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Eye for Editing: Levels of Edit

I’m stating the obvious when I say that there are many systems that define levels of edit. Some systems define up to nine levels or categories of edit, such as the well-known, pioneering effort to define levels of edit by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But when I started in my current role as editor for a team of K–12 curriculum writers, I implemented a personally derived system of four levels, which are based on the book Technical Editing, The Practical Guide for Editors and Writers, by Judith A. Tarutz (1992). This is also the system I’ve used when proposing and scoping freelance editing projects. My system includes the following levels of edit: Developmental, Substantive, Literary, and Pre-release. Except for Developmental, these levels build on each other, starting with Pre-release at the lowest level.

Because these descriptors don’t have commonly held definitions and because my colleagues are not used to working with a technical editor, I have had to very clearly explain and illustrate how I define each level. After all, it doesn’t really matter what term you use to describe something as long as everyone involved has the same understanding, right? But it has not been as easy to explain as I thought it would be! The process has challenged my own understanding of the levels of edit I’ve chosen. I’ve had to dig deep to be able to defend them even to myself.

I’ll briefly describe here the four levels I use, but I’ll only go into detail on one of them—the one that caused me the most soul-searching to define.

The Developmental edit is actually more like a consultation between the editor and the author or authors. It should occur in the planning stages of a writing project. According to Tarutz, the editor can help frame the approach to deliverable development, check the outline and organization of content, make sure the plan addresses the objectives, and spot any red flags in advance. For my purposes, it’s an opportunity for the editor to be included in the project from the start and to begin to develop a working relationship with the writers. Sadly, I’ve rarely participated in or heard of anyone using this type of opportunity. But I have high hopes of implementing this with my new colleagues!

The Literary edit, as I define it, is the most comprehensive review of content for accuracy, usability, consistency, adherence to style, and logical flow, in addition to everything you would check for in a pre-release or production edit. If your project only allows for one editorial review, this is the type of review I would advocate for.

Because I work with curriculum writers whose backgrounds are in education, not technical writing, they were tripped up by the term “Production” edit, which they associated with multimedia production. This allusion to print production of old was foreign to them. One of the leads suggested the term “pre-release,” so I gladly changed my terminology, because “it doesn’t really matter what term you use to describe something as long as everyone involved has the same understanding.” This type of edit is your last chance to catch those little gotchas that managed to get by everyone who’s looked at the content, including the editor. This may well be your last chance to save face with your readers (not to mention your legal department)! If you have little time to review the content, this is the only type of review you can do.

I’ve discussed these definitions out of order, because I wanted to leave the Substantive review until last. This one was the most mysterious to my management, and I realized I wasn’t quite sure myself where the line should be drawn between the Substantive and Literary levels of edit. I admit that I’ve been editing so long that I typically give it all I’ve got or all that the allotted project time will allow and then some! In practice, the distinctions can be blurred. But quite unintentionally, my boss sparked a revelation by way of her pronunciation of substantive. I had always pronounced it sub·stan’·tive, but she put the emphasis on the first syllable—sub’·stan·tive.

In my mind, I equated substan’tive with substantial, which Merriam-Webster defines as “large in amount, size, or number.” This type of edit is a real slasher! It’s an all-out effort to “fix” everything you find to the point of reorganizing whole blocks of content. (However, it stops short of rewriting the content; it only makes suggestions as to how the writer might rewrite problem passages.)

But when confronted with sub’stantive, I thought of the word substance, which means “the quality of being meaningful, useful, or important”. That certainly adds a different aspect to it. So I looked at the definition of substantive—no matter how you pronounce it—and found both of the following possible definitions: “4: considerable in amount or numbers” and “6: having substance”. Therefore, my definition of a substantive edit has changed, or rather has gelled, to mean a sweeping overall view of the content, as well as a review that concentrates on the substance of the content. Is it “meaningful, useful, and important”? How well does it tell the story it’s meant to tell? I define this level of edit as one that looks at scope and completeness, organization and hierarchy of content, coherence at every level—between sections, within sections, within paragraphs, within sentences—plus everything in a Literary edit. Yes, this distinction feels right to me.

But again, this is my—and now our—system. It’s simply how my team has agreed to define the rules of engagement for the services I offer them. I’m sure you all have your own systems and I’m interested to hear about them. I’m especially interested to hear what you think about my definition of substantive. Do you even use such a distinction? Please let me hear your thoughts…

Paula Robertson, Eye for Editing

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