Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy, Content Design & UX.

What Are the Different Types of Editing?

Amid all this talk about plain language and writing web copy, it seems like a smart idea to pull back and look at things from the other side. A lot of the myths about editors out there exist because people don’t really know what editing entails.

So what do you do if you think you’re looking for an editor, but aren’t completely sure? What exactly do editors do, and what types of editorial tasks are there?

The 4 major types of editing

The Editors’ Association of Canada lists 12 types of editorial skills on its website — the variety might surprise you. However, broadly speaking, most editing is broken down into 4 types: substantive editing, line editing, copy editing, and proofreading. Also broadly speaking, the stages of the editorial process are approached in the order outlined above as a piece of text moves from beginning to end, from creation to publication.

Let’s look at each in turn.

1. Substantive editing

This type of editing is also called “structural” editing. This is the stage of the editorial process where, if you’re writing a piece of fiction, your editor will look at things like character development, pacing, dialogue, and plot. At this stage an editor will analyze how your story holds together and determine if there are any issues (eg: plot holes or unclear character motivation) that you need to address in a future draft. In non-fiction contexts the process is very similar, though I personally have not worked with book-length non-fiction. An excellent source for information about non-fiction substantive editing is Scott Norton’s Developmental Editing: A Handbook for Freelancers, Authors, and Publishers.

Substantive editing involves looking at the bones of your work, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, and seeing if any of those bones are fractured or dislocated. During a substantive edit, editors will ask themselves questions like:

  • Does the current order or flow of information make sense?
  • If this is a work of fiction or narrative non-fiction, does the overall narrative arc have a satisfying opening, climax, and close?
  • Are there certain elements of the work that need to be moved to different locations of the text, expanded, or omitted?

If you’re a fiction writer who is part of a critique group, you’re probably familiar with this process — many of the comments you might receive from your group members mirror those that a substantive editor would give you. (This is something I’ve had personal experience with as part of a critique group.)

2. Line editing

This is also known as “stylistic” editing. Not many traditional publishers have dedicated line editors anymore; instead, both substantive and copy editors may handle various aspects of this process. Instead of looking at things from a section-by-section level as substantive editors would, line editors focus on the text line by line and paragraph by paragraph to ensure smoothness, clarity, and flow. During a line edit, editors will ask themselves questions like:

  • Does the author rely on a particular crutch word or phrase?
  • Is there jargon, and is it appropriate?
  • Is the language of this text too formal or informal for its target audience?
  • Can a sentence be rephrased to avoid awkward constructions like double negatives or the passive voice?

Again, if you’re a fiction writer in a critique group, line editing concerns often pop up in critiques, and for good reason. For example, you might have a certain stock word or phrase you’re unaware of.

3. Copy editing

Hey Bob, can you give this a quick proofread for me? I think there’s a word missing here.

Chances are that when a colleague or friend asks you this, what they’re looking for is not a true proofread, but a copy edit. Copy editing (or rather, what those not in the know consider proofreading) is all about checking text for errors in grammar, syntax, and punctuation. However, there’s more to copy editing than just mindlessly shuffling through a dictionary. Copy editing is about consistency just as much as correctness, as this short post by Ken Follett illustrates:

First [my copy editor] checks spelling and punctuation. Now, my spelling is not bad, and I always look up difficult words such as Khrushchev (three aitches) or Willy Brandt (not Willi Brand). But she always finds some errors.

Then she checks consistency, just like the continuity person on a movie set, who makes sure that if the actor is wearing a green sweater when he goes to the front door, he’s wearing the same sweater two weeks later when they film him coming out of the house. A copy editor makes a note that Rebecca is thirty in 1961, and checks that when we get to 1971 I don’t absent-mindedly say she’s forty-five.

There is a whole host of things that copy editor check for aside from the usual culprits of grammar, continuity, and punctuation — a topic so large it warrants a post of its own.

4. Proofreading

So if checking for grammar issues isn’t proofreading, what is?

It’s checking page proofs —  but let’s step back a bit to understand what “proofs” really are.

After a manuscript has been edited, it’s then sent to a typesetter/designer. This person takes the edited text and actually does the physical/visual layout of the book, making sure that all of a work’s textual and visual elements — tables, images, page numbers, captions, running heads and footers, and so forth — form a harmonious visual whole.

However, the initial typesetting is far from perfect. There may be pages where only one word is printed, dangling there, separate from the rest of the paragraph on the previous page. Sometimes the spacing between certain elements (eg: subheadings and the following text) is inconsistent from page to page. In other situations, a word or phrase change significantly in meaning if there’s a bad line break in the text, like in this stunning example. When typesetters actually save the page design (usually using a program like Quark or InDesign), they either print the files out or export them to a digital format like PDF. Those files are what we really mean when we say “page proofs.”

Proofreading is all about looking at those proofs as a visual whole and pointing out issues in spacing and placement to the typesetter. In addition, proofreaders correct any (hopefully few) remaining errors in the text that the copy editor didn’t catch.

Because proofreading is one of the final editorial stages before the actual printing process, a good proofreader (or a good author!) will not introduce major changes to the text unless absolutely necessary. This is because adding a completely new chapter — or even a completely new paragraph — runs the risk of upsetting the visual flow of the entire document, potentially introducing further new bad breaks or spacing issues. Proofreading is not the time to add “one more thing”. Instead it’s the detail work, the final sculpting of your text before the clay dries completely.

So what does this mean for you?

Chances are that the further away your text is from publication, the more editing your text needs. As you refine your writing with the help of an editor, you’ll get closer and closer to the proofreading stage. Understanding that fact is a great place to start when you’re looking for editorial help.

A Thanksgiving post: Thanks to my teachers

It’s Thanksgiving today in Canada, so in the spirit of the holiday, I want to give thanks to some very important but under-appreciated people: My teachers.

Well, three teachers in particular. After reading this post on the most important lessons a teacher ever taught you, I decided to talk about some of the most valuable lessons my teachers ever taught me, whether they were part of the official curricula or not.

Mr Shearer and the poetry of essays

Mr. Shearer taught me Grade 12 English. I had only heard of him before he became my teacher, but after I met him, I realized that it was sheer luck that assigned me to his class: Originally, I was part of a different class but had to switch due to a scheduling conflict. His greatest lesson to me was about the literary value and potential inherent in essays.

Prior instruction on essays in English class focused on the “hamburger” model: One paragraph for your thesis (the top bun), one paragraph each for your three supporting arguments (the meat), and one paragraph for your conclusion (the bottom bun). Of course, each paragraph had to follow the hamburger model itself and have an introductory sentence, three sentences of juicy argument, and a concluding sentence. In the minds of those teachers, sentences and paragraphs were things that could be assembled like clockwork.

As you can imagine, this led to dull essays with only average grades; my teachers often said that I didn’t address the topic clearly enough.

This changed when Mr. Shearer gave each student in the class a small paperback containing several essays and told us to open the book to one about the growth of public apathy titled “Who Cares?”† He then proceeded to read it aloud to us, pausing to deconstruct how the author stated his thesis, built his argument, and used rhetorical devices to grab the reader.

This lesson (or series of lessons – I seem to recall that Mr. Shearer took his time) was no less than a revelation. Before this, thesis statements were bald, bare things: “[Object X] is a major theme in [Story Y].” But here was a thesis relevant to real life argued in an organic, persuasive manner. Here was an essay that marshalled pieces of evidence from numerous fields to prove its point. Here was an author whose essays weren’t hamburgers; they were steaks.

The crux of this lesson hinged on one sentence: “He stabbed her.” At this point in the essay, the author was describing the murder of Kitty Genovese, and what it illustrated about the apathy of the modern-day citizen. Mr. Shearer took the time to note that this sentence was quick and violent – like a stab itself – and punctuated this with a turning thrust of his fist.

“He stabbed her.”

That’s when I realized that sentences and paragraphs didn’t need to be built like clockwork anymore.

Later on that year, Mr. Shearer took us through Hamlet and Brave New World. However, my time with him was short. He was diagnosed with cancer during the school year and replaced by a supply teacher. The following school year he was in and out of class, replaced by a battery of teachers, until he died in the spring of 2003 a few months before I graduated.

I think the shortness of our teacher-student relationship has contributed to that lesson on essays remaining so vivid. Whatever the reason, Mr. Shearer, thank you.

An interesting side note: I think I can also thank Mr. Shearer for my interest in Roman history. One day in class, he mentioned that “I, Claudius” was one of his favourite shows. I had no idea what “I, Claudius” was about for several years, but knew that I wanted to see it based solely on his endorsement. When I eventually found out that it was about the beginning of the Roman Empire, and found out about the “History of Rome” podcast around the same time, I knew that Roman history was something I wanted to dig into more deeply.

† Research has led me to believe that the essay “Who Cares?” was originally written by John Leonard for The Nation in 1979 and then republished in his book Private Lives in the Imperial City. I have yet to confirm this as I can’t find a full-text copy of the essay online.

Mr. Flahiff and the art of caring

Let’s put it this way: How many high school teachers can you think of who have a legitimate fan page on Facebook?

Mr. Flahiff can’t be pinned down to a year or a class like the other two teachers. When I was in high school, he taught art, and his classroom was located in the Music Hall, my school’s semi-autonomous nerd enclave. You know what I mean: The sort of place where music kids, drama kids, RPG-playing kids, and even the occasional stoner hung out – and this was before “Glee” made singing in school choirs cool.

Mr. Flahiff was the unofficial Den Father for all of us. He always kept his door open, even during his classes, and would allow students from the hall to wander in, talk to him, and talk to his students. He would let us listen to his lessons. He would let us eat lunch in his classroom, or hang out there after the school day was over. He was the quintessential Awesome Teacher (and like many Awesome Teachers, he butted heads with the school administration, but that’s another story for another day).

Most importantly, Mr. Flahiff listened to his students and gave them a supporting ear whenever they had problems related to their classes or their homelives. This meant a lot to me and to a host of other students (many of whom are now “Fans of Flahiff” – seriously, you should check the Facebook page out).

He is now semi-retired, but this doesn’t mean that he’s drifted away from his students. Even now, I see him at birthday parties for my friends. Hell, I invited him to my 25th birthday party, and he so impressed some of the other people there that they joined his Facebook group upon only a few hours’ acquaintance!

It’s hard to name the lesson he taught, because so much of my interaction with him was outside of the classroom. It’s simple, though: we learned that a teacher could move beyond caring about us as students and start caring about us as people.

One last note: Mr. Flahiff and Mr. Shearer were very good friends. When I took Mr. Shearer’s philosophy class in my final year of high school, Mr. Flahiff was one of the teachers brought in to take over for him when his health failed. If you think about it, they were a Tag-Team of Teaching Awesomeness.

Mrs. Anderson and the perils of credit cards

Of the three teachers, Mrs. Anderson retains the most mystery. Mr. Shearer died 8 1/2 years ago and Mr. Flahiff is on Facebook, constantly in touch with his legions of students and friends. But after Grade 6 ended and I moved on to a different school, I visited Mrs. Anderson only once in our old classroom. Her most valuable lesson was off-the-cuff and definitely not part of the traditional curriculum, but out of the three teachers listed here, her lesson has been the most tangible.

She taught us how credit cards work and how credit card companies make money.

I have no recollection of what spurred this impromptu lesson, but I do remember her taking up her usual spot on the big chair in the carpeted corner of the room and us sitting around her feet. She proceeded to explain how people used credit cards, and how credit card companies charged interest on purchases. She then explained that credit card companies offered a “minimum payment” option, but that interest still accrued on the remaining balance – and that if you kept on paying the minimum payment, the interest would keep on accruing, ultimately costing you more than the purchase itself.

Perhaps this handy infographic will show you what I mean.

This knowledge wasn’t useful when I was 12, but I kept it socked away as I grew up. I didn’t get my first credit card until I was almost 21. Since then, I have tried my hardest to pay off the complete balance month after month, even while paying for all of my Ryerson courses out-of-pocket without any loans, grants,  or bursaries. I’m proud to say that I don’t have any credit card debt.

Two nights ago I decided to try to find Mrs. Anderson. I took a look at my old report cards to learn her first initials, and used some educated guesses about her name and location to find her on Google. I saw one very promising website with more information, and sent an email to the address listed on that page. I don’t know what sort of response I’ll get, or even if I’ll get one at all. I’m not even entirely convinced that I’ve found her. But if it does turn out to be her, I just want to let her know: Thank you.