what kind of editing do i need?

On an automobile assembly line, you wouldn’t wait until after you’ve installed all the interior paneling and trim to put in the side windows. When it comes to editing your reports, white papers, instruction manuals, and other important documents, are you doing the equivalent?

Freelance editors are used to talking with potential clients who think that proofreading a document means giving it a thorough syntactic overhaul, and that copyediting covers the writing and insertion of a whole new section of text. Most of us are not averse to taking on projects that cross definitional boundaries, but we do try to make sure the client understands the differences.

“Who cares?” some will interrupt. “Editing is editing, right?”

Honestly, no.

Editors define the types of editing differently not because we’re trying to be split hairs but because we understand that each one should be performed at its own particular stage of the document preparation process — putting the windows in while you’re still assembling the doors, so to speak. Performing the wrong kind of editing at the wrong stage in the production process can derail the whole process.

Use this editing sequence to keep your document assembly line moving.

1) Drawing Board to Prototyping

At the outset of the writing project, the editor should expect to collaborate with the writer and the subject-matter experts on developing the overall concept through its initial draft. Editors perform developmental editing at this stage, contributing to decisions about the structure of the document as a whole, the nature and arrangement of the contents, and even the conduct of supporting analysis and research that would improve the quality of the contents.

2) Cage, Transmission, and Engine

As the text is being developed through various drafts, one or more rounds of substantive editing should be performed at pivotal stages. For example, if a draft will be sent out for expert review, a substantive edit pass will allow the editor to go through the document closely to spot any major structural problems that affect clarity, organization, or readability. Questions, comments, and suggested additions by other reviewers are incorporated into a draft during this phase of editing.

3) Panels and Trim

When the document has undergone its final major overhauls and is at a stable late-draft stage, an editor can at last perform copyediting on the document. Copyediting, also called line editing, involves checking for the “finer points” such as grammar and punctuation, style and voice, pagination and figure numbering, note and citation styles, and missing or misplaced elements. This is probably what comes to mind most readily when most people conjure up an image or an impression of editing.

4) Paint and Polish

Before your final report, paper, manual, or other document is ready to roll onto the showroom floor, it should be subjected to a final, rigorous, and highly specialized form of editing called proofreading. People often use the term interchangeably with any or all of the other forms of editing, but proofreading is very much its own breed. It is conducted not during the writing stage, but during the desktop publishing stage (as such, not every project may require it). Proofreading involves scrutinizing elements such as page layout, typesetting, and colors. Typesetting itself can be broken down into proper kerning, correct font size and weight, line heights, indents, margins, and more.

Understanding the different types of editing, and employing them effectively and efficiently at the proper stages in the creation of a document, is part of good project management. It can help ensure that your report, white paper, manual, or other important publication gets done on time, on budget, and looking its best.

The glossary of editing terms developed and maintained by the Editorial Freelance Association as part of its Code of Fair Practice was a valuable resource in drafting this post.

Author: Paul Lagasse

Paul Lagasse provides expert-to-expert communications services to nonprofit, business, and government clients in the metro Baltimore-DC area. Specialties include science and medical writing, technical report editing, and content marketing.