By Michelle Corbin | STC Fellow
While all kinds of editing are important and necessary, the scope and substance of an edit can vary dramatically. When we’re thrown into roles where we have to wear all of the editing hats, it’s important to remember that focusing on structure, logic, and organization will do more for content comprehension than focusing on grammatically correct sentences.
I love being a technical editor. I think that I am a really good developmental editor, but just an OK copy editor. To be a really good technical editor, I think that you have to excel at analysis-based content editing (developmental editing); you can’t just focus on the rules and the words and the sentences (copy editing).
Let’s start by looking at the evolution of the types of edits, and then dig deeper into my favorite type of editing, developmental editing, also known as substantive or comprehensive editing.
Types of Edits
In the early days of technical communication, to help define the technical editing tasks, Robert Van Buren and Mary Fran Buehler published the now-classic document, Levels of Edit.1 It collected nine types of edits — coordination, policy, integrity, screening, copy clarification, format, mechanical, language, substantive — into five levels (Table 1, 5).
In the early days of my technical communication career, when I was just starting out in technical editing, I read the Judith A. Tarutz book, Technical Editing: The Practical Guide for Editors and Writers,2 which defined six informal levels — turning pages, skimming, skimming and comparing, reading, analyzing, testing and using (165) — and three types of edits — developmental, copy and literary, and production (5). Her book most certainly shaped my view of technical editing.
My favorite types of edits in the later days of my technical communication career are Weber’s negotiation-based types — rules-based editing (copy editing, where changes are not negotiated) and analysis-based editing (substantive editing, which she equates to developmental editing or comprehensive editing, where suggested changes are negotiated). Her take on identifying three types of rules (essential, non-essential, and fake) also resonates with me, which I talked about in a previous Intercom column, “Playing by the Rules.”3
The textbook used in most graduate and undergraduate programs today is Carolyn D. Rude and Angela Eaton’s Technical Editing (fifth edition).5 They boiled all this down to just two types of editing: comprehensive editing and copy editing. Linda Oestreich and I focused on these two types of edits in our “Technical Editing Fundamentals” STC certificate course,6,7 but we called out a legal edit as a nod back to the classic nine from Van Buren and Buehler and their policy edit.
Substantive vs. Comprehensive vs. Developmental
Over time, people started to consider substantive editing, comprehensive editing, and developmental editing as synonyms. I think they are more the same than not, but let’s look a bit further at this analysis-based (as opposed to rule-based) type of editing. Like any good technical communicator, technical editors must understand their users and understand the topic space to be able to analyze the content they are editing.
When technical editors complete comprehensive edits, they focus on these writing characteristics:
During comprehensive edits, technical editors focus on the topic-level or paragraph-level of the content, and not so much on the sentence-level. They focus on the organization and navigation of the content. From a style perspective, technical editors focus on sentence complexity and overall voice, but not on any grammar or style rules (unless the error is just jumping off the proverbial page at them).
Ideally speaking, technical editors complete comprehensive edits before and separate from any other type of edits that your team defines. However, in all my years as a technical editor, I’ve rarely had the luxury of doing a comprehensive edit on a first draft and a copy edit on a second draft. Our development cycles just move too fast these days, and so technical editors must learn to adapt and bring in the right amount of rules-based copy edits into your analysis-based comprehensive edits.
The Whole is Greater than the Sum of the Parts
Just as I tried to define and differentiate technical editing as a quality assurance task — are you tired of my soapbox yet? — I think that technical editors have been trying to differentiate themselves from grammar checkers or basic copy editors. That’s why there has been a revolution with the levels of edits and all the types of edits truly evolving over time.
Comprehensive editing requires critical thinking and detailed analysis of the topic area and our users that copy editing just doesn’t. Don’t get me wrong — copy editing is critical to the delivery of high-quality content. But, if the content is not complete, logical, comprehensible, well-organized, or usable, then no amount of grammatically correct sentences will help the users get their work done.
- Van Buren, R. & Buehler, M.F. 1980. The Levels of Edit (2nd ed.). Arlington, VA: Society for Technical Communication. This document was scanned into a PDF and is available on the Internet Archive. Retrieved on 19 June 2021 from https://archive.org/details /nasa_techdoc_19800011701
- Tarutz, J. 1992. Technical Editing: The Practical Guide for Editors and Writers. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.
- Corbin, M. “Playing by the Rules.” Intercom, 67 (3) (May/June 2020): 32.
- “Levels of edit.” Wikipedia. Retrieved on 19 June 2021 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Levels_of_edit
- Rude, C. D., and Eaton, A. 2011. Technical Editing (5th ed.). New York: Pearson Longman.
- Corbin, Michelle, and Oestreich, L. 2011-2015. Technical Editing Fundamentals (STC Certificate Course). Arlington, VA: Society for Technical Communication.
- Corbin, M. and L. Oestreich. 2011. “Editing: Reviewing Levels and Choosing Types.” Presented at the 58th annual conference of the Society for Technical Communication, Technical Communication Summit, Sacramento, CA.
- Norton, Scott. 2009. Developmental Editing: A Handbook for Freelancers, Authors, and Publishers. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
- Weber, J. H. 2002. “Classifying Editorial Tasks.” Technical Editors’ Eyrie. Retrieved 19 June 2021,