Editing is the preparation of written material for publication. It’s a critical part of the writing process that shapes a rough draft into a polished final piece.
Editing serves multiple purposes: to fix mistakes, clarify the message, cut down (or build up) text to meet a specified word count, change the writing’s tone, make it fit particular constraints, and hone language for an intended audience.
Learning how to be a good editor will make you a better writer overall. Knowing how to effectively edit another writer’s work gives you an “insider look” at what’s behind well-developed pieces. This is because having an editing mindset teaches you how to step into the perspective of a reader. It can also make the writing process feel faster: Instead of thinking “What’s next?” after each stage, you’ll be able to follow a clear mental map of the journey from brainstorming to publishing. This will also make you better at editing your own work, as we explain later.
Before you uncap your red pen and get to work, familiarize yourself with the different types of editing and some editing best practices.
Types of editing
There are seven distinct ways you can edit a piece of writing. Some pieces require multiple types of editing—possibly all seven! While there are seven types of editing, in the professional editing world it’s rare for seven editors to be involved in one piece—it’s more common for one person or a small team to carry out all of these steps.
Developmental editing takes place at the earliest stage of the writing process. It examines “big picture” components like the piece’s overall vision and message, and whether they’re clear throughout. With developmental editing, the goal is to assess how to present the writing in a clear way that effectively conveys its goals. If you’re developmentally editing a fiction work, part of this stage also involves inspecting if certain genre elements align with what readers will expect from the story.
Structural editing, also known as evaluation editing, is similar to developmental editing in that it also examines your writing’s organization. The difference here is that with structural editing, the editor specifically examines how the piece’s structure works to communicate its message, rather than whether it communicates the message effectively overall. Like developmental editing, structural editing zooms out, taking a macroscopic look at the writing as a whole.
While developmental and structural editing look at the “big picture” of a piece, content editing is a little more granular. Content editing focuses on the effectiveness of a piece’s message. It questions if and how a piece aligns to others like it—specifically, at a magazine, brand blog, or similar publications. The content editor will scrutinize the flow and section-by-section construction of the piece and aims to improve consistency, pacing, appropriateness for the intended audience, and how individual sections present the writer’s thoughts. A content editor will also check whether a piece aligns with a brand’s standards and brand voice and tone in order to speak to a specific audience. Sometimes this also entails having SEO in mind.
Line editing is done at later stages in the writing process, when the content and structure are just about publication ready. A line editor does exactly what it sounds like they would: reads the text line by line and optimizes individual words, phrases, and sentences to deliver the strongest impact. Line editing focuses on style and how each individual element contributes to the overall purpose or effect of a piece. A shrewd line editor will refine writing with a fine-tooth comb by zeroing in on and upgrading specific words, tightening sentence structure, and honing pacing. This is where editing can resonate as more art than science.
Copy editing is editing through a more microscopic lens. It’s where you make sure mechanics are watertight—by auditing spelling, grammar, style, and punctuation. A copy editor will also enhance a text’s readability, which can involve finessing transitions, honing language to fit a specific style and audience, adhering to style conventions, and ensuring logical flow and continuity.
As the name implies, fact-checking is the process of checking the facts presented in a piece of writing to ensure they’re accurate. This can even include ensuring slang is appropriate for a specific era in a historical fiction novel or testing that math or figures are correct in a financial report. Traditionally at publishing houses or at many types of publications like newspapers and magazines, this is usually done by the copy editor. However, any editor can bring a fact-checking component to their process.
Proofreading is often the last stage before a piece is considered final. The proofreader looks at a facsimile of the finished piece in its final print-ready presentation. It’s one final pass to make sure the piece is free of grammatical mistakes, formatting issues, typographical errors, and layout inconsistencies.
How to edit any piece of writing
Editing isn’t a one-size-fits-all process. Some pieces need more—and more kinds of—editing than others to reach their publish-ready state. However, every editing job has the same goal: to make the writing as strong as it can be.
A strong piece of writing effectively achieves its author’s goals. If the author is a student whose goal is to write a compelling essay that earns an A, a strong essay is one that fits the assignment. If the author is a marketer looking to drive conversions for his e-commerce client, a strong email is one that has a high open rate and copy that results in a sale. Through thoughtful, goal-focused editing, you can take any piece of writing from unconvincing to powerful.
Before you start editing a piece of writing, identify the writer’s goals. Keep these goals in mind as you edit because they’ll determine what you’ll change and what you’ll suggest to the author for their next draft.
You’ll also want to familiarize yourself with standard proofreader’s marks, especially if you’ll be editing hard copies. These marks make it easy for the writer and any other editors with whom you’re collaborating to understand the changes you’re suggesting.
What are you editing?
The type of writing you’re editing determines the types of editing to employ. For example, if you’re editing your sister’s cover letter, you’ll probably be doing developmental and structural editing followed by line editing and proofreading. If you’re editing a press release, you’ll need to make fact-checking part of the editing process as well as content editing, copy editing, and proofreading.
Familiarize yourself with the conventions and restrictions of the type of writing you’re editing before you start. Similarly, if you’re proofreading a piece, familiarize yourself with the formatting requirements for that type of writing. For example, resumes and white papers have very different, but both very specific, formats. If it’s an academic paper, it most likely has to conform to the MLA, APA or The Chicago Manual of Style guidelines. If you’re not sure of the specifics of each, use online resources to familiarize yourself with them.
Talk to the writer
Understand the writer’s goals and process for the piece before you start editing. This communication helps you determine which type of editing you should do. For instance, you can determine to developmentally edit a rough draft or content edit a piece that’s already had larger structural kinks worked out.
The writer might ask for specific feedback, like whether the protagonist in their short story is sympathetic enough or whether the points they’re making in their critical essay are clear. They might also ask for your gut responses as a first-time reader, like whether their intro guide to HTML is too high level for beginners or whether they come across as knowledgeable in their blog post.
In some cases, the writer might tell you they’ve purposely broken certain grammar or style rules to achieve a specific effect, like guiding the reader’s eye to key points in the text or emphasizing certain themes in their work. When this is the case, your editing focus is more on clarity than grammatical correctness and your goal is to help keep the author from confusing readers when breaking conventions.
Keep the reader in mind
When you edit, always keep the piece’s eventual reader in mind. This will help you determine the appropriate tone, the proper word choice swaps to make, and the best way to organize the content. Consider things like their reading level, their familiarity with the subject, and the reason why they’re reading the piece.
A great way to assess whether a piece of writing is appropriate for its intended reader is to determine the piece’s readability—the quality of being legible and understandable by a target audience. There are many elements comprising a readability score, from sentence structures to word choice. The Grammarly Editor offers a variety of suggestions to improve the readability score for a document. If you’re writing a presentation for middle schoolers and the readability score clocks in at a college level, you know you’ve got to make some substantial edits to bring it to their reading level.
Refer to an editing checklist
With the writer’s goals and the requirements for the type of writing in mind, one way to make sure you don’t overlook anything while you’re editing is to create an editing checklist. A proofreading checklist is going to include different points than a structural editing checklist, but keep in mind most editing tasks don’t fit neatly into one of the categories listed above. This is especially true if you aren’t a professional editor and are instead your team’s go-to wordsmith.
For most editing jobs, a go-to checklist looks like this:
- Spelling mistakes
- Punctuation mistakes
- Parallel structure
- Subject-verb agreement
- Improper use of conjunctions and prepositions
- Consistent tense
- Consistent tone
- Formatting mistakes
Once you’ve got the basics of what makes a thorough editing checklist, you can edit just about anything, anywhere—even from your phone!
Editing your own work
Editing your own writing involves the same processes as editing other people’s work. The only difference is your perspective on the writing. Because you wrote the piece, you don’t have the luxury of looking at it completely objectively—which can make self-editing trickier than editing another writer’s work.
Give it time to cool off
Although you can’t completely detach yourself from your writing, you can give yourself a more objective perspective by waiting to edit it. Instead of going right into editing as soon as you’re finished writing—which you should only do in situations where you have no other choice—give it some time and let it breathe.
Ideally, close the document and don’t look at it again for another twenty-four hours. If you can wait longer, that’s even better. By letting time elapse between writing and editing your work, you’re creating distance between working with it as a writer and working with it as an editor. This space makes it easier to spot technical errors like spelling and punctuation mistakes as well as issues like logical inconsistencies and jarring shifts in tone.
For moments when you don’t have any time to spare, Grammarly’s AI-powered writing assistant will identify mistakes in spelling, grammar, punctuation, and more. The Grammarly Editor also ensures your writing is readable, clear, and concise by offering sentence structure suggestions and clarity rewrites. When you’re unsure if you’re striking the right tone, Grammarly’s tone detector helps make your writing clearer and your word choice engaging and appropriate.
Killing your darlings
When you’re editing your own work, you need to be willing to kill your darlings. If you’re not familiar with the phrase, to “kill your darlings” means to get rid of sentences, paragraphs and even whole sections of your writing that you might be proud of, but unfortunately don’t contribute to the piece’s purpose.
In a lot of cases, these “darlings” are cool pieces of imagery, profound observations, and cool ways you show off your proficiency as a writer—hence the term “darlings.” But editing is all about optimizing your writing, so if a sentence is just hanging out there and doing nothing but looking pretty, it’s got to go.
Pick the right words, not the biggest words
One thing many writers do is use longer, more complex words than necessary. Sometimes it’s an effort to appear especially educated on or authoritative about the subject they’re discussing. But in writing, bigger isn’t necessarily better. In fact, the opposite is often true; concise words and phrases tend to express points more effectively than complex ones. A writer who can express their point clearly and quickly can illuminate more for readers than writers who bog down their message with long words and intricate phrasing. When in doubt, go with the simpler word.
Solid editing is the key to great writing
Great writing doesn’t appear out of nowhere—it’s the result of a thoughtful, organized editing process. Careful editing with a piece’s goals in mind throughout can transform an unclear rough draft into a compelling and communicative work of writing. Whatever you write next, Grammarly can take your editing process to the next level—ensuring your writing is polished, clear, and as effective as possible.