No doubt, you’ve struggled with some of these situations before:

  • Program staff who are supposed to be reviewing for accuracy instead want to argue with your punctuation choices.
  • Your executive director pulls the plug on an appeal letter right before the package is supposed to go to print because “it doesn’t sound like me.”
  • Five people look at the newsletter and not one of them, including you, catches the typo in the headline.
  • You spend more time managing review cycles than actually creating content.
  • Sometimes those review cycles go on for so long that the content is no longer timely and you scrap it entirely (or still send it out, knowing that it’s completely irrelevant).

One of the first steps to having a productive conversation with your coworkers about how to avoid these situations is to educate them about the different levels of editing. I like to break editing into three levels.

1. Substantive Editing AKA the “Big Picture” or Structural Editing

When you are responsible for the substantive or “big picture” edit, it’s your job to make the sure overall message and tone are right.  Is this what we want to say and do we want to say it in this way? Will this make sense to the reader and have the desired effect on them? You’ll likely move sentences and even whole paragraphs around to get the points made in the right order or to strengthen the dramatic, emotional, or persuasive elements in the piece.

2. Copyediting AKA Sentence and Paragraph Level Editing

After decisions about overall organization, message, tone, and style have been made, you can move on to copyediting. This is both a paragraph and sentence level edit. You’ll be editing to create clear and concise sentences and to ensure that those sentences flow well together into paragraphs. If your writers tend to overuse certain phrases or write sentences that are all the same length, you’d work on those problems in the copyediting phase. You are editing for flow, continuity, and consistency.  You may also be editing for technical accuracy.

3. Proofreading AKA Word Level Editing

When you are responsible for proofreading, you are looking for typos and mistakes in grammar, punctuation, and spelling. You are also the final check on any inconsistencies with your style guide or internal inconsistencies in the document that have been overlooked (e.g. referring to the same person as Robert in one paragraph and Rob in another). Depending on the document, you might also be looking for oddities in the design, such as an awkward line or page break.

Using the Three Levels of Editing

These three levels can overlap. And you may have more than one person doing each kind of editing.

You may need some quick copyediting and proofreading before you get leadership involved in the big picture editing (no one wants to show the boss something that is truly half-baked and full of typos). But keep that kind of editing to the minimum until the substantive editing is done. You should really do your editing in the order above with little backtracking. It doesn’t make any sense at all to waste time on making the right word choice and getting every bit of punctuation correct if you are still working on substantive editing, where you are most likely to have major re-writes. You’ll just have to do all of the work over again.

Who does what? It really depends. But not everyone should have carte blanche editing rights on everything. It’s just inefficient and wreaks havoc on your content creation and review process. Help people understand the levels of editing, and then assign those to specific people just like any other role or responsibility on a communications project.