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Technical Communication

Levels of Edit

Why a concept meant to bring clarity to the craft more often brings confusion.

S. David Grover

14 March 2021 | 5-minute read

If you spend any time at all looking into editing, you’ll start to hear the phrase “levels of edit” thrown around. And, if you take the phrase at its face value, it starts to seem like a great idea—it sounds like editors have invented a hierarchy, a spectrum, a range of degrees for how intense editing needs to be at each place along the continuum.

You can imagine an editor receiving a pretty solid document that needs just some polishing and proofreading and them saying, “Oh yeah, I’ll give this a #1 level of edit,” while an editor who is handed a hot mess of a document might opt for the more comprehensive “#5 level of edit.”

man getting a haircut

"I'd like a light edit on top, a medium edit on the beard, and a heavy edit on the sides, please."

Photo by Carlos Magno on Unsplash

Unfortunately, in practice, the concept of “levels of edit” isn’t so simple. Just as the word editing itself can refer to dozens of different jobs arrayed across dozens of industries and workplaces, so to do the levels of edit shift dramatically depending on what kind of editing you’re talking about. This article will try to bring some order to the madness.

Where the Levels Come From

In the 1970s and 80s, Robert Van Buren and Mary Fran Buehler, two technical editors working for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, developed a system of editing levels. For their system, they defined nine “types of edit,” or editing activities that they were commonly asked to do:

They then assigned these tasks to five levels of edit. Level 1, the heaviest edit, included all nine tasks, while Level 5, the lightest edit, included only coordination and policy.

a rocket launch

Clarity is important when it comes to shooting things into space.

Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash

The idea was that when someone at the lab brought the editing team a document for editing, they could clearly communicate with that colleague about the state of the document, its intended audience, and what was needed to make the document ready for transmission. This improved efficiency and trust in the editing department.

A Tangle of Ideas

The JPL levels of edit concept quickly spread throughout the field of technical communication, garnering adaptations and refinements as it was both incorporated into other workplaces and written about in textbooks. It also spread throughout the editing world, not just the technical editing realm, and in so doing the levels lost the carefully calibrated, closely defined meaning that Van Buren and Buehler gave them.

The result is that the term levels of edit is ubiquitous, but no one can say with any consistency how many levels exist, what they are called, or what they each include.

But this isn’t surprising. As I discussed in “Types of Editing,” editors are at work across many industries and are engaged in various editing-related activities in service of many types of documents destined to reach a wide variety of audiences. Of course the system that works for a publishing house focused on literary novels won’t work for a company sending out mail-order catalogs, and neither of those systems will fly at a scholarly press.

What does this mean for a novice editor just getting into the field? My advice is to take any talk of the levels of edit with a grain of salt. Take a second and consider the context such information is being presented in—what type of editing, in what industry, for what audience. Push back against any feelings of being an imposter in the field—it’s so easy to hear a new term (what the heck is line editing?) and think you’re the only one who doesn’t know it, but that’s never the case.° Look for the definitions behind the terms, and you’ll likely see that the levels being presented describe much the same thing you’re used to, just with different names and maybe different divisions between levels.

For example, in Any Einsohn and Marilyn Schwartz’s popular text The Copyeditor’s Handbook, they spend a fair portion of the first chapter detailing what copyeditors do and don’t do, and they present charts detailing different ways of thinking about the levels of copyedit—one chart splits copyediting into light, medium, and heavy levels; another presents a matrix of issues to fix, ignore, or query based on the intended audience; and a third chart divides editing activities by stages of editorial review.

When I first began reading the chapter and saw that these titans of the field didn't consider proofreading to be something that copyeditors do, I freaked out a little bit. When I saw the charts defining the levels of edit using no terms I was familiar with, I felt like an outsider to a field I've spent many years working in.

But I stopped myself from spiraling and instead considered the context of the writers. And I noticed something that should've been obvious all along—the book is called The Copyeditor's Handbook—not the Editor's Handbook. Copyediting is one small slice of the larger editing pie; in fact, "copyediting" is very often the name of an entire level of editing in other systems.° Of course the authors would cut proofreading out of the realm of copyediting, it being another type of editing entirely, and of course they would subdivide copyediting into smaller levels of edit.

Phew! Disaster averted.

The Levels of Edit I Use

If you look at enough versions of the levels of edit, you start to notice some similarities across all of them. Similarly, if you do enough editing yourself, you’ll start to develop your own sense of what the levels are for you. And if you have to explain what you do to enough clients, you’ll develop a vocabulary you can use to clearly communicate.

The following represents how I have come to understand the levels of editing—but beware. Just because I use these terms and split the levels this way doesn’t make it right. This just reflects my own history in my own little corner of the broad editing world—mostly freelance technical editing, working with clients who have never hired an editor before. The language is taken directly from my freelance editing website, so you'll notice it's addressing potential clients directly.

Substantive Editing

The deepest level of editing, substantive editing involves considering all aspects of a document—content, structure, organization, flow, tone, style, and presentation—resulting in a fundamentally clearer message. At this level, we work closely with you to help you discover the essence of what you want to say and the most efficient, convincing way to say it.

While substantive editing takes the most time, its effects tend to be the most dramatic, and it saves time in the long run because much less copyediting or proofreading are needed later.

Copyediting

For documents that are structurally sound and essentially complete, copyediting brings a needed polish. More than just correcting errors, copyediting focuses on the paragraph and sentence levels of the document, helping identify the best wording and clearest presentation and ensuring a consistent, appropriate voice and style.

For longer documents, copyediting often involves compiling a stylesheet—a record of usage decisions such as how key terms are spelled and capitalized, how headings are formatted, and when abbreviations are to be used. Stylesheets don't only improve the document at hand; they streamline future projects, helping you achieve a coherent style across all your work.

Proofreading

Proofreading provides the final check a document receives before publishing. The focus here is on individual words, letters, and punctuation marks, on removing any lingering grammatical and mechanical errors.

Proofreading also checks that all formatting elements of the document—the margins, spacing, font size, placement of page numbers, headers, footers, and more—are perfectly consistent. Where a stylesheet exists, the document will be made to adhere to it in all respects.

These three broad divisions have, in my experience, been accessible to outsiders; that is, my clients have been able to understand them readily, and we've been able to have productive conversations about what they expect from me as their editor.

I also find that these three levels and these three terms seem to be the most common I see when looking around the internet for examples of levels-of-edit systems. But they are by no means ubiquitous. What I call "substantive" editing is often called "developmental" or "comprehensive" editing, and many systems add a fourth level somewhere.

Final Thoughts

However an editor slices up and names the levels, the basic idea remains the same: editors need clear, accessible ways to talk about what they do with their clients and their colleagues. Those levels need to be reflective of the work they do, whether that be helping refine novels, prepare technical manuals for publication, or tighten up website copy.

So don't be shy asking for clarification when you encounter a new system of editing levels, and don't hesitate to create your own as you progress as an editor yourself.

David Grover is the cofounder of Grover's English and a professor of English at Park University. He earned his doctorate in Technical Communication and Rhetoric from Texas Tech University in 2017.

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