The three stages of editing

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

So you or your staff has 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 won't be adding any more chapters or sections into the document
  • the writer or writers have self-edited the document to make it as clear and error-free as possible.

The next stage is editing the document to the level required prior to the proofreading stage. There may be one or more editors involved.

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 the publisher. The editor corrects the grammar, spelling, punctuation and formatting although because they are focused on the broader task of editing, it is acceptable for an editor to not notice or correct minor errors such as mis-spelled words or missing or incorrect punctuation.

There are at least 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. The stages of editing sometimes overlap; for example, line editing and copy editing might be done simultaneously. Other editing stages may be necessary; for example, fact-checking might be carried out by the copy editor or might comprise a separate stage in the editing process. Depending on the type of document, how well it has been written and how much editing work is required, the document may go through anywhere between three and a dozen or more edits or drafts.

Depending on the type of document, audience, and whether or where the document is going to be published, one editor may complete the whole editing process, or each stage of editing might be carried out by a different editor.

Regardless of whether the document involves one or several editors, several editing stages or one all-encompassing editing stage, three drafts or twelve, it is important that below structural, line and copy editing tasks are completed prior to the proofreading stage.

Structural editing

This is the first stage of editing. The structural editor:

  • confirms the manual or manuals to be used as a guide when editing the document; for example, the editor may use an organisation's style manual in conjunction with the Australian Government Style Manual
  • produces a 'style sheet' to determine any extra style rules required for the document. These may include rules about punctuation, spelling or capitalisation of certain words and instructions for fonts and headings. This style sheet is developed and used in conjunction with the other manual or manuals
  • views the document as a whole and with the target audience in mind whilst editing the document
  • depending on the agreement or relationship with the client, either edits the document as they see fit without seeking approval for specific major changes or corrections, or seeks the client's approval in regard to any major changes or corrections
  • if necessary, rewrites sentences or paragraphs, moves them to different positions or deletes them, where doing so clearly improves the document
  • makes major corrections or improvements where required; this might include moving chapters or sections to different locations, creating new chapter sections, rewriting sections, creating tables of contents; or requesting the writer to write new sections such as appendices, introductions or additional chapters, and inserting those into the document
  • corrects grammar, spelling and punctuation, although because the structural editor's focus is broad and on the 'bigger picture' of the whole text, many of these errors will inevitably escape their notice.

Line editing

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

  • if required, carries out any structural editing tasks which have not been completed; although ideally, all major improvements and corrections will have been carried out at the structural editing stage thereby allowing the line editor to concentrate on the task of line editing
  • uses the style sheet in conjunction with the relevant manual or manuals as their guide when editing
  • corrects grammar, spelling and punctuation;
  • rewrites sentences or paragraphs, moves sentences or paragraphs to different positions, or deletes text, where doing so clearly improves the document.

Copy editing

This is the final stage of editing prior to the document being proofread. Copy editing and line editing are often carried out as two separate stages, one after the other, by one or more editors. Alternatively, the copy editing and line editing tasks are sometimes treated as one broad stage and completed simultaneously. The copy editor:

  • carries out any line editing tasks that have been missed or have not yet been completed
  • uses the style sheet in conjunction with the relevant manual or manuals as their guide when editing
  • corrects the mistakes that will inevitably have been missed during the line editing stage; most of these will be errors in grammar, punctuation and spelling
  • checks the accuracy of headings, captions, tables, lists, diagrams and photos; and depending on the document which may or may not require 'fact-checking', fact-check the document if this has not already been done by a previous editor.


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

This article is based on my own experience over the past 20 years, 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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