The three stages of editing

Sally-Anne Watson Kane . Saturday, March 19, 2016 . Comments
The three stages of editing

If you have written a document - whether it's a report, policy or fiction or non-fiction manuscript - intended for publication, it needs to suit the needs of your target audience.

Whether you have self-edited it once or several times, if your document contains all the necessary information and you are satisfied that it is as clear as possible, it is ready to be edited by a professional editor. 

The editor's role

Generally speaking, the editor's role is to make any corrections or improvements necessary to ensure the document is presented consistently and at the standard expected by the target audience or publisher. The editor may correct the structure and always corrects the grammar, spelling, punctuation and formatting. There may be one or more editors and editing stages involved to bring your document to the stage where it is ready for graphic design and/or publication. For more information go to: The editor's role.

Depending on how well they have been written and self-edited, policies or reports may only need to be edited by a professional editor once or twice, whereas books usually need two or three stages of editing plus graphic design and proofreading.

The three stages of editing

There are three main stages of editing: structural editing, line editing and copy editing. These are sometimes called different names - for example, structural editing is often referred to as 'developmental editing', and writers sometimes refer to copy editing as 'proofreading'. Editors call each time they edit a document - that is, each stage - a 'pass'. How many editing passes are needed depends on how well the document has been self-edited by the writer and whether it is structurally sound. 

Reports usually need one or two editing passes: line editing to correct grammar, spelling and punctuation and consistency of style, then copy editing to ensure there are minor errors remaining in the document. Manuscripts intended for publication usually need two or more editing passes to bring them to the stage where they are ready for graphic design; for example, structural editing, line editing (one or more passes) and copy editing. One editor may complete all the editing, or different editors might carry out different editing passes.

Regardless of how many editing passes are needed, it is important that the below tasks have been completed or 'ticked off' by the editor prior to the next stage.

Structural editing

This is the first stage of editing, also called substantive editing or developmental editing. For more information go to: Structural editing

Line editing

This is the second stage of editing. The line editor:

  • Identifies any structural issues which may still need to be addressed; if there are structural issues still outstanding, the document may need to be edited structurally again.

  • Uses the chosen manual as a guide when editing the document.

  • Continues to develop the 'style sheet' for your publication which has been created during the structural editing stage. The style sheet outlines the style rules not covered, or that contradict, the rules outlined in the chosen style guide. These rules may be about punctuation, spelling, capitalisation of different words, and instructions about fonts and headings. This style sheet is a working document to which the editor adds new items as they arise.

  • Corrects the manuscript where doing so eradicates errors or clearly improves the document. Corrects grammar, spelling and punctuation. Where appropriate, rewrites sentences or paragraphs, moves sentences or paragraphs to different positions, or deletes text. Consults with the writer where appropriate.

  • If necessary, fact-checks the document including checking the accuracy of all information in captions, references, quotes etc.

  • Ensures every word in the whole document has been checked or corrected; when editing manuscripts this will include all 'extras' such as half-page information, blurb, the cover, table of contents, introductions etc.

  • May need to put the document through more than one editing pass to bring it to the stage where it is ready for copy editing.

Copy editing

This is the final stage of editing prior to the document being either submitted or sent to graphic design. Some writers refer to copy editing as 'proofreading' because the copy editor's role is to correct the minor errors remaining in the document which is similar to, although not the same as, the role of the proofreader. 

Assuming the document is structurally sound and all the tasks mentioned above have already been addressed in previous editing passes, the copy editor:

  • Also uses the style sheet in conjunction with the relevant manual as their guide.

  • Corrects the occasional grammatical mistakes, or words that need suggestions for improvement, that have been missed during the previous editing passes.

  • Corrects errors in punctuation and spelling and ensures consistency in the whole document including 'extras', captions, tables, lists, diagrams etc.

  • Confirms the document is ready for the next stage. For reports, the next stage is submission for approval; for manuscripts, the next stage is graphic design.


After a manuscript has been copy edited and been typeset by a graphic designer, it will need to be proofread. For information about proofreading go to: 

This article is based on my own experience for over 20 years, editing and proofreading reports, policy documents and publications; self-publishing hard copy publications; and publishing my website and articles online. Keep posted for future articles about editors and editing, proofreaders and proofreading.


Copyright Sally-Anne Watson Kane, On Time Typing. Please seek my permission prior to reproducing this article in any way but feel free to link directly to this page if you wish to use this content - thanks!


Was our advice helpful? We'd love to hear your feedback below

« Back to Blog