The three stages of editing

If you have written a document – whether it’s a report, policy, website, blog article or fiction or non-fiction manuscript – intended for publication, it needs to be presented at the level expected by 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 for the next stage of editing.

But what is editing?

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 editing stages involved to bring your document to the stage where it is ready for graphic design and/or publication.

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 three stages of editing plus graphic design and proofreading.

Three stages of editing

There are three main 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. Depending on how well the document has been self-edited and structurally edited, there may not be any need for a separate line-editing stage. But most manuscripts intended for publication need three or more editing ‘passes’ to bring them to the stage where they are ready for graphic design.

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 how many editing stages, or ‘passes’, are needed, it is important that your document is structurally sound and the below tasks have been completed prior to being submitted or sent to graphic design.

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

Copy editing

This is usually the final stage of editing prior to the document being either submitted or sent to graphic design. Assuming the manuscript has already been line edited, the copy editor:

  • Carries out any editing tasks that have been missed or not yet 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; with a careful eye on the ‘extras’ such as introductions, Table of Contents, Appendix items and other details; a well as captions, tables, lists and diagrams.
  • Confirms the document is ready for graphic design or submission.


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

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

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