The levels of edit

Surveying the editorial landscape

You know this already, even as novice writer or editor: some text needs only a minor bit of tweaking to ready it for publication; other text might need progressively more intervention before it goes before an audience. The categories of editorial intervention — from deeper to lighter, and the tasks involved — are known as the levels of edit.

The levels of edit provide a scaffolding on which to develop editing expertise, a framework within which to analyze, and so understand, the work that needs to be done. The levels of edit (and their associated checklists) help individual editors stay consistent in their work from one project to the next. They help editors working together within a given context to stay more consistent with one another. They provide a guideline for when to query or suggest, when to change — contingent also on the editing environment and the editor’s role in that environment. And they provide a means of communication between the editor and writer or other stakeholders on the project.

The levels of edit are the bedrock of professional editing.

The general progression

Conceptions of how many “levels” of edit there are, and just what each comprises, differ across editing environments.

In general, the levels move from broader to successively finer concerns — 


On up to the finer-grained, more superficial issues (hyphenation, spelling, surface-level grammar) often related to the look on the page . . .


To characteristics of the writing itself (tone, style, clarity, cohesion, coherence, parallelism, etc.) . . .


To issues of structure and organization (both inherent logic and as applicable to context and audience) . . .


The larger, foundational issues of the piece (concept, tone, purpose, audience, conceived content) . . .


The labels, the levels

Although this general progression from broad to fine is always in evidence, different organizations sometimes use different terms and somewhat different divisions. Look always for the description of the tasks encompassed by a particular type of editing, however labeled, to understand the nature of the work involved. You’ll want to make sure that everyone on the project has the same understanding of that level, those tasks.

By way of illustration, here are the divisions and labels assigned to the different levels by four professional editing organizations—

Editors’ Association of Canada distinctions and definitions

  • Proofreading

  • Copyediting

  • Stylistic editing

  • Structural editing (aka substantive editing, manuscript editing, content editing, developmental editing)

Editorial Freelancers Association delineation (some definitions, not perfectly correlated)

  • Basic copyediting

  • Heavy copyediting

  • Substantive editing (aka line editing)

  • Developmental editing

Bay Area Editors’ Forum distinctions and definitions

  • Proofreading

  • Light copyediting (aka baseline editing)

  • Medium copyediting

  • Heavy copyediting (aka substantive editing)

  • Developmental editing

Editcetera distinctions and definitions

  • Proofreading

  • Editorial proofreading

  • Light copyediting

  • Medium copyediting

  • Substantive editing (aka heavy copyediting)

  • Developmental editing

The squishiest labeling seems always to come at the juncture between the lowest level, most typically called developmental editing, and the next level up, variously called stylistic editing, substantive editing, line editing, or heavy copyediting. Where this level is known as heavy copyediting, the other type of copyediting might be called basic or baseline copyediting or it might be broken into light and medium copyediting.

The best way to remain clear of terminology entanglement is to think instead in terms of task. And to define (or seek a clear definition of) each level in your editing environment by the tasks involved.

An aside on proofreading

Note that EFA doesn’t include proofreading in its schema, keeping their services more purely focused on editing. Although many editing organizations include proofreading in the list of services they provide, proofreading is a task distinct from editing. In terms of the levels, it is the lightest, the one most concerned with the visual characteristics of text on the page. Though as copyeditor you would typically (depending on the other issues in the text) also be addressing these more superficial characteristics, in a strictly last-step proofreading pass, the proofreader ought not to be editing. And the text at that point ought not to need further editing.

The editing pyramid

One of the best ways to envision the levels of edit is as a pyramid. This visual captures the way in which the tasks become progressively more narrowly focused as you move from developmental editing on up to (the nonediting task of) proofreading. And it also captures the way in which each level provides a foundation for the next. You can’t really address finer-scoped issues until you’ve properly addressed any issues that lie in the levels beneath. (Why worry about caps, for example, if the text itself should be rewritten? Why worry about rewriting text to be more cohesive, if the message itself is misconstrued?)

From the broader tasks of developmental editing to the narrower, more focused tasks of copyediting

Wherever exactly you draw the divisions and whatever you label each level, the pyramid captures the general progression that always holds. (Thanks to the inimitable John Bergez for first introducing me to the idea of conceiving of the levels in pyramid form oh so many years ago.)

Note that this conception of the levels focuses on nonfiction of the sort that is not driven by narrative. Narrative nonfiction or fiction would also incorporate the various elements of narrative style, structure, and approach as they applied to the specific genre.

bird’s-eye view of the graduated editing tasks

For each level of edit, the full complement of tasks should be defined for the context in which you are working. This is what will help keep you consistent across different projects, and this is what will help keep a group of editors consistent with one another.

In general, though, you can think of the layering like this —

  • If you’re fixing errors of grammar (including syntax) and usage, that’s copyediting.

  • If you’re revising the writing to be not just more correct, but more effective, that’s line editing (aka heavy copyediting).

  • If you’re restructuring organization or flow, moving passages around, that’s developmental editing, which most ideally happens early in the project timeline.

And if you’re questioning the very conception of the project — audience, strategy, content, and so on as defined — that too is developmental editing. Typically the sort of developmental editing that takes place when the project is still being defined.

A rubric for the levels

In her text Technical Editing, Judith Tarutz outlines an informal approach to the levels of edit, one that directly correlates with “the difficulty of the task, the amount of time it takes to perform, and the requisite skill level.”

That approach —

  • What you see just by turning pages: the superficial look of the text

  • What you see by skimming: spelling, grammar, punctuation, errors

  • What you verify by skimming and comparing: internal consistency, cross-references

  • What you notice by reading: writing style, such as wording, transitions, usage

  • What you detect by analyzing: organizational flaws, missing information, redundancies, technical inconsistencies

  • What you find by testing and using: technical errors, usability issues

This is a great way to conceptualize the investigation of a piece of writing, whether or not it’s technical. 

Considerations of time

Although it is best to work from the bottom up — ensuring first that foundational aspects are in place before working with finer elements — there is not always time in the schedule to do what needs to be done. When that happens, make sure to speak to someone early on and then, if there will definitely not be time to address those issues now, to record what it is the project needs that you will not be doing.

Even when you’ve been told ahead of time that there’s no room in the schedule for anything more than, for example, light copyediting, it’s a good idea to do some preliminary investigation of those deeper aspects. If there are problems and you bring them to light, you might find that the conception of what needs to be done will change and you’ll be given more time.

Alternatively, even when there is no time to be granted, by highlighting any deeper, more foundational issues, you can help set the groundwork for future revision.

The deeper the edit, the more interpretive

While no two editors edit exactly alike, two copyeditors with like training and skill will copyedit the same piece of writing more similarly than two developmental editors with like training and skill will apply their trade. When the foundational elements of a piece of writing are not yet quite right, there can be many ways of solving the issue, many possible paths to follow. By contrast, when the grammar of a sentence is off, there might be only one or two likely fixes. And within a given writing environment, if the mechanics (caps, hyphens, spelling, and so on) are wrong, generally only one correction to be made.

The higher up in the hierarchy of edit you travel, the narrower the problems, the tighter in alignment the various solutions. The deeper down you go, the more interpretive the work.

From a training session on the editing process, May 2016

Companion piece to “The editor’s role”