Levels of Editing

“What does an editor do?” That depends on the project and what stage the manuscript is in. To complicate matters, the same editing task may be called by various names.

As a freelancer, I provide the level of editing you want. The important thing is that we clearly communicate what will be done, no matter what we call it.

But in general, I make a distinction between two levels of editing: basic copyediting and substantive editing. Here are some examples of the tasks typically included in each.

Basic copyediting

A manuscript that is well written, or that has already been edited to address major issues, may need only basic copyediting. Generally, that means I will:

  • Correct errors in spelling, punctuation, grammar, and usage (such as affect/effect).
  • Ensure consistency in spelling, numbers, capitalization, punctuation, and other style matters, following established guidelines (such as Chicago style, AP style, or house style).
  • Check lists for proper sequence (such as alphabetical order) and parallelism.
  • Check for proper numbering and placement of footnotes, figures, etc.
  • Verify accuracy of cross-references, tables of contents, vocabulary lists, etc.
  • Ensure style consistency in footnotes and bibliographies.
  • If editing electronically, ensure formatting follows established guidelines (for example, correct use of tabs, spaces, and predefined or user-defined styles).

Substantive editing

Substantive editing (sometimes called content editing or structural editing) involves deeper issues. It’s also more individualized, depending on the project and your preferences. Before I begin, or after I edit a small portion of the manuscript, we’ll discuss what your expectations are. For example, do you want me to fix organizational problems or simply point them out? Typically, however, a substantive edit includes tasks such as:

  • Evaluating the outline (chapters, main headings, subheadings) for logical order and hierarchy.
  • Editing headings for clarity, appropriateness, and parallelism.
  • Ensuring consistent tone/writing style (retaining the author’s style unless directed otherwise).
  • Adjusting reading level to the desired target, if needed.
  • Moving sentences or paragraphs to improve flow; smoothing transitions.
  • Improving awkward phrasing.
  • Eliminating wordiness, triteness, repetition, and inappropriate jargon.
  • Querying statements that are ambiguous or seem incorrect.
  • Checking elements such as summaries and review questions against the text.
  • Suggesting other improvements.

In some cases, substantive editing also includes all the basic copyediting tasks. In other cases, clients prefer to treat copyediting as a separate step, which may or may not be done by the same editor who did the substantive edit.

“Light” and “heavy” editing

People sometimes refer to a “light edit” or a “heavy edit.” The distinction can be important because it affects the amount of time needed for editing. However, these terms can mean very different things to different people.

I use these terms to describe the amount  of change required. A manuscript that needs a “heavy edit” requires more corrections or revisions than one needing only a “light edit.”

I don’t use these terms to describe the types  of changes being made. A “heavy edit” could be limited to grammar and punctuation, and a “light edit” could improve organization and tone.

In short, “basic” and “substantive” refer to the kinds  of issues you ask me to look for. “Light” and “heavy” refer to how many  changes need to be made.

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