The three stages of editing

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

So, you have written a document that is intended for submission or publication. Whether it is a manuscript, policy document, report or tender submission, it needs to be presented at the level expected by the publisher or target audience.

Whether it has been written only once or rewritten several times, your document is ready for the next stage if it contains all the necessary information - i.e. you are sure that you don't need to add any more chapters or sections into the document - and the author has self-edited the document so that (from their point of view) it is as clear as possible. The next stage is editing the document to the level required prior to the document being proofread. 

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.

Because the editor is focused on those broader editing corrections, it's unlikely they will notice or correct some minor errors such as mis-spelled words, missing or incorrect punctuation or inconsistencies in spelling. But that is okay because it is not the editor's role to correct minor errors; they will be corrected by the proofreader, later on.

Documents such as policies, reports or submissions usually need to be edited only once or twice by an editor, then proofread, whereas publications generally need three stages of editing prior to the proofreading stage.

Publications: the three stages of editing

When editing publications, there are usually three stages of editing: structural editing, line editing and copy editing. These stages are sometimes called different names - for example, structural editing is often referred to as developmental editing; and they sometimes overlap - for example, depending on how well the manuscript has already been self-edited, the line editing and copy editing can be done simultaneously. There might be more editing stages - for example, if there is a lot of fact-checking needed this might need to be a separate stage in the editing process. Depending on the type of manuscript, how well it has been written and how much editing is required, it may go through anywhere between two and a dozen or more edits.

Depending on the manuscript and how and where it is going to be published, one editor may complete all the editing, or different editors might carry out different editing stages.

Regardless of whether it involves one or several editors or editing stages, three drafts or twelve, it is important that the manuscript is structurally sound and the below tasks have been completed prior to the proofreading stage.

Structural editing

This is the first stage of editing, also called substantive editing or developmental editing.

For an explanation of what the structural editing stage entails 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; although  all major improvements and corrections should already have been carried out at the structural editing stage to allow the line editor to concentrate on the task of line editing. If there are complex structural issues still outstanding, the manuscript will have to be sent back to the structural editing stage.

  • Confirms the manual to be used as the main guide when editing the document; e.g. in Australia, the editor may use your organisation's style manual in conjunction with the Australian Government Style Manual. If you don't have a particular style manual you'd like to use, the editor may choose the Australian Style Manual as a general guide.

  • Creates the 'style sheet' for your publication which is used in conjunction with the main manual. The style sheet outlines the style rules not covered, or that contradict, the rules outlined in the chosen style guide. These may include items of punctuation, spelling, capitalisation of different words and instructions about fonts and headings. This style sheet is often created during the initial phase of line editing or may already have been created during the structural editing stage and it is a working document to which the editor will add 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.

Copy editing

This is the third, and often the final, stage of editing prior to the document being proofread. Copy editing and line editing are often carried out as two separate stages, by the same editor or by two different editors. Alternatively, the copy editing and line editing stages are sometimes treated as just one editing stage. Assuming the manuscript has already been line edited, the copy editor:

  • Carries out any editing tasks that have been missed or have not yet been completed, using the style sheet in conjunction with the relevant manual as their guide.

  • Corrects the minor mistakes that have been missed during the line editing stage such as errors in grammar, punctuation and spelling and minor inconsistencies; the 'extras' such as introductions, Table of Contents and Appendix items and details. 

  • Checks the accuracy of headings, chapters and numbering, captions, tables, lists, diagrams and photos; if necessary, 'fact-checking' the document unless this has been done by a previous editor. 

  • Confirms the manuscript is ready for proofreading stage.


For articles about the proofreading stage see: What is proofreading?  and Proofreading hardcopy publications

This article is based on my own experience since 1994, editing and proofreading reports, policy documents and my own and others' publications; self-publishing mainly non-fiction hardcopy 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!


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