Levels of Editing

Professional editing generally falls into one of several categories: developmental, structural, copy, or line editing. It’s important to be clear with your editor which levels you’re seeking so that you’ll get the help you need rather than help you don’t. Here’s a brief run-down of the types:

Developmental and structural editing. Developmental edits are the earliest type of edit, and though they are often performed on a draft or work in progress, an editor can be helpful before even a word has been written. Developmental editing involves big-picture structural and organizational work. As a result, an editor might ask, or help you to clarify the answers to, questions like these:

— Who is your audience? Have you used the most effective methods for communication with that audience?
— What is your communication goal for the document?
— What is the best organizational structure for that goal?

If you have a draft in progress—for example, a novel, thesis, or dissertation—a developmental edit will answer the questions above, and will also examine the overall structure and organization of the document. Are ideas presented as clearly and effectively as possible? Are there ways to increase readability, appeal, or comprehension? Have any important content areas been neglected, or is there a glut of content that should be condensed?

A developmental edit shares some characteristics with a structural edit, but a structural edit begins when the larger conceptual issues of a work have been addressed and takes place only when a draft is complete. At this level of editing, your editor may shift paragraph or chapter order as well as make suggestions for new material or deletion of existing material.

One thing a developmental edit is not is a review for sentence-level changes. If any number of pages are going to be cut or entirely rewritten, it’s not efficient to make sentence-level changes at this stage. The finer details get attention in a copyedit, discussed below.

Copyediting. This second-level edit occurs after the primary structure and text of a document are in place. Though some structural or organizational edits may come up, generally this level of edit is focused on sentence editing, grammar, and editorial style. (For more on copyediting, see: What is an editorial style guide?) A good copyeditor will also be on the lookout for inconsistencies or factual errors—for example, a city or personal name whose spelling changes in different chapters of a novel. This level of edit also addresses:

— Sentence-level changes for clarity, ambiguity of meaning, idiom, awkward phrasing, and ease of reading
— Grammatical issues such as run-on sentences, use of passive voice, nonparallel construction, subject-verb agreement, and use of tenses
— Formatting citations and references, if any, to the agreed-upon style (e.g., MLA, Chicago, APA, AMA, AP, NYT, etc.), both in text and in a bibliography or works cited page. The copyeditor will also ensure all items in a works cited page are cited in the manuscript, and conversely, that all works cited in the text are included in a works cited section or bibliography.
— Treatment of numbers, bulleted and numbered lists, words in italics or foreign languages
— Identification of acronyms and abbreviations (these are usually spelled out at first reference, but treatment can vary according to audience)
— Capitalization, punctuation, spelling, and grammar, as well as any other outstanding typos or errors
— Initial verification of all cross-references in the text, such as to other sections, figures, pages, tables, and so on.

Proofreading. In proofing, sentence-level changes are restricted to outright errors or typos. This level of review is best at the final stages of a project, just before completion or publication, and looks for:

— Capitalization, punctuation, spelling, and grammar, as well as any other outstanding typos or errors
— Final verification of cross-references in the text, such as to other sections, figures, pages, and tables
— Word and line breaks as well as paragraph and line spacing throughout
— Table of contents, cover, and front matter final check, where appropriate
— Consistency among running heads and footers and other graphical and design elements.