The 4 Different Editorial Passes and How to Tell Them Apart

4 main editorial passes

I see a LOT of job ads that say something along the lines of:

I need a proofreader to edit and proofread my document.”

Hold up.

Editing and proofreading are not one and the same. In fact, editing is a vague term that can mean a couple of different things. Sometimes people even use the term “editing” to mean “proofreading.”

Do you know the difference between editing and proofreading?

If not, you have come to the right place. In this article I am going to explain the 4 main editorial passes—substantive editing, line editing, copyediting, and proofreading—so that you can determine what your writing needs when it comes time to hire an editor or proofreader.

As you read about the 4 main editorial passes below, think about the shape of a funnel. From big-picture concepts to the most minute of details, your writing should be edited in the following order:

Substantive Editing

Often referred to as developmental editing, substantive editing is the first phase of the editorial process.

As I alluded above, substantive editing vets overarching concepts. This will look slightly different depending on whether your work is fiction (follows a storyline) or nonfiction (for informational purposes), but of course, substantive editing is necessary in either case.

Your substantive editor seeks to answer the following:

  • Does your argument or storyline follow an internal logic?
  • Are there obvious inconsistencies or plot holes?
  • Is there a clear, organized structure?
  • Are the ideas and/or characters well-developed?
  • Are there scenes or argumentative points that should be rearranged?

Your substantive editor does not check for grammar, spelling, or punctuation, which are issues that can and should be solved later, once the important concepts are in place.

Line Editing

What sounds like a country dance is the first step toward getting the details right. Your substantive editor has made sure that your content follows a clear structure and that there are no obvious inconsistencies.

Your line editor will now take the reins to examine the text line by line. He or she will make sure that your voice (writing style) is consistent throughout.

If your text is fictional, your line editor will also pay attention to characterization and dialogue to make sure that actions and words are consistent and not out-of-character.

If your text is expository, your line editor will help make your ideas as concise as possible while staying true to your individual voice as a writer.

In either case, your line editor will work to make your prose as engaging and effective as possible by avoiding repetition, clichés, or vague words and phrases.

Copyediting

Your writing has been restructured by your substantive editor and your style has been refined by your line editor. We are getting closer to the nitty-gritty, but before proofreading, copyediting is an essential cog in the editorial wheel.

A copyeditor will check for:

  • Grammar
  • Spelling
  • Punctuation
  • Misused words (such as homonyms)
  • Repetition or missing words
  • Formatting and layout issues

Although this list is non-exhaustive (and please consider ALL that comes under the umbrella of grammar alone!), you will be so glad to have someone correct the above points for you.

The truth is, leaving these mistakes in your writing is detrimental to your message. So many writers do not have the time, the patience, or sometimes even the know-how in order to escape many of these common mistakes.

In addition, writers almost never have enough distance between themselves and their own writing to be able to spot these issues! A copyeditor is therefore a crucial step in the editorial process, but we’re not done, yet.

Proofreading

Last but certainly not least, we have the proofreading pass. At its core, proofreaders exist to ensure that your writing is perfect for publication.

The proofreader checks that the copyeditor’s suggestions were made. If the copyeditor ensures that the line editor’s suggestions were made, and the line editor ensures that the substantive editor’s suggestions were made, then the proofreader is your last line of defense to ensure that basically, all the changes through each of the prior editorial passes were made!

As the final stage of editing, proofreading is essential. Major issues have already been fixed in prior passes. Your proofreader will not suggest changes that would affect the big picture, but he or she will find and fix every last niggly typo and anything that the copyeditor might have missed in the list above.

Do not skip this stage! You would be surprised at how many mistakes make it through three rounds of editing. Your proofreader will eliminate all of them so that your ideas shine through without any distracting errors.

You can now publish with confidence!

What type of editing do you need?

I hope this article helped to demystify the different editorial passes for you. Now you know, from big picture to fine details, the revisions you can expect an editor or proofreader to bring to your cherished work.

One last misconception I would like to clear up is another related question I often get asked by those who have already gone through (or skipped entirely) the substantive editing and line editing phases:

Can you copyedit and proofread my document in one pass?

The answer is no. Copyediting and proofreading are each its own distinct editorial pass. I have already spelled out the differences for you above, so you can see that it makes no sense to proofread something that hasn’t already been copyedited.

That being said, the two go hand-in-hand. It is not out of the question to hire the same person for copyediting and proofreading services—although I really recommend that this person is not your substantive- or line editor, because it always helps to have a third pair of eyes on your work by someone else who supports your vision and can check that the substantive/line edits were made successfully.

But just because you want the same person to do your copyediting and proofreading, don’t forget that these are still two separate passes.

I cannot understate the necessity of both the copyediting pass and the proofreading pass. Now you might be thinking:

But Jessica, I thought you only offered proofreading?

Well, yes and no. If your project needs copyediting too, I got you. Contact me today about a quote for both copyediting and proofreading.

Maybe now you’re thinking:

Okay, Jessica, you can handle my copyediting and proofreading. But what about substantive- and line editing?

If you are in these earlier phases of the editorial process, don’t worry—I can refer you to an editor. We can go over your writing together and determine the best plan of action.

Cheers to making your writing the best it can be! And if you have any questions at all about the editorial process, do not hesitate to write to me.

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