Good question. If you ask half a dozen editors, you’ll get two dozen answers. What’s a writer to do?
Editing and writing are closely related, but they aren’t the same. Writing creates something new. Editing rearranges, refines, and otherwise messes with something that’s already been created.
Notice that I’m sticking with the verbs here, rather than trying to define what writers do and what editors do. It’s more complicated than “writers write and editors edit.” Plenty of editors are also writers. Most writers do at least some editing: that’s what second, third, and tenth drafts are about.
I encourage writers to learn as much as they can about editing. It makes us better writers. It gives us more control of our work. It saves us money, because the more we can do ourselves, the less we have to pay others to do. And when the time comes to hire an editor, we’re better able to find one who will do justice to our work.
So what’s editing, beyond messing with something that’s already been written? Here’s where it can get confusing. “Editing” can involve anything from correcting typos and grammar gaffes to rearranging paragraphs and even helping a writer build a book from scratch. So we talk about “levels of editing.” Here’s a rough guide to the levels, starting with “big picture” editing and moving down to what I call the “picky bitch stage”: catching spelling and grammar errors.
Ghostwriting. Ghostwriting is writing, not editing. I include it because I’m not the only editor who’s heard this question: “I’ve got a great idea. Can you help me turn it into a book and we can share the royalties?” The answer is no. Ghostwriting is time-intensive and therefore costly. The chances that the resulting product will earn any royalties are close to nil. My standard answer is “Sell your proposal first and then we can talk.” None of the querents has ever come back.
Developmental editing. Like ghostwriting, this involves building the manuscript from the ground up. For big projects, like textbooks, it can involve multiple authors, researchers, designers, and more. For the individual writer, it’s all the work that goes into creating a coherent complete draft. Most of us do our own developmental editing, often with assistance from writers’ groups and those generous people who volunteer to read our work and give us feedback.
Rewriting. Most of us do our own rewriting too. From the individual writer’s point of view, it’s close kin to developmental editing.
Structural editing. The structure of a work is its skeleton. When the wrist bones are connected to the thigh bones, the body doesn’t work too well. All written works have structure. Structure is what guides readers through the story or the essay. When you decide that a scene in the middle of the book has to come near the beginning or a certain character’s motivation won’t make sense, you’re messing with the work’s structure.
Stylistic editing. This is called all sorts of things, including content editing, line editing, and copyediting. Here you go through the work line by line, asking whether each sentence, phrase, and word says what you want it to say, and in the best way possible. English is a wonderfully flexible language. Choosing the right word and putting it in the right place can make a big difference. Writers’ groups and volunteer readers (aka “guinea pigs”) can be invaluable here. You know what you meant to say, but until you get feedback from readers it’s hard to know how well it’s coming across.
Copyediting. I hire out as a “copyeditor,” but my work includes plenty of stylistic editing so I have a hard time distinguishing one from the other. Let’s say here that copyediting focuses on the mechanics: spelling, punctuation, grammar, formatting, and the like. With nonfiction, it includes ensuring that footnotes and endnotes, bibliographies and reference lists, are accurate, consistent with each other, and properly formatted.
Proofreading. This level is the most mechanical of all. It means catching the errors that have slipped through despite all the writer’s and editor’s best efforts. (No matter how expert the writer and editor are, there will be errors. Trust me on this. I just caught one in this sentence. No, I won’t tell.)
The Editors’ Association of Canada has a handy page on its website: “Definitions of Editorial Skills.” Other organizations, publishers, and individual editors break the skills down differently, but this list gives a good idea of all the skills that are subsumed under “editing.” Not to worry: Unless you work on big, complex projects, you’re unlikely to need more than a few of them. If you do work on big, complex projects, your team probably has all the skills required, or knows where to find them.