Every editing project I take on is unique. One may involve copyediting, another proofreading, and yet another, substantive editing. Often, it’s a combination. Here’s a summary of the different types of editing. I’ve used the home building process as an analogy (apologies to any builders if I’ve taken a few liberties).
Substantive editing (also called structural editing) is assessing and shaping material to improve its organization and content. This type of editing checks the suitability of the material for the intended audience. It recommends content additions or deletions. It suggests and makes changes to the organization of the document. It queries instances of questionable accuracy, and identifies material that might be better presented in another form (e.g. headings, tables, diagrams, appendices).
Stylistic editing is editing to clarify meaning, improve flow, and smooth language. It occurs after the author and editor are satisfied with the content and overall organization of the material. This is the editing that takes place at the sentence and paragraph level. By tweaking word choice and improving sentence and paragraph construction, stylistic editing enhances clarity and flow of the material. It also aims to set a tone and style that is appropriate for the audience.
Copyediting is editing to ensure correctness, accuracy, and completeness. This type of editing occurs after the author and editor are satisfied with the content, organization, flow, and clarity of the material. It’s the editing phase that corrects errors in grammar, punctuation, spelling, and word usage. It catches inconsistencies like spelling out the number two on page 1 and using the numeral 2 on page one (or was that pg. 1). It sounds an alarm if numbers on a pie chart seem off, and raises a flag where a citation might be needed.
Proofreading examines material after layout to correct errors in textual and visual elements. Proofreading occurs after all other editing has been done and the material is ready to be published (almost). It’s that last, fine-tooth comb edit to catch errors in word spacing, flaws in punctuation marks, slip-ups in italicizing, glitches in hyperlinks, boo-boos in header alignment, mess-ups in text
color/colour, faux pas in Canadian/American usage, screw-ups in contact information 604-922-00 055 …
* Editing definitions adapted from Editors’ Association of Canada Professional Editorial Standards. 2009