Levels of Edits

Though there may be more levels of edits (depending on the type of work that you are creating) I am going to focus on 4 levels for these articles.  As a minimum, your writing should go through the following:

  1. Big Picture Edit: developmental, structural, or substantive editing
  2. Paragraph Level Edit: stylistic or line editing
  3. Sentence-Level Edit: copy editing
  4. Word-Level Edit: proof reading

Most of the editing time should be spent in the first two levels. The problem with most novice writers (and those newbies giving feedback) is they spend most of their time in the third and fourth levels, which is fruitless work. You’ll see why as we discuss what each level accomplishes.

Big Picture Edit: developmental, structural, or substantive editing

Otherwise known as the global edit. This is the hardest level of editing, the most important, and the one that should be done toward the beginning of your drafts. Why? Because it is pointless to edit for grammar if you are going to change the scene, or, in other words, there is no reason the paint a kitchen wall if you are just going to knock it out! This edit is the one that looks for story (making sure that there is one 😉 ), plot holes, structuring, and finding connections throughout the story.

During this run-through, the editor will ask questions of the text. For example:

  • Why is this character here?
  • What is the point of this scene (prop, conversation, relationship, etc.) does it drive plot?Global edit
  • Would this dialogue be something that this character would truly say? Is there a legitimate reason for this person to break character? Why?
  • Can this event truly take place (does it defy the laws that you have created in your story)?
  • Does this magic system work?
  • Where is the conflict? etc.

These questions can be changed based on the type of document that you are writing. If I were editing a business proposal, I would ask questions like:

  • How does this answer the employer’s questions about productivity?
  • Does this paragraph add necessary detail to the conversation?
  • What analysis could be made here to help the reader understand the data that you presented?

This edit can be the most challenging and demanding because the editor must find a way to help the author see and deal with issues. It takes time and deep thinking to pinpoint problems and then to go back and verbalize those issues in a way that will help the writer find a solution rather than just saying something like, “it just doesn’t work for me.”


Paragraph Level Edit: stylistic or line editing

Also known as the local edit. This is the second most important level of editing. This is where sentences are looked at to make sure that the writing flows and the message is clear. In this edit, the editor may suggest revision of sentences in order to combine topics and ideas that are repetitive or break up those that need more information, detail, or revision.

This can be a tricky area because the editor needs to help the author change wording, but must preserve the author’s unique voice. It is not a re-write by the editor, but a way to help the author strengthen their prose and clear up areas that are difficult to understand.The local edit 2

Some items that will help the editor know that a substantial stylistic edit is in order:

  • overuse of adjectives
  • short choppy sentences or brief and simplistic phrasing
  • unclear ideas
  • awkward transitions
  • poor word choice (too high or low for the audience, or too much jargon)
  • ideas are unorganized and/or unconvincing
  • the tone does not fit the genre

These two levels of edit can be done as needed throughout the process, but using them earlier will cut down the amount of work in the long run. Let’s imagine that a family is building a new home. The contractor gets to work, but then realizes, after all the detail work is done and the family is ready to move in, that he must do the foundation, framing, electrical, and plumbing inspections. What would happen to the beautiful decor if there was a potentially volatile crack in the foundation and serious issues with the plumbing?

Now imagine writing a 350 page novel, and completing multiple full drafts editing for grammar and mechanics. You are ready to print! But then, you get an editor who completes a big picture run-through and finds that you have gaping plot holes needing substantial re-writes. Imagine how frustrating it is to an author? It’s enough to take the joy out of writing!

Planning and well-crafted writing will help cut down the amount of time needed for such intense edits. The good news is that writing is like any other skill, it can be become easier as it is learned and practiced.

Sentence-Level Edit: copy editing

This is the quality control for the piece. Here the editor makes sure that everything is consistent and checks the facts, and ties up loose ends. For example:

  • Did we change any details in the edits (age, hair color, etc.)?
  • Have we gone through to make Copy editingsure all of the wording is spelled the same.
  • Names – “Did we call her mom, or Sadie, or Mrs. Bowers?”
  • Plot changes – “Didn’t we make the prince a duke in chapter 13? Guess we’d better go back and change his title in the other chapters!”

This is where proof readers look for grammar usage and mechanics. And here’s a cautionary tale for you, let’s say an author got a higher level edited draft from the publisher but didn’t know the levels of edits and noticed some grammatical errors. One might be tempted to freak out and say, “my editor doesn’t know what she’s doing, there’s a typo!!! Cancel the book!”

Please remember that the company name is going on this project. It will not be send out into the world as a mess like a slop of cafeteria slaw! Let the process work. Of course, change a typo if you find it, but don’t get freaked out about copy editing until the major changes are made. It’s like cleaning up the floor while a baby is still self-feeding. Sure, you can spend your time under the high chair moping up every last drop of yogurt, but then you won’t have time to sit with the child and interact and teach them how to hold the spoon, scoop up the food, and get it into the mouth. It’s important to learn and trust the process.

Also, please ›NOTE (as we’ve stated before): Most novice writers and reviewers work on this rather than the other two. While this edit is important in the end, it is one of the FINAL edits.


Word-Level Edit: Proof reading

This is the edit to review how everything appears on the page in the final resting place. A chance for a last look for typos, repeated or missing words, and any other tweaks. The editor will check it in allProofreading the formats, printed on the page and electronically. Books look different in various formats and the reader can pick up mistakes when things are changed up. In fact, the amazing author and editor  Lisa Mangum, edits by taking a book and changing the font in a new document. It’s just enough of a switch that she is able to catch final mistakes.

This is the end of the editing process. It’s now time to make sure that all finishing details are in place – the cookies are baking and the last load of laundry is put away before the customers come to the grand open house!

So, what do you do if there is an error after you publish? (It happens, and readers will happily point them out!) Remember that it is not the end of the world. If you did your editing job, it should minimize the mistakes, but there is always the human error factor. If it is an eBook or a blogpost, change the errors (if there is an extensive edit, make note of it). For a printed work, wait for the next edition and change it. Make it right, fix mistakes, and learn for the next time. Your work should be your best, so a small mistake (like a missing word or punctuation) should not destroy everything that you are working towards.


As you become better at editing, you will become better at writing. As you become better as a writer, you will become a better editor. All it takes is time and concentrated practice, which can be daunting when you are looking at 350 page + novels, but, if writing is your craft, then editing is one of the most important and effective tools. I think author Robert Cormier said it best when he stated:

editing, cormier quote


Until next time when we discuss which writing tools can help with editing.

Also, please feel free to leave any editing questions in the comments. Thank you, and happy writing!

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