Structural editing, copy editing and proofreading

Editing is a process in which an author’s text or other material is corrected, reorganised, condensed, expanded or modified to create a product which meets the needs of both author and audience. An editor’s level of intervention may range from the very lightest touch – identifying spelling and grammatical mistakes – to completely rewriting and reorganising the whole work.

Levels of editing

The range of editing work is often divided into three stages or levels:

Structural editing

A structural edit involves the editor reviewing the work as a whole:

  • Does it flow naturally and logically from start to finish?
  • Is there too much (or enough) repetition?
  • Is anything missing?
  • Do headings provide clear signposts to the content which follows them?

A structural edit of website content should also consider how it fits into the site as a whole. Editing a suite of content for a site means thinking about its information architecture: how does it fit together and how will readers make their way through it?

Copy editing

Ideally, a copy edit is done on a piece of work which is structurally sound. It includes:

  • checking spelling, grammar and punctuation
  • applying consistent style choices, such as e-mail or email, website or web site
  • ensuring that all references are accurate and clear.

On the web, a copy editor may also be the appropriate person to check:

  • each page has appropriate metadata
  • content is attractive to search engines
  • the alt text for images is appropriate
  • the wording and placement of hyperlinks provides clear guidance to the reader.

If I’m carrying out both structural and copy editing tasks, I may switch from one to the other so that spelling errors don’t distract me when I’m focussed on the structure of the piece. Proofreading, however, must always be the final quality check.

Proofreading

The term ‘proofread’ is often misused to mean a light copyedit, but it is traditionally that stage in the publishing process when a proofreader checks the proof – copy which is in its final form, ready to print – to ensure that all corrections from the editor or author have been incorporated into the final work. Proofreading should always be the last step before a document is printed or published.

Ideally, web proofreading is done in a preview environment, before content is moved live. However, not all content management systems allow for this, so it is sometimes done immediately after publishing. In this case, it’s important that corrections can be made quickly.

Proofreading a website includes checking that:

  • previous changes have been incorporated
  • no new errors have been introduced
  • all hyperlinks work correctly.

Establish a shared understanding

There are other terms for different levels of editing – some people refer to developmental, style and verification edits – but what’s important is that both the client and editor have a shared understanding of what is needed, and what is to be done.