor finds no more higher level concerns in the writing or, more commonly, the author is unwilling to make additional revisions, the manuscript can move on to the copyediting phase.

Further Reading:

To bone up on your ability to offer developmental editing, you can read writing reference books on those higher order concerns (there are far too many to list here). Another option is to read a lot of books in the genre to develop instincts or get an “ear” for what works and what doesn’t. Editing isn’t just about having high standards and being able to determine “good” from “bad” writing. It means being able to identify what makes the writing “good” or “bad” and what specific steps the author can take to improve it. Below are some books on developmental editing itself.

Copyediting

Copyediting entails rewriting or formatting parts of the manuscript (also known as the “copy”) for the correct style and grammar. We all know what grammar is from school, but novice writers may not know what “style” means in the context of editing. Because a lot of writing “rules” are actually just guidelines or personal preference, publishers pick a style guide (like Chicago or MLA) to ensure consistency. Publishers may also develop an in-house style guide for additional rules specific to their intellectual properties or publications. A big part of copyediting is making sure that all parts of the manuscript follow the rules set by the style guides, so memory and attention to detail is important.

Copyediting usually takes place after developmental editing has taken place, such as during the author’s third or final draft. A diligent author completes a copyediting pass of his or her own before sending it to others, also known as self-editing (even if the author is not versed in the finer points of grammar and style, re-reading one’s own work helps catch blatant errors). When performing a copyedit, the editor either prints out the manuscript and uses specialized marks to denote revisions, or he or she will “Track Changes” in the chosen word processor and wade into the text itself, deleting and rewriting as necessary.

There are three sublevels of copyediting: light, medium, and heavy. Light copyediting is faster and involves fixing only those things that are incorrect grammatically or stylistically, and it might involve pointing out phrases that are very confusing for readers (but not making the changes). Heavy (or substantive) editing takes much longer. It includes light copyediting plus making optional changes to improve how clear or concise the writing is, such as restructuring entire sentences (or large portions thereof). Medium copyediting is somewhere between the two extremes. (For more specifics about what each sublevel of copyediting comprises, see this website.)

The biggest challenge facing a copyeditor is resisting the urge to rewrite something because you would have written it differently, such as exchanging one word for another because it sounds better to you. Doing so dilutes the writer’s unique voice and risks upsetting the writer or losing the writer’s trust.

Of course, this is a fine line to tread; a writer might have chosen an imprecise word because they used a thesaurus but did not understand all the connotations associated with the word they chose. (For example, consider the baggage that comes with the word “ginger” versus “redhead” compared to “auburn.”) The copyeditor must exercise his or her judgment in these cases.

Further Reading

To help others polish their writing for grammar and style, editors need to have a strong working knowledge of the English language and their respective style guide. The longer one works as a copyeditor, the more rules one can remember by rote, but a big part of this job is knowing where to look to find the correct answer! Below are some books that will help writers and copyeditors alike, rated from “most hardcore/for professionals” at the top to “every writer should read” towards the end.

Proofreading

After developmental editing and copyediting, the final manuscript is laid out as it is going to appear in print (or online). Traditionally this was done during the “proofs” stage of the publishing process (when you are looking to make sure color is correct, fonts display correctly, and no pages are upside down or missing!), but because most publishing happens digitally now, you can see the layout on screen before sending it off to the printer.

During this phase, the proofreader goes through each page with a fine-toothed comb to spot typos, glaring errors, formatting issues, and other emergency grammar/spelling fixes. Proofreaders might print out the document and make proofreader’s marks, or they can use Adobe Reader to make comments on a PDF (here is a guide to using Adobe’s annotation toolset).

Proofreaders need to have the same skillset as copyeditors, and they are basically making sure that anything the copyeditor didn’t find gets noticed before it’s too late. Oftentimes these problems were actually introduced during the copyediting process when big rewrites were involved, but mistakes happen, and no one person can ever catch everything. So it’s good to have multiple proofreaders for the same document.

The biggest challenge facing a proofreader is that you might find yourself wanting to do extra copyediting at this stage. But beware! Every extra fix you suggest now is another opportunity for the person inputting the changes to make a new mistake. Do what triage you can for the worst offenders, but do not go beyond what would be considered light copyediting.

Wrapping Up

Hopefully you now have a better sense of how critiquing and editing works in the professional world of publishing. Most importantly, I hope you can see why each stage exists as separate from the previous one, such as why it doesn’t make sense to do copyediting before all the developmental editing has been completed. Of course, time (and sometimes cost) can play a role in how much editing can be done to a piece of writing, but as long as quality is the goal, it makes sense to invest the effort!

Feel free to leave any thoughts or feedback in the comments!

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