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Editing like a pro

Lydia Syson
Image credit: Gianluca De Girolamo, Adshot


Students are often amazed when I tell them how many editors my latest book has passed through on the road to publication. Every one of them has a very specific job to do: first structural edits followed by line edits, then copy edits and finally proofreading. Finessing an argument and spotting typos need completely different mindsets. Yet whether you’re writing a doctoral thesis, a research proposal or an undergraduate essay, your job is not only to be the author of your text, but also all of those editors. How can one person wear so many hats at once?

Just as you’d never actually put on four hats simultaneously, it’s best to approach each element of editing in turn, with a distinct goal in mind for each task. Understanding how every step works in publishing will help you organise your own work, and plan a realistic and achievable writing schedule. It should also encourage you to let go of the deceptive idea that a perfect first draft is possible, or even desirable.

1 Structural edits

The commissioning editor will often be the first to comment on a draft manuscript. Usually called structural editing, this first stage of revisions is ‘big picture’ stuff. It’s definitely not the time to be worrying about punctuation. Of course, coming to a piece of writing with a fresh eye makes it much easier to spot holes in a narrative or argument, problems with voice, dead ends or repetitions. For you, comments from supervisors and peers will be enormously helpful at this point.

But you can also get distance from your own work using a technique known as ‘reverse outlining’. This essentially means analysing each paragraph and noting exactly what’s there, as opposed to what you hoped to say. Ask yourself:

  • Does each paragraph stick to one main idea?
  • Is there a sentence in every paragraph (usually at or near the beginning) which sets out what it’s about?
  • Are the paragraphs in the best order for the reader to follow your argument?

Ideally, engage with your text physically so you’re not tempted to tinker on screen as you answer these questions. If you print it out double-spaced with wide margins, you can easily add comments or sticky notes by hand. Professor Rachel Cayley has a useful guide to every step of reverse outlining on her blog, Explorations of Style.

2 Line edits

Once you are satisfied with the structure and content of your text, it’s time to zoom in. In a big publishing company, line editing is often done by a second in-house editor, who is usually more junior. As your own editor, you can now begin to craft your writing, sentence by sentence, making sure each line is as clear and concise as you can make it. Keep your reader in mind at all times, and consider if you’re giving them the information they need in the best order within each sentence.

  • Will they have to double back to the beginning or re-read any sentences to make sense of them?
  • Have you clearly distinguished between your own opinions and those of others?
  • Could you vary the length and structures of your sentences to better stylistic effect? Sometimes you need a short sentence. They’re punchier. Sometimes, if you’re dealing with a more complex idea, your sentences will benefit from being longer.
  • Is there unnecessary repetition you could cut?
  • Are there lots of nominalisations – verbs or adjectives that have been turned into nouns? For example, the noun ‘confusion’ comes from the verb ‘to confuse’:

Using a noun instead of a verb can make it harder for the reader to know who or what is confusing whom. Compare:

Using nominalisations can cause confusion.

Nominalisations can confuse readers.

(See Anna Barker’s post for details)

  • Are there passive verbs which could be made active? Or, to rewrite this as an active sentence: ‘Can you make any passive verbs active?’ (But see Cherise Saywell’s post for advice on when to use the passive.)

This stage, which is my favourite, is all about polishing your prose to make your ideas shine. It’s perhaps the most creative of the four. And it’s definitely a craft that can be learned, and improved with practice.

3 Copy edits

After the line edits have been agreed, a desk editor in a big publishing house will often take over responsibility for the manuscript, and send it to a specialist copy editor. The copy editor’s job is to spot mistakes. They know grammar and punctuation rules inside out, and they create a style sheet to make sure spellings, hyphenation, capitalisation and formatting are consistent. As you put on your copy-editor hat, you’ll probably want to make your own style sheet, and also work from a personal list of areas of uncertainty. Everyone has their own writing tics. Perhaps you often use a comma where a semi-colon would be correct or you have a habit of mixing up your tenses.

Few people know all the rules; so it’s important to know where you can look them up. The University of Bristol has a particularly good guide to grammar and punctuation.

4 Proofreading

When the copy edits have been approved, the manuscript can be typeset, and ‘proofs’ produced: unbound pages which look exactly like the finished book. They’re usually sent to the author in digital form to check. At the same time, a professional proofreader goes through the proofs systematically before the book is printed. Proofreaders have historically used a system of special marks to show where corrections are needed. This list will give you a good sense of the kind of things they look for.

You should do an equivalent final check before submitting your work. You might want to change the font type and size of your document at this point to make it easier to see your work afresh. Printing it out also helps.

As you can see, steadily moving from macro to micro techniques, we’ve finally reached a truly finickity level of detail. If you had scoured your text for misplaced commas too early in the revision process, you could have wasted valuable time correcting a paragraph or reference that you later decided to delete.

A big advantage of this four-stage approach is that you’ll make faster progress when you create your first draft. If you’ve already timetabled revising and editing as part of your writing progress, you can afford to draft quickly, then edit slowly. Revising is often where the real thinking happens. Developing both your ideas and your writing style in this way can be hugely satisfying and it’s usually transformative. It might seem long-winded, but you’ll probably reach your final destination with fewer twists and turns en route.

16 June 2022

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