The Four Types of Content Editing

Let’s start with one fundamental principle about editing: Every piece of writing that’s going to be more public than what you scribble on a greeting card or a Post-it note needs editing. If you’re an editor, you know this. If you’re a writer, you may believe you’ve filed the best possible draft of a story, but even if your editor loves it, she’s going to edit it—in part because nothing is perfect, but also because no writer knows the publication and its aims, needs, space constraints, art/design considerations, and quirks as intimately as the editor does.

Editors edit to:

  • Be sure the message of the piece is clear and easy to understand
  • Make the article’s tone and style match that of the publication
  • Ensure that the grammar and spelling are correct (with exceptions for style and common usage)

Here are the four basic types of editing that go into turning a writer’s draft into something public-facing:

  1. Structural editing

This is the 30,000-foot view: how does the article read? Is it engaging and informative? Does it tell a good story, in an order that makes sense? Does the lede (the opening bit) draw the reader in, and give a sense of what the story will address? Is the structure sound and organized? The editor will be asking herself: If the writer sets up a promise or expectation, is it fulfilled? Are any portions of the piece thinly sketched out? Repetitive? Confusing? Does the piece end on a satisfying or thought-provoking or funny or interesting note? This is the stage in which the editor might be keeping a list of questions to go back to the writer with, or things to investigate herself. She may also evaluate whether the work would benefit from being considerably shorter, or possibly longer if questions are raised but not addressed. She may also wonder if some parts of the article might be better presented in a box or sidebar.

  1. Line editing

This is when the editor gets into the nitty gritty of addressing specific issues that jumped out at her during the first read. Some editors do both structural and line editing in one go, or in a couple of passes, and being able to edit while thinking globally about the piece is a nice skill to have, particularly if there’s a time crunch. As an editor works through the line edits, she may:

  • Move sections around. During that first read, the editor may have felt that the lede wasn’t quite right, that the first paragraph or paragraphs of the story amounted to what some call “throat clearing”: a kind of dancing around the topic. This isn’t most writers’ fault; a writer is often so close to the material it’s hard for her to see, when she’s done, that those first experimental lines could go without being missed. Maybe the better lede is lurking somewhere in paragraph three. Or perhaps the piece takes too long to get to the real meat of what the reader wants to know, which requires a re-ordering of facts and information within the story.
  • Add subheadings. When a reader faces a wall of text, whether in print or on a screen, it can feel like sitting in front of an enormous meal. Breaking up a piece with subheads that separate parts of a story into logical sections is like dividing that meal into digestible courses. The writer may have suggested subheads, but the editor may decide that the piece would be better served with more or fewer subheadings, or with the order of them changed. It’s the editor’s job to write subheads that match the publication’s tone, whether that means something punny and clever, or something straightforward and SEO-friendly.
  • Massage language. This is where the editor might work to vary sentence types and lengths, choose different words (particularly if a writer has a tendency to rely on certain pet words and phrases), paraphrase quotes if the person quoted has gotten too technical or clinical, and work on transitions (the way the prose connects one idea or part of the article to the next without sounding clunky or abrupt). The skill an editor needs most here is to improve the piece’s tone without losing the writer’s voice.
  • Address larger grammatical issues. Really deep grammatical parsing happens in a copy edit, but there’s plenty of overlap between a line edit and a copy edit, so at this stage the editor will certainly take care of obvious grammatical errors, such as subject-verb agreement and consistency in tenses.
  1. Copy editing

This is when a true grammar nerd’s heart sings! Even an otherwise edited article should undergo a copy edit—urgency dependent on how thorough the line edit was. Really sharp copy editors are worth their weight in gold. What the copy editor does:

  • Correct grammar and spelling errors, as well as any typos that may have slipped through (and an important note here: they always slip through; it’s human nature, which is why you need more than one human to comb through copy before it’s printed or posted online). Most editors know the basic rules of grammar, but copy editors bring the A game here. Despite what you may have heard, a good copy editor isn’t a pedant or an absolutist about “perfect” grammar. Language is a living, changing thing, and there are rules that can be broken to preserve the writer’s voice, match the tone of the publication, or help make a point. But regardless, no one wants to see dangling modifiers or a misuse of the subjunctive tense.
  • Do basic fact-checking. A copy editor’s job isn’t to doublecheck statistics cited in an article or the accuracy of quotes (some pubs have fact checkers for that job, in others it’s the main editor’s job along with the writer), but she will check that names of associations are correct (for example, it’s the National Institutes of Health, not the National Institute of Health); that proper names of people and places, movies or books, and the like are correct and correctly cited.
  • Check for errors in continuity and flow. The line editor (again, this may be the same person, just doing two different tasks either concurrently or subsequently) may have moved some prose around that left an expert’s quote floating in the wrong place or introduced other errors that a copy editor’s keen eye will pick up on.
  • Be sure the copy adheres to a publication’s style guide. A copy editor should know if the publication follows certain universally accepted style guides, such as the AP Stylebook, the New York Times Manual of Style, or the Chicago Manual of Style, which govern such things as how and when a publication abbreviates place names or lists times and dates or punctuates bulleted lists. The copy editor will also work with the publication’s own style guide, for specific instructions on how that pub handles things like whether all the words in a title or subhead are capitalized, or whether the pub uses the word or the symbol for percent/%. A style guide can be as short as a one-pager, or as dizzying as a 100-page manual.
  1. Production and proofreading

Once an article is all spiffed up, it goes into the design phase. This varies hugely, of course, depending on whether it’s for print or online. But let’s look at a printed piece: A graphic designer takes the copy and flows it into a layout, and an editor’s eye is needed again at this point to see how it’s all fitting. Designers are magic people who can usually make copy work within the defined space of the page or pages set aside for it, but there are times a story is too short, or too long (too long is far more common!), and an editor needs to make some decisions about where to cut for fit. Maybe a sidebar or box is looking wonky and would benefit from being re-tooled into bullet points rather than running text. Maybe a quote can be pulled out of the story and designed onto the page to draw the reader’s eye in and break up a wall of text. All these things are done by an editor in this stage.

When that’s all done, proofreading happens. Ideally, this is handled by someone other than the editor who’s been shepherding this copy around since it was just a baby story. It’s very common for even the most eagle-eyed editor to have glossed over a forlorn typo that’s been lurking in the piece from the beginning or (more likely) got introduced in later phases. Maybe you quickly retyped something in the design phase and it now reads hopsital instead of hospital. A proofreader isn’t reading for content, and certainly not for fun. She’s reading in a careful, often slow, and deliberate way so that any errors will hopefully leap off the page. The proofer checks page numbers, headers and footers, photo captions, pull quotes – all for a combination of accuracy and consistency.

And the final step? Hoping the readers enjoy it, learn something, take some action you’re nudging them toward, or just close the magazine and think, “what a great piece.”


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