Editors work in a variety of industries and take on innumerable different tasks, but the fundamentals of editing are always the same. Editors carry out the following four tasks (in order of operation): substantive/structural editing, stylistic editing, copy editing, and proofreading.
The first approach to editing a document/book/magazine article/website/government report is to look at the text from a big-picture point of view. A substantive/structural edit considers how all the parts of a document work together, and it is up to the editor to decide how to make those parts and document work better. Structural editing is much like putting a jigsaw puzzle together, except that these pieces can mesh a number of ways to arrive at a cohesive, properly organized document.
The next step is a stylistic edit, a line-by-line edit that works on each sentence of the text to ensure that sentences read well. This is where any jargon, clichés, and repetitive words and phrases are removed. It’s important at this stage to have a firm grasp on who the audience is, and the editor needs to bear this in mind as she edits. The language used, and overall tone, need to match the intended audience. A stylistic edit will smooth out any rough language and passages.
Upon completion of the stylistic edit, a copy edit is then performed. All matters of grammar, spelling, consistency, syntax, and other mechanics of style are sharpened and cleaned up. A style sheet is usually prepared by the editor to show how certain words are spelled. This is by far the most common edit, the one most asked for.
Proofreading, the final edit any document should undergo is essential in ensuring a clean and error-free document. It is the edit that will catch any lingering typos or errors. It allows a new set of eyes to read the document over, from, and with, a fresh perspective. It is, however, the one step that many people and companies omit because they feel it is an unnecessary expense and delays publication. They also mistakenly believe that the copy editor would have caught everything. Production schedules should always take proofreading into account, as should any proper editorial budget. Embarrassing errors can be avoided with a proofread.
One proviso for emerging editors: many clients ask for a proofread but actually mean, and want, a copy edit. It is therefore important that an editor get clear directives on the work to be done, and to outline in a contract what was agreed upon.