Christina Vasilevski

Writer/Editor for Content Strategy and User Experience

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.

Resources for Editors

resources_for_editorsIn September I wrote a blog post about my experience with Ryerson’s publishing program. At the end of the post, I said I would provide more info for people who want to learn more about editing or who want to be editors. So here’s a huge list of resources for editors!

These links aren’t organized in any particular order. Some links may be repeated as they apply to multiple sections.

Please note that these links focus on freelance editing. If you’re an in-house editor, or if you’re a designer, bookseller, or marketer, I would love to hear about your recommended resources in the comments.

What does it take to be an editor?

Many people think that editing involves primly marking up errors in red pen. However, it requires more than that. You have to be curious, thoughtful, and aware of your own biases. Here are some excellent pages about what it means to be a good editor.

Professional associations for editors

Joining a professional association will allow you to connect with other editors, and that is extremely important. Depending on the organization, you can also benefit from mediation services, group insurance plans, group discounts, and more. Some organizations also offer discounted membership if you’re still a student.

Mailing lists for editors

Individual editors who tell it like it is

Sometimes you need to hear that other editors are going through the same thing as you. These people offer great info and advice.

Business resources for editors

Tools and technology

Learning about and loving the language

Editing involves more than knowing grammar. You also have to understand the ways that language changes. These people provide varying perspectives on this process.

All-in-one resources for editors

Short on time? These sites provide a concentrated dose of helpful info.

Are there any websites that you think I should add? Let me know in the comments.

A review of the Ryerson publishing program – Part 3

Well, it’s been quite a while since my last discussion of Ryerson’s courses. However, with the new academic year on the horizon, it seems appropriate to finish off my series about Ryerson’s publishing courses. However, if you’re new, take a look at these posts first:

A review of the Ryerson publishing program – Part 1

A review of the Ryerson publishing program – Part 2

Proofreading

This course provided a useful parallel to the copy editing course that I took in 2009. It reinforced many of the concepts behind that course (attention to detail, rigorous adherence to the style guide, etc.), but it also tweaked them. For example, many of the marks used in proofreading have slightly different meanings than they do in copy editing. And while copy editing and proofreading both involve checking for typos and mistakes, both roles have duties that fall outside of the other’s purview.

The course included in-class exercises, tests, and large take-home projects. Funnily enough, although I proofread content before it’s published on the web every day, this course was not my most successful. In web content, you don’t have to worry (as much) about bad breaks, stacks, and rivers, because a lot of the time, how the text is displayed depends on the resolution of the computer you’re using, the browser, and window size.

Ultimately, I think this course was a worthwhile one to take, because the distinctions between copy editing and proofreading are small but crucial – it’s worth it for any editor to know and appreciate those differences.

The only problem with the course was that it was too short. Seven weeks is not nearly enough time to really grasp the essentials, especially since the course discussed proofreading both on paper and on screen using Adobe Acrobat. The compressed timeline  also meant having to do two big assignments in clumps rather than a larger number of smaller ones. Overall, the publishing program would well-served by making this a full course, and by interspersing smaller assignments throughout.

(Note: This course is only 7 weeks long, and is thus worth only a half-credit towards the Certificate. You need to take another 7-week course to make up the other half-credit. I took it in the autumn of 2010 on the Ryerson Campus. The instructor was Craig Saunders.)

Trade Books: Fiction

There are only two words I need to use to sell this course to prospective students: Greg Ioannou.

For those unfamiliar with the name, he was one of the first members of the Editors’ Association of Canada. He runs a publishing services company that has proved to be a training ground for future fiction editors. He’s part of a trivia league. Hell, he’s helped produce editions of Trivial Pursuit.

In short, this is a guy who knows what he’s doing, and is a big part of Canada’s editing community. And this is the only course he teaches at Ryerson – and he does it only once a year. So if you have the opportunity to register for it, do not let it pass by.

I should note that the course had a second instructor – Barbara Berson, a former in-house editor who has been profiled in the Globe and Mail. They took turns teaching the course, either alternating from week to week, or talking to the class together on the same night.

Anyways, the course itself involved reading short stories, figuring out their flaws, and discussing ways to improve them. And boy, the stories he selected for my class were doozies of the worst order: they contained impossible timelines, narrators who couldn’t get to the point to save their lives, underdeveloped themes, and erroneous geography (Pape and Eglinton do not intersect!).

The kicker is that all of these stories have been legitimately published in Canadian anthologies. This illustrated that (1) there are definitely bad stories out there that get published, and (2) these stories often get published because they fulfill some sort of quota by the publisher. One story met the identity-politics trifecta of being written by a female writer about Jewish lesbians, and the two women in question didn’t even show up in person until the last few pages.

This was another useful facet of the course: seeing the politics behind what gets published, and why. The impression that this class gave was that many anthologies blow their budget on getting a few stories by blockbuster authors, and then spread the rest of the money around by buying the most (ahem) cost-effective stories that fit the anthology’s theme. So in effect, one of the inadvertent lessons of the course was that publishing seems to be as full of horse-trading as any other industry.

Ultimately, I learned about how to apply a more discerning eye to fiction, taking into account such things as setting, plot, premise, characterization, tone, and point of view. Considering my subsequent involvement in reviewing short stories for one of the WCDR’s writing contests, the course was both timely and useful.

(Note: This course is only 7 weeks long, and is thus worth only a half-credit towards the Certificate. You need to take another 7-week course to make up the other half-credit. I took it in the autumn of 2010 on the Ryerson Campus.)

Introduction to Book Design

I’ve mentioned this course in passing both here and on my Twitter feed. Let me say up front that while it’s a very valuable course, it wasn’t what I expected. Part of this is due to the fact that being a good designer takes both a solid technical background and a discerning, intuitive eye towards proportion. Both of these are things I need to develop more fully.

However, part of it is also because that I assumed that the course would include progressive, step-by-step instructions on how to use Adobe InDesign. I was particularly looking forward to this – to getting help deciphering the innumerable icons and menus at my disposal.

However, this did not happen. This course’s approach to teaching InDesign is akin to that of pushing a kid into the deep end and letting them sink or swim alone. Only one lesson out of the 14 weeks was specifically devoted to teaching the students how to use InDesign, although several subsequent lessons involved working on book design projects using InDesign in class.

The insufficiency of that one single class was exacerbated by the fact that all of the computers in the classroom did not face the front of the room and the projector screen  – they were in fact perpendicular to the teacher’s screen, making it particularly difficult if you wanted to follow the teacher’s actions and reproduce them on your own computer. Even further, all of the computers in the computer lab ran on Windows, while the teacher used a Mac, meaning that the menus, commands, and keystrokes weren’t completely analogous. Seriously, the technical aspect of the course could have been a lot better.

So, one thing I learned from this class is that InDesign is hard. And it was made even harder for me because I felt that I didn’t have the time to learn useful shortcuts and tips (which, you know, more classes devoted to InDesign instruction could have fixed); I just used the brute force method of placing text boxes wherever I needed them to get the job done.

Aside from InDesign, we also learned about colour theory, typography, the CRAP (colour, repetition, alignment, and proximity) principle, and the history of book printing and design. We also went on a field trip to the Toronto Reference Library, toured their special collection, and got to see how archivists restore old papers and texts – that trip was definitely a highlight.

In short, if you have a well-developed aesthetic sense, this course will be worth your while. But don’t expect a comprehensive primer on InDesign, because you won’t get it.

(Note: I took this course on-campus during the winter of 2011. My instructor was Jaqcueline Hope Raynor.)

A review of the Ryerson publishing program – Part 1

I never got to throw a graduation cap into the air when I finished my BA at Trent. Ah well.I’m proud to say that I’ve just reached one of the goals I set for myself when I started out as an editor: I’ve graduated from Ryerson’s publishing program!

My last lecture in my last course – Intro to Book Design – finished the evening before, so I’ve had about a day to bask in the glory of being an official graduate of the publishing program.

In response to a blog post by my Book Design classmate Lisa-Marie that summarizes Ryerson’s publishing program, I’ve decided to record my own thoughts about each course. However, while her interests lie in marketing and publicity, mine lie in editing and production. They’re very different parts of the publishing machine, though obviously interconnected.

Because it’s late and I’m tired, I’ll just talk about the first half of my courses and continue the review in a second post later on this week. Without further ado:

Substantive Editing

Unlike most other publishing students, I took this class first even though it’s not an introductory course – when I registered, the Trade Overview course was full and this was the only one that still had spots available. While it provided a very good crash course in editing full-length manuscripts, the Ryerson journey would have been much smoother overall had I taken the Overview course first and this one second.

The best thing about this course in the long run was the textbook. If you can find a copy of Betsey Lerner’s Forest for the Trees, I beg you, do not let it escape your clutches. Writers will find it useful to understand editors. Editors will find it useful to understand writers. The book is win-win, really.

(Note: This course was taught online by Joy Gugeler. I took it during the summer of 2008.)

Publishing Overview: Trade

Although this is normally the introductory course for most publishing program students, this was the second one I took. This course was also required to complete the program (and still is), so I took it as soon as I was able to get it out of the way. It focused on the economics and psychology of the publishing industry – the nitty-gritty of how advances and royalties work, the way books are marketed, and how books can both conform to, and subvert, our expectations.

However, learning about the economics of publishing dampened my resolve to complete the program because the industry resembles nothing so much as tightrope-walking. Here are some statistics, courtesy of my instructor, Sam Hiyate, co-founder of The Rights Factory.

  • A book needs to sell only 5,000 copies to be considered a best-seller in Canada, a country of over 30 million people.
  • Out of every 100 books published in Canada:
    • 85 books will lose money for the publisher
    • 10 books will break even
    • 4 books will be moderate sellers
    • only 1 book will be a bestseller (and remember, this means only 5,000 copies sold)

The course taught me a lot, but I consider the most valuable lesson to be one I discovered on my own once statistics like these were made clear to me: publishing depends on a constant churn of under-paid labour (aka: internships).

I suppose that this is a topic that deserves its own post, but learning about the money behind the publishing industry (constant government grants and constant reliance on interns) subconsciously contributed to my decision to freelance instead of work in-house.

(Note: I took this course on campus during the winter of 2009.)

Copy Editing for Books, Journals, and Reports

In contrast to Lisa-Marie”s experience, I really enjoyed this course and, in hindsight, I consider it to be the key to understanding what I wanted to do, and why I wanted to do it.

The answer is so obvious now: I love words. I find it akin to pain when they are misused. I enjoy finding the patterns behind them, and this course helped me to understand those patterns more thoroughly.

Often, the day after each copy editing class, I would come to work and babble to my then-coworkers about grammar issues that I found exciting – things like the spellbinding importance of choosing “that” for restrictive clauses and  “which” for non-restrictive clauses, or the evil of misplacing your modifiers.

This course had more homework than most of the others, but I don’t regret it; I still keep the textbooks handy on my reference shelf at home.

In retrospect, this course was my favourite in the program. It taught me a lot of things, and not just about grammar. Most importantly, it helped me realize that there are viable career paths available to editors even if the economics behind the publishing industry look doubtful, because lots of other industries rely on well-written and well-formatted content.

I really can’t stress this enough: there is a lot more text available to edit outside of the traditional confines of the publishing industry. So even if I considered the economic foundation of the publishing industry to be tenuous (and with eBooks, this has become even more of an issue), this course made a strong argument for the relevancy of the entire program, because the skills taught in it can be applied across multiple industries.

(Note: My instructor for this course was Camilla Blakeley. I took this course on campus during the summer of 2009.)

Publishing Overview: Education

The main thing that I remember about this course is that I did a tremendous disservice to it by not organizing my notes regularly. To this day, those notes are sitting at the bottom of my bookshelf in a disheveled pile inside a soft orange binder. However, I did learn a number of things from this course about the creation and editing of textbooks, chief among them being that creating textbooks is a lot harder than it looks.

The Education course is required to pass the program. Unfair as this sounds, I took this course during the first half of my program so I could complete the requirement and focus my time and effort on the electives that really piqued my interest.

(Note: This course was taught by Tony Luengo and Cara Yarzab. I took this course on campus during the fall of 2009.)

Update: Check out part 2 of this series!

Further update: Check out part 3!