Red pens are your friends: how different types of editing can help

Ever stared at a painting so long that the lines seem to move? This is what happens with words after you have written 60,000 of them and spent a few weeks rearranging them on the page. The lines blur, and then you can’t see the details in the story for the colourful canvas you have created. 

When I worked in journalism, I had an editor who said that the newspaper was the only type of business that involved making a mistake, printing 50,000 copies and sending them to your closest friends. There was even a retired English teacher in town who loved to pass his hours by marking up our work with red ink over errant punctuation or grammar, and mailing newsprint sheets back to us.

When your writing is scrutinized by that degree, you and the editorial team develop a lot of systems to avoid making mistakes in the first place. Editing happened at every stage of our publication process: writing, revising, fact-checking, copy editing, proofreading. If you had to change the story because of a late development, you returned to the beginning and ran through the stages again.

Editing isn’t just about catching mistakes, though. Yes, programs like Grammarly can help you craft an easy-to read email with fewer spelling mistakes. A real-life editor has the tools to chip away at all the extraneous bits in a story, whittling everything down to its essence to expose the story so much that a reader cannot look away.

Author and former publishing house executive Arthur Plotnik once explained the value of editing to be that, “You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside of you, and we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.”

What kinds of editing are there? There are four main types of editing, which depend largely on what stage you are in the writing process. 

Substantive Edit

This is the type of edit needed once you have emerged triumphantly from finishing the first draft of your manuscript and used that momentum to clean up glaring errors. You don’t know if the manuscript “works,” quite yet. In fact, you’re sure that some weird strand has woven its way through the pages, but you can’t see it and don’t know how to yank it out of your story.

If you are like many writers, the happy veneer of finishing a first draft has worn off, and you can barely glance at the work again without wincing.

I like to call the substantive edit the “ugly duckling phase,” when you can see the beginnings of something really special if you look past all those feathers and honking noises, but it is going to take a lot of time and work to get it looking swan-like.

Substantive editing picks apart the structure of a story: exposition of plot/information, order of events, form, character development and thematic elements. If this stage of editing were a jigsaw puzzle, you would be flipping paragraphs and chapters around, figuring out where they best fit — and how the transitions work between patches of colour. It honestly is where the big picture of the narrative puzzle comes together.

Deletion is an important part of this stage, and can be difficult for many people. William Faulkner is famously quoted as having said that writers have to kill their darlings. Those characters, plot events, descriptions and formats we love? Yes, those are your darlings. The substantive edit phase is a great time to give those the axe – and having someone else put them under the blade is the best way to strengthen your story.

Stylistic Edit

You have a solid second or third draft of a manuscript which has been rewritten and revised into the order you know is right for your story. It’s a good draft, but you want to make it great.

Stylistic editing (also known as a line edit) makes the writing an enjoyable read: establishing the necessary voice and tone, clarifying meaning, refining language and diction. I tend to add some copy editing into this phase as well, depending on the client.

At this stage, I spend time asking “Does this make sense?” or “Would this character use those words, or say it another way?” A good editor is able to read the work completely immersed in not just the story, but the reader’s experience and expectations of the story.

Copy Edit

Your manuscript is now at the third-draft stage, having been read by someone else and extensively revised and refined. You’re actually starting to get sick of this project a little.

Copy editing covers accuracy, consistency and quality: grammar, spelling, punctuation, stylistic consistency, correcting information and asking questions to check accuracy.

Call it nit-picking if you like, but the devil’s in the details. Do you want the reader to stay in your story, or stumble on your missteps? Nothing pulls them out more than incorrect geographical references, spelling mistakes and misuse of punctuation. Having professionally trained eyes read your work at this stage is critical. This is often the work that corporations, large companies and organizations will hire editors to do, because they know polishing their written material makes a huge difference in the end product.

Proofread

Your manuscript has been designed is ready for publishing, but you need one final read-through to make sure it is absolutely perfect. I can say from experience that spellcheck will only take you so far, my friend.

Proofreading examines the material after layout (once a graphic designer has put together its final format) to correct any errors in textual and visual elements. Design consistency, minor mechanical errors, page numbering, etc., are reviewed at this stage. It’s the final polish to getting your manuscript shining like a new coin.

Beyond the red pen

You can have a professional help you with one or all of these phases in the publishing process. Depending on your writing experience, it might be more valuable to have an editor work with you at the beginning, helping craft the piece into the shape you need it to take on. Or if you have a fact-based story and have been fastidious about revisions, maybe you engage someone for copy editing and proofreading.

But a huge added value that many editors offer is moral support. Writing is a maddeningly complicated art form, fraught with all sorts of traps and hang-ups. Having someone who can talk you through the low valleys and celebrate ascending those heights validates the emotional journey of writing. Sharing the trip makes it that much more enjoyable.