I’ll admit it. I used to imagine writing and editing as two separate endeavors. A writer holes up in a room somewhere, toils away at a draft, and submits it to a publishing house when it’s done. Then, an entirely different type of professional called an editor reviews the draft, makes a few changes, and sends it off to print.
I believed the writer-editor dynamic was symbiotic but didn’t understand to exactly what extent. The truth is that editing is as (and possibly more) important to the writing process as anything else. Editing is writing.
Even apart from the obvious impact of improving a draft, editing someone else’s work challenges you to become a better writer. That make’s editing an essential practice for all writers. And improving your editing abilities goes hand-in-hand with improving your overall craft.
Let’s discuss the three types of editing and how you can use them to improve your own work and the work of others.
Substantive editing is the first stage of any editing process. It involves examining macro elements of a text including structure, characters, tone, pacing, and voice. The goal is to determine whether or not each element is supporting the author’s intent.
In this phase of the editing process, editors communicate with authors to facilitate discussions and make suggestions on how to improve the overall text. It does not bother with line edits, grammar, or formatting. This will all be dealt with in the next phases. Comprehensive rewrites, additions, or structural changes take place here, making it the most time-consuming and transformative of the editing stages. Copyediting, at this stage, would be a waste of time, since many passages are likely to be rewritten entirely.
This stage can also be called developmental editing if the editor is working with the writer to establish these choices as they are creating the draft.
Tips for Better Substantive Edits
Just starting out with your first found of edits? Here are some tips to help you do your best work.
Read the draft once through. This doesn’t mean you can’t stop to make a few notes as you go, but try to focus on absorbing the work and getting a deeper understanding of what the author is trying to accomplish.
Print the entire draft. If you’re editing a book-length or larger text, editing on a computer screen will be difficult. Print the manuscript before you begin, and don’t forget to add page numbers.
Write a letter. Imagine you wrote an entire ebook and your editor returned the draft with a note in the margins that only said: “Change the POV.” At this phase, editors are focused on macro elements and how they support (or don’t support) the author’s intention. Since these suggestions involve major changes to the overall draft, they should come with some sort of justification.
Once the macro elements have been addressed, editors begin assessing the text on a paragraph and sentence level. This stage is also called line editing and it focuses on micro elements of a work such as repetition, cliches, clarity, and word choice.
Again, understanding the author’s intention is critical to getting this phase right. This is because the slightest alteration of connotation, metaphor, tone, or opening sentence can change the entire atmosphere of a chapter or paragraph.
Tips for Better Line Edits
Here are some tips for flawless line edits.
Work on a computer. This way, you can make changes as suggestions and justify them in a comment below.
Work your way down. It can be easy to get overwhelmed and skip important elements in this phase. Start with the overall chapter or section; do the openings and endings work? Does the structure work? Then move to the paragraph, then the sentences within each paragraph.
Focus on the Cs: Great writing should be clear, concise, correct, and compelling. When in doubt, ask yourself If the line in question is each of these things, then edit accordingly.
My professor once told me that a good copyeditor or proofreader is worth their weight in gold. This is because these professionals must possess flawless attention to detail as their work can make or break a reader’s first impression of a piece.
Copyeditors and proofreaders are responsible for ensuring that a text is flawless. They correct grammar and spelling, fact-check, flag legal concerns, and sometimes even format the manuscript for print.
Depending on what you are copyediting, there may be any number of standards a copywriter is required to follow including style guides and formatting restrictions. Ultimately, copywriters are necessary for ensuring that the author’s work is communicated as correctly and clearly as possible and that the text respects the publisher's house style without compromising the authorial voice.
Tips for Better Copyedits
Here are some strategies for success.
Print the draft. Studies have shown that editors reading from a screen detect fewer errors and experience an increase in fatigue when compared with editors reading from paper.
Don’t rely on AI. Editing tools such as Grammarly and ProWritingAid are great for supporting the editing process, but they absolutely should not be used as a substitute for a human proofreader.
Employ a fresh set of eyes. Chances are, if you’ve been working with a text through the substantive and stylistic editing phases, you may be too familiar with the content to conduct a thorough copyedit. If possible, take a break from reading or thinking about the work before returning to it for a final review. This will allow you to approach it more objectively.
Be a Better Writer Through Editing
In order to effectively edit a piece of text, you need to understand the author’s intent and the effectiveness of different literary techniques to accomplish that intent. Practicing that sort of analysis with the work of others goes a long way to making critical, objective choices about your own writing.
Bottom line: improve your editing skills and your writing skills will follow.
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