Choosing the editing you need
Use this page to decide which level of editing service is right for you. Copyediting? Line editing? Structural editing? A full rewrite? (Bonus: If you don't use Shorewalker DMS, this page will still help you to tell another editor what you really want.) By David Walker.
Shorewalker DMS offers a wide range of editorial service levels. That's because editing is not one thing. When you decide you need editing, you also need to decide: "Which sort of editing do I need".
This page sets out the different kinds of editing task, and what you buy with each sort of editing. These tasks make up a spectrum. At one end is the final check known as proofreading. At the other end is the sort of intensive structural edit that leaves few paragraphs untouched.
To better understand our work, Shorewalker DMS has collected data on the speed of different editing tasks. As well as our own internal data, we have speeds for a number of respected outside editors. These different sources give us surprisingly consistent information.
The biggest surprise: the average proofread can differ from an intensive structural edit by a factor of ...
Yes, a tough structural edit on a complex issue can easily take 20 times as long as a final check of the same item. It typically also requires greater skill.
What do you need?
Because material can be edited in all sorts of ways, Shorewalker DMS will take some effort to establish just what level of editing you want and need. The broad categories are set out below: proofreading, copyediting, line editing, structural editing. Beyond the end of the editing spectrum comes the complete rewrite, which we also offer. (You will also typically need its key messages condensed, for when you must explain it to people who don't have time to read it all.)
It's worth noting that the editing categories below do not follow any agreed industry standard. Editing currently has no standard set of terms. The word "editing" and its variations are used loosely by editors and clients alike.
Shorewalker DMS uses terminology that we believe is the most common and best understood, based partly on a classification developed by Editors Canada. Our terminology also aligns with data we have collected on editing speeds. But other firms may use the same terms to mean different things, or use different terms to mean the same things.
After reading this page, you will probably still have questions about just what level of work your material needs. So talk to us. Our 15-minute consultation is free and can help you understand much better what your options are.
Proofreading is generally the simplest check you can request on a document. It typically happens when you have the final designed text. It is material that you do not expect to alter once proofreading changes are complete.
In proofreading, an expert checks the final, design-complete print or electronic document for uncorrected faults in:
- style guide compliance
Proofreading usually does not involve proactive improvements to the structure of the document.
The document should be edited before it is proofed. That's partly because at this stage, extra design work will be needed for any changes that do more than correct errors.
And the proofreader should ideally be a different person from the editor, because the proofreading is ideally done with fresh eyes.
When you have specialist material – be it in business, science, a professional field or something else – then you should aim for a proofreader with deep experience in that speciality.
Needed for proofreading
To start work, a proofreader needs:
- your text, usually in Microsoft Word format (although Shorewalker DMS can convert it from a wide range of other formats where necessary)
- the style guide or guides from which your authors have worked
- an agreed deadline.
Editing usually implies more intervention than just proofreading. Editors always look for the things that proofreaders check – spelling, grammar, punctuation, formatting. But then they go further – sometimes much further. Often they will communicate with the author multiple times during the editing process. They actively suggest how content might be changed to, among other things:
- better convey your meaning
- make your document easier to understand
- make it more enjoyable to read.
Determining the extent of editing is an important part of the editing process.
Needed for editing
Editing assignments must start with an understanding of the client's overall needs and aspirations for the document. At Shorewalker DMS, we'll ask you to answer the questions in our Project Start Worksheet. This will give us a head start in understanding issues such as:
- the size of the project
- the key reader groups – that is, its audiences
- the document's purpose for the organisation and the audiences
- who we will work with in the organisation
- any previous documents you've already produced.
Your editor will also need everything a proofreader needs – your text, your style guide, and a deadline.
Copyedit (or light edit)
A copyedit is one where the text is already in near-final shape; now you need someone to give it a light polish before it is proofed and sent for publication. This is sometimes referred to as a "light edit". It is akin to the work that newspaper copyeditors do when reporters file their stories.
Our data suggests that in some cases, a light edit can take not much more time than proofreading. It also typically sharply reduces the time taken for proofreading and the last-minute changes needed. That result makes sense: both tasks share many challenges. Typically both a proofread and a light edit will correct grammar, spelling and major style guide compliance issues.
In an edit, though, sentences will typically be cleaned up and tightened.
A light edit will make your copy flow better and ensure the reader doesn't trip up on mistakes and inconsistencies. If the text overall doesn't make sense, polishing its grammar and spelling won't save it. But for already well-shaped copy, this is a good solution.
Line edit (or medium edit)
In this style of edit, editor and client agree that the material needs something beyond the mere polish of a copyedit: it's more like bare wood in need of proper finishing. It needs to gain coherence, readability and flow:
- Language needs to be more readable. We will eliminate jargon and complication to make the text more readable.
- Paragraphs will sometimes need rewriting.
- Graphics text may need to be edited.
- References and some statements will be checked.
This sort of work makes documents easier to read and typically produces a sharp improvement in the document's automated readability scores.
What a line edit won't do is improve the structure of the document. For that, you need a still heavier edit.
Structural edit (or heavy edit)
Here the level of intervention rises again. Structural edits untangle and recombine the main elements of the document. Or to use our furniture analogy again: in a structural edit, you don't just add a layer of finishing. You get out the drills, clamps and saw.
In a structural edit, the editor will start by assessing the following:
- Contentions – Are the hypotheses and arguments relevant and clearly signalled, or are they tangled up with other points?
- Exposition – Does the document explain its contentions in an understandable way? Are they well researched and properly supported? Do they have a clear relationship with the contentions?
- Balance – Does the document deal with the full range of topics that need addressing? Does it deal with them all at appropriate length, and not more?
- Organisation – Are the contentions and the exposition organised logically? If the document is a written document, do the headings guide readers through the material?
- Multimedia – Are tables, illustrations, video aand audio used appropriately?
- Tone – Is the way that the document says thing the write way for its audiences?
- Pace – Are some passages that are bogged down in unnecessary detail? Do any areas need further exposition?
After that assessment – and usually in consultation with the author – the editor may:
- restructure and move material to clarify themes and improve logical structure
- rewrite many sentences and paragraphs to improve coherence and flow
- change the order of sections
- sharply condense or even delete material
- suggest adding new material
- advise on changing or introducing graphics.
To do such work, the editor will need specialist domain knowledge as well as an ability to create a consensus with the original author about the need for change.
This is the most interventionist work that can be done on a document. It often happens when a client is dissatisfied with the work already done, or when the project's drivers shift. It requires a close understanding of the entire editorial project. Typically the client project manager takes a greater role in consulting with the Shorewalker DMS writer/editor during the assessment phase.
After the document assessment, the editor/writer may:
- assess other work done on the topic
- revise most of the text
- delete entire sections
- change the word count very substantially
- conduct desktop research to fill gaps in the document's logic
- work with a new domain expert to check and revise the original author's work and any new material.
A rewrite can be a powerful way to rescue a project that has produced unsatisfactory drafts. It can capitalise on what has already been produced, while reframing it with additional material. The original author may or may not be heavily involved. Parts of the document may be scrapped and other parts written entirely anew. The document's readability scores will usually improve substantially.
On one recent occasion – and with the client's enthusiastic agreement – we cut a document's original material by three-quarters. At the same time we added extensive new material. The result was a document half its original length, easily understandable and targeted at the people who would make a final decision on the issue which the document addressed.
Rewriting is a substantial part of Shorewalker DMS's practice. Some of our happiest clients are those who, with our involvement, were able to rescue a project which they had thought might need to be written off.
Key message content
Once completed, documents typically need to be presented to the outside world. Some will get a full media launch, complete with press kit, prepared media schedules and their own web site. But even a confidential document prepared for a small group of executives will require speaking notes and perhaps a presentation pack. Almost every document worth editing for impact will also need high-impact ways to retell its key messages.
The starting point for these pieces of content is usually a key messages document. This lists the main points in the document, for use in all sorts of ways:
- an executive summary for the document itself
- live presentations, including speeches, online events and board briefings
- social media material for channels such as Twitter
- video for online and presentational use
- media releases
- publicity emails for various audience groups
- updating of web sites
- and more.
The editor is often the best person to prepare the key messages, and may be an ideal collaborator in producing the spin-off material. A good editor will focus on identifying and raising the impact of these key messages as they do their editing work. (Shorewalker DMS's principal, David Walker, has written such key message documents for private and government clients. David has also attended board meetings, written speeches and prepared media material for a wide variety of organisations.)
Your document may also need services such as:
- detailed fact-checking
- checking of references and citations
- creation of a style guide
Making your choice
The best way to understand your needs is to talk with Shorewalker DMS.