Definitions of Editing: Key Terms


All writers need to understand editing.

Editing can involve many different types of editorial activity, from straightforward matters such as correcting spelling or making usage consistent, to subtle matters such as smoothing out the voice, to broader tasks such as changing the setting of a novel or streamlining an unwieldy cast of characters or cutting a chapter or adding a prologue. Specific types of book can demand other types of editorial work too, such as commissioning photographs or artwork to sit beside the text; this can be particularly important for works of nonfiction.

In a series of forthcoming posts I’m going to share some of my own working definitions. To make a start, I’m digging through various manuals and textbooks as well as recollections of my own experience, collating terms that describe different types of editorial work, and I’m finding that this list keeps getting longer … And then various terms can describe subtly different things, or even have different senses in different contexts or for different people. It’s worth clarifying what they mean.

I post the growing list below. It starts with editing that addresses the bigger picture, then moves down to forms of editing that pay attention to more detailed and refined aspects of writing, and then it adds sundry other terms as well. If you’ve anything to add, including other terms, please do so in a comment below.

In the beginning, of course, editors are involved in acquisition and commissioning, though for these purposes I’m singling them out as, let’s say, commercial processes rather than editorial ones – not that editing isn’t commercial … but I’m focusing on specifically editorial tasks in creating rather than buying a book here.

Subsequent editorial activities can be roughly divided between three main stages of editing: structural editing, copyediting, and proofreading.

To use analogies from gardening, structural editing would be the equivalent of redesigning your garden, perhaps redoing its hard landscaping, for example, replacing tired flowerbeds with raised beds, as well planting some trees and shrubs as focal points. Copyediting would be like routine garden maintenance, which might involve some straightforward pruning and clipping, and a bit of tidying of the borders here and there, and also mowing the lawn, and maybe repotting a container or two. And proofreading would be a final clear-up: weeding, and power-washing the paving, and storing the tools in the shed at the end of the day so that all the work that’s been done is invisible.

Terms loosely associated with structural editing also include:

macro editing
developmental editing
content editing

Terms and activities related to copyediting that I’ve encountered also include:

micro editing
line editing
manuscript editing
stylistic editing
mechanical editing
language editing
technical editing

The manuscript is usually next sent for typesetting, and after that it will need proofreading, and related to that:

collating proofs
checking revised proofs
proofing (I’m adding this as a related term here – explanations to come)

It’s worth understanding other terms that define specific editorial roles or stages in book production. They include:

project editing
editorial production
desk editing
product development (eek! that sounds so wrong, but I saw it used in a popular textbook about publishing) (‘popular textbook about publishing’ does sound like something of an oxymoron, doesn’t it?!) (but eek! let’s not forget that publishing is a business, or rather than publishing, like all of us, resides within a global economy of supply and demand, ker-ching)

And we can also think about the nature and degree of editing, e.g.:

editing on screen vs editing hard copy
light editing, heavy editing

And then there are other functions allied to editing, e.g.:

picture research
clearing permissions
legal read
specialist editing
ghost writing

These are not hard and fast categories. Substantive editing, for example, can be seen as a task of structural editing, but in practice it is often done during copyediting. And proofing is something that can be done at every stage; a writer will probably proof a draft before sharing it with a beta reader, even before it’s sent to an agent or editor, and long before it’s proofread in a formal sense.

In future posts, I’ll look at some of these different types of editorial activity (and maybe some others) in ways that I hope will be useful for writers: shedding light on what happens to your book in a publishing house; suggesting work we can do in our own revising and self-editing; and presenting ideas that self-publishers can build into their own work flow. I’ll also discuss how and when writers might need to use the services of an editor.

(I’ll also touch on some of these matters in a Writers’ Workshop Literary Salon held at Waterstones Piccadilly on 31 July 2015: Self-Editing: Revising Your Words. Debi Alper and I will be holding specific sessions on revising and prose style, and in breakout sessions we’ll also work through some examples of editing.)

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