Post 73

Author: Nola Published: over 2 years ago
Tags: editing, proofreading, copyediting, structural editing, developmental editing, substantive editing, line editing Category: Writing tips

Different Layers of Editing and Why You Need Them

You want to renovate your house with a view to selling it. The only problem is that the outside looks like this.


You call a painter and he tells you it will take a lot of work. He has to sand back all the peeling paint, plug any holes, and employ a carpenter to repair split and broken boards. Once the surface is ready, he’ll apply an undercoat. When that’s dry, the top coat will go on. As you live in a tropical climate with a blistering sun, he also recommends a good quality paint that has proven durability in that kind of climate. He gives you a quote for his services and you faint (though not from the blistering sun).

You decide to cut corners by only sanding the worst bits and then applying a cheaper top coat directly onto the peeling paint. Wait a minute! Would you really do that? Of course not, but that’s how some authors approach editing. They spend lots of time making their prose ‘look pretty’ before first taking care of the more important problems with the manuscript. When we do that, our stories can fall away like cracked and peeling paint, and we end up doing more work in the long run. A bad story with sizzling verbs is still a bad story. If you want to save time and money, it’s best to peel away the different layers of editing in the following order.

Structural editing

(Also known as developmental or substantive editing)

This looks at the big picture of your manuscript. For a novel, this includes things like the overall story arc, pacing, characterisation, dialogue, voice, point of view, and development of key themes. Does the story work as a whole? For nonfiction, you look at the overall structure of the work in terms of the message you want to convey. Have the appropriate topics been covered? Are the chapters, and sections within each chapter, presented in a logical order? Do the chapters have a consistent format (e.g. each starts with an anecdote and ends with discussion questions)? Once the structure is solid, you can move on to copyediting.


(Also known as line editing, though some draw a fine distinction between the two.)

Here, you zero in on the smaller picture (e.g. checking individual sentences and paragraphs for flow, clarity, redundancies, errors). You also consider how the prose could be lifted above the ordinary (e.g. through use of such things as stronger verbs, an active voice, better use of imagery). Once you’re happy with the overall structure and the quality of the prose, it’s time for proofreading.


This is a final check of the page proofs for errors before the manuscript is printed (e.g. typos, spelling, grammar, format). Changes to final page proofs are costly. All the polishing should have been done prior to this stage and you’re just looking for errors here.

If a home renovator puts the top coat of paint on before they’ve sanded the timber and applied the undercoat, the paint will chip in no time and they’ll have to do it over. If we spend too much time polishing our prose before we’ve thought about the structure of our manuscript, we’ll end up wasting time too. What use are a dozen brilliant metaphors if that whole scene or chapter ends up on the cutting-room floor? Spend time on the structure first, and the rest of the editing will be so much easier. You can also save money if you learn to do some of the editing tasks yourself. Afterall, an editor won’t take as long to do their job if your manuscript is already in reasonable shape. Think of it as DIY for your prose.

Over the coming weeks, I’ll look at some more tips for sprucing up your manuscript. What types of topics would you find most helpful? I’d love to hear your suggestions.

(Acknowledgement: The photo is by Lisa Redfern; free use from pixabay)

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