post-it note link to editing challenge
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The Oxford Style Manual tells us that the aim of copyediting is to create “a text that is as easy as possible to read and understand.” And it adds: “Editing is a Zen-like discipline, since the result of all editorial effort should be invisible on the printed page” (pp. 42–3).

“The commonly held distinction between editing and proofreading is that editors work on typescripts before they are typeset, the resulting proofs being worked on in turn by proofreaders.” (Oxford Style Manual, p. 42)

The Chicago Manual of Style divides copyediting into two distinct processes: mechanical editing and substantive editing.

Mechanical editing concerns “consistency in capitalization, spelling, hyphenation, table format, use of abbreviations, and so forth; correctness of punctuation, including ellipsis points, parentheses, and quotation marks; the way numbers are treated; consistency between text, tables, and illustrations; citation format; and … attention to grammar, syntax, and usage at the most basic level” (Chicago, 2.51).

Substantive editing concerns the readability and clarity of the text. “It involves rephrasing for smoothness or to eliminate ambiguity, reorganizing or tightening, reducing or simplifying documentation, recasting tables, and other remedial activities” (Chicago, 2.55).

Depending on circumstances, either or both of these processes might be called for, and to a greater or lesser extent. A “light” edit, whether mechanical or substantive, calls for few changes; a “heavy” edit is more interventionist. Heavy editing, particularly heavy substantive editing, would not be carried out without consultation with the author or publisher.


Proofreading is the final correction of small typographical errors—of spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc.—on a text that has already been written and fully copyedited. It is “a vital last step in ensuring that errors are spotted and eliminated” (Oxford, p. 54). Proofreading thus deals with a similar range of problems to those addressed in mechanical copyediting.

Traditionally, the difference between copyediting and proofreading lay in the sequence, since a proofreader would check the results of a trial print against the edited manuscript, and could only make very minor corrections for fear of causing extensive resetting of the type.

The introduction of word processors has blurred this traditional distinction, but it remains important to separate the proofreading phase from copyediting. The two processes require different forms of concentration from the editor, and it is virtually impossible to produce absolutely clean text on the basis of copyediting alone—especially if that copyediting has been carried out on screen, as opposed to on paper.

Developmental editing

Developmental editing “addresses more radically the content of a work, the way material should be presented, the need for more or less documentation and how it should be handled, and so on” (Chicago, 2.48).

This is best carried out by an editor who has specialized knowledge of the subject area, but even an editor with such knowledge can only help up to a point. Fundamentally, the text stands or falls on the strength of the author’s insight and research.

Language polishing

“Language polishing” isn’t a well-defined term: usage varies between authors and sites. I treat it as involving a quick read through to fix any prominent grammatical problems, without correcting small errors or paying significant attention to consistency.

A language polish can be useful when the text is already very well written, and you know that the publishing house will make its own arrangements for copyediting. That is, where errors at the level of copyediting and proofing will be corrected later, but grosser linguistic errors might tell against your reputation.

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