What do editors do?

You know we’ll get into levels of edit, right?

Editors work with words on the page, helping to better shape their presentation and impact. They do this in various ways, depending in part upon how far along in the process the piece is, depending in part also upon what the piece needs — as long as the schedule supports it, of course.

But, wait, you might ask, words alone?

Well, no. Content. Words and whatever accompanies them on page or screen. Tables, charts and graphs, images, illustrations. All those visuals. But it is most often the words that most editors work with. They work with clarity and cohesion. They work with rhythm and pacing. They work with comprehension. They consider effectiveness. They also consider correctness.

It is correctness — grammar, syntax, usage, punctuation — that most people think of when they think of editing, but the work of an editor ranges over far wider terrain.

In more ways than one, they remove the noise. They clarify the signal.

The levels of edit

The way that editors interact with a piece — what they look for, what fixes they suggest — falls within what’s known as the levels of edit. The levels of edit define the nature and focus of the work an editor undertakes.

Developmental editing

Developmental editing concerns itself with the overall conception of a piece, with structure and approach, with tone and style, with content and scope. Will this particular piece (article, paper, book) as conceived be a good match for the audience? For the purpose? Does it do right by the content? Will it meet audience expectations? Does it fulfill (or creatively extend) the conventions of its genre? Is the material treated fully and well?

These are the sorts of questions a developmental editor asks.

With nonfiction, there is one range of genres or types, each with its conventions. With fiction, quite another, including a narrative framework. A few editors work in both realms. Most specialize in one or the other.

Given the nature of its investigation, developmental editing fits most smoothly into the beginning of a project, when there’s still time to adjust concept and direction without undoing a lot of work or slowing down the schedule. Developmental editing, that is, maps best to that point of time when a work is still under development. For longer works of nonfiction, this typically means that the table of contents is sketched out and a chapter or two written. For shorter works, that an outline has been submitted or perhaps even a first draft. For fiction, because of the way that narrative works, this generally means a complete first draft.

But developmental editing can also happen later in the schedule. If there is not a process in place where developmental editing happens as a matter of course — generally not the case in publishing, but quite common in other environments — an editor brought in to do a simpler form of editing later in the project may instead uncover deeper issues, developmental issues. At that point, if the schedule can support it, the editor may be asked to do the developmental edit, after which the writer will address as many of those fixes as possible. There are many variations. The editor may be asked to work closely with the writer. The editor may be asked to make the fixes directly. Another writer may be put on the project.

If the schedule will not support the time needed to undertake the changes — and midproject, this is more often the case than not — those fixes (or that edit) may be put off until the next revision. Or the project may be abandoned. Or it may go ahead as planned, with only the superficialities of the text addressed.

This is assuming the client to be the party who’s commissioned or assigned the work. If the client is instead the individual writer, then a developmental edit becomes even more a teaching tool than usual. Now the focus of the edit is on helping the writer develop her skill, from the ground up. And time should be spent on that.

Developmental editing is the deepest kind, the editing that most closely approaches the writer’s work. All editing is evaluation. All editing works within a range. Developmental editing is an evaluation of the heart and soul of a piece, how it’s shaped, how it unfolds. That evaluation may suggest that deep cuts be made or deep rearrangements or rewriting, or the cuts and rearranging and rewriting may be more circumspect and of narrower scope.

In general, if an edit addresses structure in any way and most particularly if it involves moving things around, it’s considered developmental.

Line editing

Line editing is all about the language. Is it clear and precise? Is it smooth? Does it cohere? Does the discussion unfold logically, naturally, effectively? Are the sentences well constructed? Have they got rhythm, style, flair? Are they well paced? Does the syntactic emphasis of each sentence match its meaning? Does the style map to context? Are sentences tight and concise, for example, if that’s the desired quality? Are they languid and fluid, if that is? Whatever the style is to be, is it consistent throughout? Does the diction match sentence style? Is it consistent throughout?

Line editing is not about correcting mistakes, it’s about sorting out missed opportunities. It’s about making what’s already correct better.

With nonfiction, the editor generally indicates (or suggests) changes to be made directly in the text or in some cases may be asked to make those changes herself. It depends upon the context and the client. With fiction, the work is typically more hands-off. Suggestions, yes, and in the comments, please. Direct changes, no. If it is the individual writer who has hired the editor, then, as always, the edit becomes even more of a teaching tool, and in this case, the lesson is about shaping sentences and paragraphs beautifully and powerfully.

After developmental editing, line editing is the next deepest intervention an editor can apply to a piece. Given its nature, line editing is best undertaken after the overall conception and structure of a piece have been sorted out. Once that framework is solidly in place, then the editor can turn to investigations of how sentences and the paragraphs they form play out on the page.

If an edit works addresses the text line by line, seeking to shape and hone expression, seeking to improve, it’s line editing.


Copyediting is the editing that most people are familiar with. This is the editing that sorts out errors and mishaps, ensuring correct grammar and syntax, appropriate usage for the context, correct word choice, and all aspects of the look of text on the page (spelling, italics and bold, hyphens, caps, punctuation). This is the editing that works with a style guide, The Chicago Manual of Style, perhaps, or the AP Stylebook. Or one of the several others, specific to each field of study. There is often also a house style to follow.

While developmental editing and line editing work more deeply in the text, copyediting is generally fairly superficial. It seeks to make few changes, only the most needed changes, for clarity and correctness.

The levels visualized

One of the best ways to envision the levels of edit is as a pyramid.

Editing pyramid, w c line.jpg

The pyramid captures the way in which the tasks become progressively more narrowly focused from deeper to lighter editing. And it also captures the way in which each level provides a foundation for the next. An editor can’t reasonably address finer-scoped issues until any deeper issues have been resolved. (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?)

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.

Alternate labels for the levels

Not everyone labels the levels the same.

In some schemas, the next level up from developmental editing is not called line editing, but rather substantive editing or heavy copyediting. Copyediting might then be called basic or baseline editing or be broken out into light and medium copyediting.

In other schemas, developmental editing is instead called structural editing and line editing becomes stylistic editing.

And while substantive editing, heavy copyediting, and line editing are typically used in various environments to refer to the same scope of concern and range of tasks, substantive editing can sometimes be drafted into use to refer instead to developmental editing.

It can become a tangle.

The best way to avoid being caught up in uncertainty is to think instead in terms of task. Whether you are hiring an editor, or you’re the editor being hired, look to the tasks defined for each level to understand the labels in use in a particular environment.

The editor as reader advocate, writer advisor

Editors work with written texts in service to the reader, as an advocate for that future reader. And so they think in terms of clarity and precision, in terms of signal and noise, in terms of rhetoric and communication, in terms of what it is the reader will need to best make sense of the material. To best be won over, if that is a factor.

But they work also for and with the writer. As well as reaching the reader, the editor’s aim is to help the writer achieve her vision for the piece in question. Reaching the audience she would like to, in the way that she would like. Clarifying her voice, her style, her arguments. Developing the material completely, skillfully, thrillingly.

If hired by a client publisher (typically, a company or publishing house) who is not the writer, the editor has allegiance also to that client and so must factor in those goals and stipulations as well. In some cases, the client’s requirements will overrule writer preference. But ideally, the editor will act as fulcrum between reader, writer, and publisher, balancing the needs of each.

The editor as teacher

Many of the tasks of writing and editing overlap. That is, the sensibilities that the editor brings to the piece, and the tasks, are also often the sensibilities and tasks of a writer. This is most particularly the case with developmental and line editing.

Where such deep intervention is warranted, the editor may be helping a subject matter expert who knows the material, but who has never studied writing. She may be helping a writer transitioning from one context or subject matter to another, or one who is new to the profession altogether. She may be helping someone for whom English is not a first language. She may be helping someone who has a story to tell, but not the tools to do it with. There are any number of scenarios.

In all such cases, there is the opportunity for teaching. For helping that writer to grow.

It is this that distinguishes editing from writing. The editor’s business is language, and over time, she has wide experience with it. She must know when to intervene and when not, and why. She must have a reason for every move she makes, or suggests, on the page. And she must be able to articulate those reasons, to offer clarifying examples.

The editor must be not only able to do, but to teach.

The professional editor

Someone who has made editing her profession has studied writing and the way it works, typically specializing in a select number of genres and contexts.

If she is a copyeditor, she’s focused on issues of grammar and syntax, usage, and consistency of mechanics. That is her particular strength. If she is a line editor, she’s settled into teasing out why some sentences that are perfectly correct still fall flat, and why others sing. She has endeavored to learn how to shift out her own preferences, as much as is possible, to focus on recognizing and diagnosing problems so as to suggest solutions that will work seamlessly in context. That is her arena. And if she’s a developmental editor, she’s plunged even deeper into the workings of her particular genre, or genres, to understand what is necessary for a work of a particular type to be logically constructed, for its underpinnings to be solidly in place.

Editing, true editing, is not for the dilettante. It requires more than the grasp of a few rules, which, as rules that make headlines tend to be, are often faux rules to boot. Sound and fury, nothing whatsoever to do with how the language actually works.

As with writing, editing is hard work. As with writing, the hard work renders the practice of it more and more fluid and expert over time. Getting there takes some natural inclination, and it also takes long hours of deliberate practice.

Checklists and rubrics

Over time, a professional editor internalizes a variety of principles, guidelines, and rules. But having prompts in the form of checklists and rubrics is helpful for maintaining consistency of approach across an editorial group, for maintaining consistency in an individual editor’s approach over time and across projects, for reminding an editor of a context she’s not worked in recently, and for sharing with managers, writers, and other stakeholders what the work consists of.

As you edit, look to capture what to be on the lookout for in checklists for the editors and checklists for the writers and to gather what you’ve learned about assessing the quality of a piece of writing into rubrics. If you work in various contexts, this is a great way to move between them more efficiently.

Checklists and rubrics also make for great teaching tools, whether you’re onboarding new editors or writers individually or delivering workshops to train groups of editors or writers (or subject matter experts). And the process of developing these materials also teaches you your craft more thoroughly.


Editors, like writers, have always collected books. Now there are online resources to collect as well. But online resources seldom contain the nuanced complexity of actual bookshelves of material. An editor’s bookshelf represents her life in words. And books open new worlds, for writer and editor.