The levels of edit via checklists

A deeper dive into the levels

One of the best ways to begin working within the levels of edit is through checklists.

Each level of edit has its own concerns, though when you look across the levels as a whole, at the borders, one shades into the next. The divisions between each level are not hard and fast. Checklists can help clear away the clutter, orienting you to the primary concerns of each level. They can bring the picture into sharper focus.

Checklists are useful not only for orientation to the levels, not only when you are starting out. They can also help keep you, as editor, consistent from review to review. And help to keep editors across a group consistent with one another.

The checklists that follow are broad and general, intended more to illustrate the different areas of inquiry than to be of actual use. The most useful checklists are those prepared to map specifically to a particular writing environment and its conventions and requirements.

These examples pertain to nonfiction of the sort that is not driven by narrative. With narrative nonfiction or fiction, all the narrative elements of writing come instead into play. Developmental editing will be focused almost completely differently, line editing somewhat differently, and copyediting concerns remain about the same, though leeway is allowed authors for idiosyncrasies of style or punctuation, most particularly with respect to dialogue.

Developmental editing

Looking at the substance of the information, in terms of structure and organization and overall concept

Asking questions such as —

  • Are all required features of this writing project in place? Does it meet the standard?

  • Is the overall structure appropriate for audience, context, and material? If guidelines are in place, does it follow them?

  • Is the information appropriately and effectively presented? Is it presented consistently (structure, scope, format) across the piece?

  • Is any critical information missing, misplaced, or hidden?

  • Is any material either superfluous or redundant?

  • Do concepts flow clearly and logically? Is context clearly established and maintained?

  • Would restructuring make the material easier to follow?

  • Do chapter and section headings accurately forecast content? Are they parallel? Does section text remain within the parameters forecasted?

  • If there are tables, illustrations, or other figures, are they used clearly and effectively? Do they map well to the concepts or data being presented? Are they both necessary and useful? Are these visuals well balanced against the text?

  • Conversely, would the discussion elsewhere benefit from such visual presentation?

  • Is the discussion smooth, the writing itself easy to read and absorb? (If not, what are the issues? What the potential solutions?)*

  • Are writing style and tone appropriate to audience, context, material? Would a change improve development or comprehension?

  • Is the current style and tone consistent throughout?

* Delving deeply into the writing itself is the concern of line editing, but identifying any such issues to be addressed later is also the work of development.

Line editing

Looking primarily at the words, in terms of clarity, coherence, concision, and so on

Asking questions such as —

  • Are the writing style and tone appropriate to audience, context, material? Would a different style or tone improve the effect in any way?

  • Are writing style and tone maintained consistently throughout?

  • If it’s meant to be, is the writing engaging? Will it hold the reader’s interest?

  • Is the discussion smooth, the writing easy to read and absorb? (If not, what are the issues? What the potential solutions?)

— Is context established?

— Is the material appropriately chunked? Are signposts in place? Are transitions
clear and effective? Is any part of the discussion missing or out of place?

— Are sections and passages coherent?

— Are sentences clear? Coherent? Cohesive? Concise? Vigorous?

— Are they constructed well? Does syntax match intent? Does it aid

— Is rhythm and pacing good?

— Are rhetorical strategies such as repetition and parallel structure used effectively?

— Is metadiscourse used well?

— Is punctuation both accurate and used to best effect?

  • Is the level of diction throughout appropriate? Is usage matched to context?

  • If there is any specialized terminology, is it used correctly and appropriately?


Looking primarily at grammatical accuracy, usage in context, and mechanical style

Asking questions such as —

  • Are sentences grammatical?

  • Are they clear? Concise?

  • Is usage (for this context) correct?

  • Is punctuation correct?

  • If there is any specialized terminology, is it used correctly and appropriately?

  • Does it follow house style for capping, spelling, hyphenation, abbreviation, punctuation, numbers, and so on?

From a training session on the editing process, May 2016

Companion piece to “The editor’s role”