Editing a complex written document

What type of editing do I need?

Here’s a short summary of all the layers involved in the deeply mysterious world of the editing process.

1. Structural editing (aka, substantive, content or developmental editing)

I always make this my first step in any editing project I take on. It entails providing big picture feedback, looking at how the content is organized and structured. Have you covered the key elements? Are your ideas fully formed? Is the central idea or theme laid out in the introductory pages? Is there anything you might have missed? Can anything be cut or improved upon to facilitate the flow of the document or manuscript? Is your message clear and effective so it will reach your intended audience?

2. Stylistic editing

The next step is essential to improve almost any piece of writing. Here, I’ll work with you to clarify meaning, fix any issues with syntax and refine the language (eliminating weasel words, wordiness and repetition). It’s also important in this step to ensure coherence and flow, which may mean rearranging sentences or paragraphs and even whole chapters. 

3. Copy editing  

Now we’re getting down to the mechanics of good writing. I’ll be looking for correct usage of the English language in terms of grammar, punctuation, and spelling. I’ll also fact check for accuracy (dates, timelines, quotations, conversions, urls, etc). Intrinsic to the process is to track your style to ensure consistency through the manuscript.

4. Proofreading 

The final step is to review the material in its final format or layout to make sure no minor errors have slipped through. Are visual elements such as tables, diagrams, images or artwork in the correct positions? Table of contents accurately reflects page numbers? Deviations from established style (e.g., contractions or spelled out…are not vs aren’t)?


So there you have it! And while it may be hard to believe, I love doing this kind of work! Use the following guidelines from editor extraodinaire, Amy Einsohn to get an idea of the scope of your project. Most editors will ask you for a couple of sample pages to confirm which of these guidelines apply. I certainly do.

   • Substantive, structural, or stylistic editing of a difficult text: 1 to 2 pages/hour
   • Substantive, structural, or stylistic editing of a standard text: 2 to 3 pages/hour
   • Copy editing a difficult text: 2 to 4 pages/hour
   • Copy editing a standard text: 4 to 7 pages/hour
   • Proofreading a difficult text: 4 to 6 pages/hour
   • Proofreading a standard text: 6 to 9 pages/hour

Now that you have a framework, get started assessing which types of editing your content may need. Leave a comment below if this helped or if I can help you narrow down your scope!

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