What is editing? How can I avoid embarrassing copy-editing errors? Review research and scholarship on editing. Avoid embarrassing and potentially costly copy-editing errors. Earn higher grades in school and promotions at work.

What is Editing?

Editing is the act of critically reviewing your text word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence in order to

  • make sure your text is as simple, brief, clear, informative, and persuasive as possible
  • ensure your work meets the conventions of Standard Written English
  • evaluate whether your text expresses the style of writing (including, e.g., tone, voice, and personna) you wish to express
  • double-check past patterns of error your readers (teachers, supervisors, clients) have mentioned?

Editing is crucial to composing—a vital step in the composing process. When a writer . . . fails to edit an important text in a school-based or work-based context, the audiences may not be able to understand the text. Worse yet, the audiences are likely to question the writer’s . . . professionalism and work ethic.

Your ability to edit is tied to your literary history, including e.g., what you’ve read, how people have responded to your writing in the past, the dialect of the language you speak, and your knowledge of styles of writing and language conventions.

Once you believe a draft conveys the basic information you want your readers to understand, you can begin attacking it at the sentence level. After working hard to develop the substance of a message, you may be weary of it and eager to turn it over to your readers. If possible, set the draft aside and work on another assignment before trying to edit it.

Editing vs. Revision

Editing processes overlap with revision processes. What one writer might call editing another might call revision. However, in Writing Studies, subject matter experts make distinctions between editing and revision.

The primary difference between editing and revision concerns scale. When revising, writer . . . consider big picture matters such as whether the text addresses the constraints and affordances of the rhetorical context. In contrast, editing considers more detailed, more local concerns such as diction and sentence-level matters.

[ Global Perspective | Local Perspective ]

Another distinction between editing and revision concerns focus. When revising, writers. . . are still grappling with what they want to say whereas during editing writers have come to peace with the text as it’s developed thus far; they believe it’s as good as they can do with the amount of time they have and the importance of the task.

When editing writers. . . are focused on eliminating or refining existing content. Editing processes are more rule-bound than revising processes. So, for example, when a writer keeps the gist of the sentence the same but edits for brevity, they are editing. In contrast, when they throw away the first three of four pages they wrote as non responsive to the needs of their intended audience, that’s revision.

Editing is a form of procedural knowledge: it involves taking the declarative knowledge of style and applying that knowledge to editing practices. For example, writers use their declarative knowledge of grammar conventions to edit run-on sentences and sentence fragments. They may use their knowledge of mechanics to edit errors of modification and parallelism. And so on.

Editing vs. Proofreading

The terms proofreading and copyediting are often used synonymously with editing. However, subject matter experts may view proofreading as a more limited process. Proofing, proofreading, copy editing—these actions involve conforming to Standard English conventions. In contrast, people also edit to create a style that is unique to them. And sometimes people edit in order to promote clarity, the Holy Grail of good writing. Thus, for some people, proofreading is even more specialized than revising or editing. It involves involves checking a text for Grammar, Mechanics, Punctuation, Diction, and Spelling.

Editing & the Writing Process

Writers, speakers, knowledge workers . . . engage in editing after revising but before they submit their texts to clients, teachers, and other readers.

After working hard to develop the substance of a message, you may be weary of it and eager to turn it over to your instructor. If possible, however, you are wise to set the draft aside and work on another task before trying to edit it.

It has become commonplace for postsecondary writing instructors in the U.S. to suggest that writers not worry about editing during the early stages of a writing project. This can be sound advice because time spent editing could be wasted if what you’re editing doesn’t respond to the demands of the school assignment or isn’t rhetorically sensitive. Plus, why edit a freewrite when the goal during freewriting is to develop ideas?

That said, sometimes little edits can be pauses, like calm breaths after a sprint on a long-distance run, that leads to insights.

The little changes that one makes during editing and proofreading can have a profound and disproportionate effect on its overall effect on the audience.

In summary, abandon hope all ye who don’t take the time to edit their work.

Tips to Evaluate Your Work at the Sentence Level

The following techniques can help you critically evaluate your document at the sentence level:

  1. Don’t try to copyedit a document all at once. Instead, alternate editing with other activities. For example, try editing after you first wake up, then after lunch, and then before dinner. Are you surprised that you can keep finding ways to improve the document?
  2. There are three strategies you can use to help ignore the content of your message and concentrate solely on grammatical, mechanical, and formatting errors:
    • Try reading your document sentence by sentence backwards
    • Place sheets of paper above and below each sentence in the document as you read through it
    • Place slashes between each sentence and then evaluate each one separately
  3. If you are using a personal computer, try printing the document with a different font, such as size 14 or size 10 point instead of the normal size 12.
  4. Look for mistakes to cluster. When you find one error in paragraph seven, for example, carefully examine the surrounding sentences to see if you had a lapse of concentration when you wrote and copyedited that section.
  5. Look for errors that you often make, such as sentence fragments or subject-verb agreement.