Editing can be quite a vague term… Are we just talking about moving commas and nitpicking over different types of hyphens? Or does editing go deeper into the content and structure of the writing?
When I think of editing, I often think of a range—from proofreading and copyediting to substantive editing and ghostwriting:
Proofreading usually entails smaller things on a more final draft of writing (e.g., typos, punctuation). Proofreading typically occurs after copyediting and after the type has been set, which means that proofreaders typically work on a PDF or in InDesign.
Copyediting happens somewhat earlier in the writing process, with an earlier draft. Copyediting focuses more on consistency of the tone of voice, the pronouns used throughout the paper, punctuation, grammar, and syntax (the organization of sentences). Copyeditors usually work with Track Changes in Microsoft Word or Google Docs.
Substantive editing involves some more intensive, invasive editing, such as the rewriting of sentences, the reorganization of paragraphs, and feedback on which ideas to expand or how to reformulate certain ideas within a paper.
Finally, ghost writing is taking the author’s ideas and laying them out on paper. This is the most involved that an editor will get in an author’s writing and the least involved that the author will be. Arguably, this isn’t a form of editing at all, but a breach into writing.
I personally specialize in copyediting as described above—I check for typos, rewrite sentences for improved clarity and readability, make the punctuation and citation style consistent throughout a text, and generally look to make any potential improvements for increased clarity, readability, or consistency.
While some clients may choose a specific subset of editing, the lines aren’t always clearly defined. There are, however, a few things that are consistent throughout editing practice (at least my editing practice, in any case).
Punctuation, grammar, and syntax
Punctuation (the marks in your writing, such as periods and quotation marks), grammar (guidelines governing the use of language), and syntax (sentence order) are the foundation of any form of editing. No matter which level of editing is required for your work, keeping an eye out for punctuation, grammar, and syntax is always part of the process. Even if I’m looking to make more structural changes, my eye is trained to look out for weird sentence formulations, misspelled words, and typos.
Clarity and consistency
Clarity and consistency go hand in hand with punctuation, grammar, and syntax. Although I will argue against harsh grammar rules any day (language is flexible and fluid!), these guidelines exist for a reason—they help to make language clearer and more consistent. There is more to clarity and consistency in writing than just grammar, though: using the same kinds of pronouns throughout a paper, writing from the same perspective (first- or third-person, for example), or even consistently using a made-up or slang term can be just as important for the clarity and consistency of a text as the grammar “rules” themselves.
Even if I’m not writing a piece for someone, there is almost always a little bit of rewriting involved in the editing process. Restructuring a sentence due to confusing sentence construction or rewriting a poorly translated phrase are some examples of this. Again, this varies and depends on the quality of the original writing, the stage of the editing and writing process, and the desires or needs of the author.
This obviously usually only applies to multilingual authors. Although either they are proficient enough in English to write the text in English in the first place or the text has already been translated by a translator, some culturally specific or small mistakes can still slip through.
However, even a native English speaker can write some culturally specific phrases or sayings that might not be appropriate for their audience. I once had an author who continuously used a Britishism (there are so many!), which I removed because the manuscript was intended for an international audience.
Comments and feedback
This is arguably one of my favorite aspects of editing. Leaving notes on how to expand or restructure an idea, giving feedback on how a concept is formulated in the text, or sharing a different perspective on the formulation of an argument is one of the more creative and intellectually challenging parts of editing. This is also the part where I get to interact most with the author… If something is unclear in the text, I’m not always able to unpack an idea and rewrite it in a clearer way, so I can leave comments in the text about possible suggestions or guiding questions to help them clarify their ideas.
I hope this gives a somewhat clearer picture of what the different levels of editing look like and what kinds of tasks editing entails.