After responding to several calls for editing work over the past couple of weeks, it occurs to me that most people don’t really know what kind of editing they need. So I thought I’d help out with a handy guide to helping me help you. Taking it from the top…


What it is: Proofreading often gets mixed up with copy editing, which I’ll get to in a minute. Proofreading generally happens when the material is in the final stage of production (i.e., the format it’s going to go out in) and involves checking for any glaring errors, such as typos, misspellings, and bad usage (for example, “peddle” (to sell something) for “pedal” (what you do when riding a bike)). Proofreaders might also question, respectfully, more serious content flaws that may have been missed by previous editors. For example, a misattributed quote, a wrong URL, or even sexist or racist language. It also involves checking for formatting and typographical errors and inconsistencies – anything from incorrect bullets and indentation to line spacing to straight quotes that should be smart, or curly, quotes.

Why it matters: Proofreading gives a document the final polish and fixes the little errors that might derail a reader. Proofreaders help make the document more professional and make the author look better.

What it’s not: It is not rewriting, cutting, or re-arranging. Proofreading should not seriously affect the flow or page count of the document. In fact, I used to work with one editor who’d make all kinds of big changes on page proofs (the laid out pages that were being sent to the printer), and it drove me crazy!

Copy editing

What it is: Copy editing happens before the document goes to layout. Also known as line editing, it involves correcting spelling, grammar, and punctuation throughout the document, at the very least. It tends to also involve fact-checking and querying and negotiating changes with authors. Consistency is the watchword for copy editors – they will make sure that if, say, a company is called “Widgets Plus More” on page 4, that it’s not “Widgets + More” on page 7. Better yet, they’ll determine which one is correct, and add it to their style sheet for the project.

Why it matters: A good copy editor is there to save butts and make authors look good in print. When writers say they fear or even hate editors, it’s probably the dictionary-wielding copy editor they fear the most. Some authors will even go so far as to forbid copy editors from “messing” with their work. A good copy editor is sensitive to the author’s unique voice while at the same time trying to make the work as clear and accurate as possible.

What it’s not: Unless specifically called for, copy editors should NOT rewrite, cut whole paragraphs, or do anything that changes the tone of the piece. Although deleting a few !’s for the exclamation mark-happy author does us  all a public service. This is where copy editing blurs into:

Stylistic editing

What it is: This often happens while the manuscript is in draft form. Stylistic editing looks more at the overall language and tone of a piece. It is editing to strengthen the content and ideas, and may involve some rewriting or rewording. For example, transitions may be needed to improve flow, or the language and diction may need some smoothing out. The editor might do this by rewriting and negotiating changes with the author, or by consulting on the manuscript and providing a list of suggested changes.

Why it matters: It helps a good piece become better, and ideally, more targeted to the audience it’s trying to reach.It might also removes annoying jargon and tech-speak that business people love to use, yet that might be suitable for a general reader. Raise your hand for the deletion of “outside the box,” at the end of the day,” and “impact” used as a verb. Yeah. Thought so.

What it’s not: It’s not generally a line-by-line error-finding mission (as with copy editing and proofreading), but more of a big picture edit. See: Professional Editorial Standards.

Structural editing

What it is: In the official definition, structural and stylistic editing blur together. Structural  editing is the really big-picture stuff: the organization, the outline, how the document will fit together. Structural editors are often the very experienced ones, skilled at pulling a coherent book or series of articles out of a jumble of manuscript. They may even be the ghost writers who do the actual work after the wordy-challenged famous person gets the book deal.

Why it matters: It happens more often than you think. While certain authors provide star power to the project, the professional editors pull it together for the publisher.

What it’s not: Lucrative enough.

Also note that the fees go up for each level of editing from micro (proofreading) to macro (structural/stylistic), since progressively experienced editors are required at each stage. The EAC’s 2007 rate survey is a good guide on what’s fair for the job.


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