The four stages of editing

The four stages of editing

My colleague Ann Bolch, one of our editors, recently wrote a post on her own blog about a common misunderstanding of what 'editing' means. Unless you've suffered under the point of an editor's red pen, you may not realise that editing ain't editing – that there are various stages of editing between a draft and its final form. Ann is here to explain in this very lightly edited version of her original.

Many people come to me asking to have their work edited.

Fair enough. I'm an editor. But the first question, ‘What sort of editing are you after?’ often stumps them.

Simple requests like, ‘Can you edit my 82,000-word novel?’ or ‘I have a website that needs updating – is this something you would do?’ soon become complicated because, actually, there are four stages of editing. And we need to know which stage the project is at before we can write a proposal outlining timeframe, costs and approach.

The four stages of editing are:

  • structural editing (aka developmental editing)
  • copy editing (aka line-by-line or just ‘line’ editing)
  • proofreading (detailed correction of the final draft just before layout)
  • page proofs (making sure there are no remaining typos on the 'ready to print' digital pages).

It can be tedious for authors or writers of content to hear that the work they hoped was close to finished needs to go through more rigour. But the benefits of running your precious words through the four stages of editing always outweigh the costs. Ponder all of the effort you’ve put into your writing, branding or concept. You don’t want to let it down by not finishing it off.

Structural editing is often overlooked yet can have the most significant consequences for your draft. It involves looking at the overall presentation of your manuscript or copy (e.g. website, brochure, profile, etc.) During a structural edit, we pay attention to how the narrative is put together in terms of reader engagement and clarity of message by interrogating the content and analysing the overall flow. Among other aspects, we focus on character development, setting and voice for fiction; narrative flow, consistency and voice for creative non-fiction, and clarity, reader engagement and voice for web content. Yes, voice is very important!

Suggestions may be as large as starting the novel at (the current) chapter 4 or coming up with a new tone for a website. Or may be as subtle as rewriting a profile from third person to first person or rejigging the order of a few paragraphs in a short story.

Structural appraisals and subsequent editing are the necessary first step in this process because the last thing – the absolute last thing – you want to endure is someone suggesting that your chapters could be reordered or the branding is inconsistent when you thought you were signing up for a final proofread of your manuscript.

Good editors don’t shy away from sharing these discoveries with their clients. To do so would be unprofessional, lazy and ultimately unhelpful if it means your work is published with nowhere near the quality it deserves to have.

I’ve recently had two writers come to me with published books that really need to go back to square one. Imagine the pain of that?

Much better to approach the editing process in a logical, step-by-step order, guided by a trusted professional to complete the work as well as you’re capable.

May your words pour onto the page.


As usual, if you have any questions or comments, please add a comment below or contact me.


Image from Flickr user Nic McPhee: used under Creative Commons licence

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