What Are the Four Stages of Editing?

Thinking of hiring an editor?

Just like you wouldn’t make a major purchase (like a computer, car, or house) without first becoming a bit of an expert on the topic yourself, you shouldn’t hire an editor without learning some editing basics first.

Learning the lingo is essential to get on the same page with the editor you want to work with, to figure out what services you want, and what rates to expect. If you write a lot, it’s useful to learn these editing stages and apply them when checking your work! Here are the four main stages of editing.

Structural Editing

Structural editing: also called substantive editing, developmental editing, content editing, and manuscript editing.

This stage of editing is like deciding where you’re going to place every single box and piece of furniture on move-in day. It’s big-decision time.

Your editor will step back with you and look at your project from a big picture perspective. Recommendations and decisions are made about how to organize and revise your ideas and words. It’s like deciding which rooms you’ll be placing your belongings in. You may need to throw out some things that no longer suit your new home and make a list of things you still need to buy.

The editor will make a list of changes for the writer. These structural edits may include:

  • revising, reordering, cutting, or expanding material
  • recasting or revising material for another project or medium (such as taking parts of a book to use for a video or web copy)
  • expanding or writing original material
  • clarifying the plot, characters, or thematic elements (for a novel or short story)
  • deciding if permissions are necessary when using facts, data, quotes from third-party material
  • creating an outline if one hasn’t already been made
  • ensuring that content, language, and style suit the audience and purpose of the material

When this stage of editing is completed, your project is ready for a stylistic edit.

Photo Credit: Rodnae Productions

Stylistic Editing

Stylistic editing: also called line editing and may include copy editing.

Stylistic editing is similar to making a sandwich. Most people have a concept of what goes into a basic sandwich but have different opinions about the details. Should the sandwich have many toppings or just a few? What condiments will give it a spicy or salty flavor?

Making a sandwich is like a stylistic edit. Different toppings can affect the flavour (mood and tone) of what you create. When an editor edits material, they are editing to clarify meaning, check for coherence and flow, and fine-tune the language. This stage includes:

  • editing and adjusting the structure and length of paragraphs and sentences
  • establishing the style, tone, mood, voice, and level of formality of the material
  • maintaining the language level appropriate for the intended readership, purpose, and medium (blog, novel, white paper, report)
  • checking for cliches, euphemisms, and jargon (jargon in technical material is defined somewhere in the text)

After a stylistic edit is complete, your project is ready for a copy edit.

Photo Credit: The Matter of Food

Copy Editing

Copy editing: also loosely includes stylistic editing, structural editing, fact-checking, and proofreading.

A copy editor focuses on details: accuracy, consistency, completeness, and correctness.

In this sense, copyediting is similar to studying – or scrutinizing – a painting with meticulous precision. Notice the brushstrokes, the colours, and the layers. Look at the details in the person’s face or the veins in each leaf of the trees!

Copy editing is about precision and cohesion and includes:

  • developing a style sheet or following one that is provided
  • editing for grammar, spelling, punctuation, and word usage
  • checking for consistency and continuity of mechanics and facts (character’s age and eye colour are consistent throughout story, same font and style is used for all tables and charts)
  • editing tables, figures, and lists (and sometimes indexes)
  • correcting or querying information that should be checked for accuracy
  • checking front matter, back matter, cover copy, and web links
  • obtaining or listing permissions needed
  • checking for consistency for localizing language (Canadian spelling for a Canadian audience, converting to Imperial measurements for an American audience)

Copyediting doesn’t involve any heavy rewriting or heavy reorganizing of material. You are taking your work and putting it under the microscope. At this stage, it’s about the details. When the copyediting is complete, your project is ready for proofreading.

Photo Credit: Una Laurencic


Proofreading is done after editing. At this stage, you’re checking that the material is ready for publishing. Often “proofreading” is a term used to describe any editing or is another name for copyediting.

Think of proofreading as that quick check in the mirror that you do before you go out: Hair looks good. Nothing in your teeth. Shoes match the outfit. Phone, check. Keys, check. Wallet, check. You’re good to go.

At this point, you’re not going to redo your makeup, change your shirt, or (gasp) change into a whole new outfit.

At this stage, the editor checks the material after it has gone through layout to check for errors in textual and visual elements. The material may be checked against the original or previous version. When editing for online copy, proofreading is the final stage before you hit the publish button. This stage includes:

  • checking all elements of the document are in proper order
  • changes have been made and amendments have been inserted
  • checking for minor mechanical errors (such as spelling and punctuation mistakes)
  • consistency and accuracy of elements in the material (such as cross-references, headings, captions, and hyperlinks)
  • adherence to design (consistency in font style and colour)

Proofreading doesn’t involve any heavy editing or rewriting. It’s the final check before you head out the door. It’s the final check before you hit the publish button or send the material off of the publisher for printing.

Proofreading is also the most exciting stage! After all your hard work (both the writer’s and the editor’s), your project is ready to share with your readers.

Photo Credit: Andrea Piacquadio

Bottom Line

Understanding the four major stages of editing is crucial when you’re ready to work with an editor. Becoming familiar with the jargon and what happens at each stage prepares you for what revisions to expect. These stages are also a great checklist for reviewing your written work before sharing it with your audience.

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4 thoughts on “What Are the Four Stages of Editing?

  1. This is such a helpful and informative post, Vanya. I can clearly see I use each of these four elements regularly, but to varying degrees. So, in other words, it depends on the type of document I am preparing.

    Liked by 2 people

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