I keep thinking about editing. This may be because I’ve been having conversations about it. And from people’s responses, I’m seeing once again that “editing” is a chameleon word. It blends into its environment so much that it can have very little meaning of its own.
As a teenager, I was an editor for the school paper. Editing in that context meant assigning stories, laying out the pages, and writing an editorial for each issue. Oh, and polishing up the texts that came in from my fellow students. When I edited an online magazine at the turn of the 21st century, I had a similar collection of responsibilities, except that the sheets of newsprint had become web pages.
While planning and shaping content for a publication is definitely rewarding, that work usually comes hand in hand with the work of tracking down the articles, double-checking that all the intellectual property rights are secured, and other solid opportunities for hair-tearing. Nowadays, when I edit my clients’ books, presentations, and other manuscripts, I can focus on the writing — which is the best part.
Even when it’s limited to the writing itself, though, the work of editing is unclear and often not well defined. Which raises the question – what is editing?
Ask two people what an editor does, and you’re likely to get a lot more than two answers, especially if those two people work in publishing. I did that the other day, actually — more on that in a minute.
To begin with, the worlds of writing and publishing recognize several distinct flavors, often including — from most specific to most general — proofreading, copyediting, line editing, and developmental editing. In the life of a published manuscript, those typically happen in reverse order, with copyediting the last step before the final proofread. Proofreading isn’t always included, but for our purposes we’ll include it as a form of editing, since a manuscript isn’t complete without it.
What’s a Line Edit?
Complicating things, those terms take on wildly different meanings depending who you’re dealing with. Take a look at the term “line edit.” Although this stage is likely where a majority of editing takes place, the online writing and publishing resource Reedsy doesn’t even include line editing in their categories of editing services. At Reedsy, a copyedit includes “consistency” and “attention to style/tone,” while a developmental edit embraces “major restructuring,” clarification, improvements to characterization, plot assessment, attention to craft, and more. I find Reedsy’s definitions baffling. By omitting one of the four steps, they scramble the timeline that begins with rough draft and ends with a polished manuscript that is ready for proofreading.
The Editorial Freelancers Association distinguishes line editing from copyediting, saying “In copyediting you’d check things out and ask the author, ‘Why are you doing this?’ The line editor will simply go ahead and make the changes.” —Ally Machate, quoted in an EFA publication.
And the New York Book Editors delineate important distinctions, including when in the writing process the two occur. To them, copyediting is “like an incredibly high-end proofread,” while line editing takes place earlier and addresses “creative content, writing style, and language use at the sentence and paragraph level. …[focusing] on the way you use language to communicate your story to the reader.” They also use the term “general” editing for this line editing stage. Others call it “content editing.”
The Four Stages • by Three Sages
Chatting over drinks on a recent spring evening, I asked two publishing colleagues what a “line edit” is, and they added some nice commentary. Not surprisingly, the two did not agree — at least at first. After a while, I think we came to a consensus. First, we zoomed out for a look at the four stages of the entire process of drafting and polishing a manuscript. Here’s what we came up with. (Feel free, of course, not to agree).
To us, the polishing process starts with developmental editing. Here, the editor works with a rough draft, and will generally ask the author more questions and make fewer alterations to the text, focusing on qualities like overall structure, narrative arc, character development (in fiction and in narrative nonfiction), voice, point of view, and shape.
The next stage occurs when the author has returned with a new draft, after incorporating the developmental editor’s suggestions. Now someone reviews and revises the manuscript to polish and clarify the text and sustain its momentum — which I call line editing. Craft, plot, character development and more can be enhanced here. Author queries show up at this stage, for larger questions for which there’s no clear answer. Whatever you call it, this is the kind of editing I most enjoy. At this stage, the overall shape of the book is usually established (although there are exceptions – I’ve worked on projects where, late in the process, the author agreed to move, add, and/or omit chapters and sections).
Line editing can be iterative (as can developmental editing). Sometimes, after the first line edit, the author, excited about how much better their book can be, gets inspired to make further changes, to make the book even more effective. Another line edit follows, and so on.
After the author approves the final line edits, the manuscript is considered very close to complete. It will be typeset now, so it looks much the way it will when published. This often means the text moves from a word processing app like MS Word to a page layout app like InDesign. At this stage, the copyeditor zooms in on every sentence, looking for small errors and marking them all for correction: footnotes, bibliography, abbreviations, captions, capitalization, citations, titles, proper nouns, punctuation — these kinds of considerations. And if the work is to be produced according to an in-house stylesheet or style book (like Chicago, AP, or APA), this is where all those items get handled. A manuscript looks a lot more professional after a good copyedit.
Once all those fixes are made in the pages, another set of eyes is necessary before publication. Ideally, the proofreader sees the typeset manuscript for the first time at this point, and will often not interact with the author at all, as the changes remaining to be made are not considered controversial. (Some authors feel very strongly, however, about punctuation!) Spelling, grammar, punctuation, and consistent layout elements (like bulleted lists, for example) are generally the scope of the proofreader’s work. Often, an editor or production person supervises the proofreader. Proofreading comes last for a reason. No more edits can be made without risking the introduction of new errors.
As Deanna Griffin pointed out, the four overall stages we outlined — developmental edit / line or general edit or content edit / copyedit / proofread — occur in many life pursuits, not just writing. It’s a familiar progression, traveling from high altitude overview down to individual blades of grass.
Why Line Editing Is Fun
I find it a great pleasure to dig into a writer’s manuscript and help the meaning emerge. I love to adopt — temporarily — the writer’s tone of voice. It’s almost like immersing in a theatrical part.
There are many creative aspects to line editing. It may seem surprising, but I can say that the a-ha moments I experience when I’m editing resemble the a-ha moments I have as a writer or composer. Sometimes a choice as small as replacing one preposition with another can make the author’s expression of an idea just click into place. Sometimes shuffling paragraphs around sharpens the focus. And sometimes landing on just the right verb can be amazingly rewarding. As my colleague, Abigail Wiebe, put it, the good editor is “hearing what the author is thinking.”
Which leads us to one essential fact in editing – it only happens after a writer writes something. To all the writers I have edited, and to all the writers whose work I hope to edit in the future, Thanks! Can’t do this without you. Seriously. Editors like me love to peel away the distractions and get to exactly what you want to say. It makes us happy.
Definitions of the stages of editing may be unhelpfully vague, but the impact those stages can have on a piece of writing is real. Maybe it’s because I was trained as a musician, but I love it when words sing. Helping that happen is such a great feeling! And everybody wins. My life thrives, the author’s intentions are fulfilled, and the reading public gets something new to enjoy.
— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Her company, Chenille Books, provides creative coaching and full-service editing to authors. Decks of her 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase from Central Virginia booksellers, at Bookshop.org, and on Amazon. A new handbook, The Becoming Unstuck Journal, is forthcoming. #becomingunstuck