All documents need copyediting and proofreading. Some documents may also require substantive editing of the whole or some of the parts. The need for substantive editing may be identified up front or become apparent during the copyediting. Here the lines may easily blur between substantive and copyediting.
Substantive editing (including, and sometimes called, structural editing) is assessing and shaping material to improve its organisation and content. It is editing to clarify meaning, improve flow and smooth language.
Substantive editing ensures that the structure, content, language and style of the document are effective and appropriate to its intended function and readership. Structural editing is an important element of a substantive edit and may be done as a first step. Structural editing establishes a cohesive framework by moving parts of the document around, and working on elements such as the hierarchy and phrasing of headings, to ensure a logical and effective approach. The text and appropriate connections between the parts can then be refined during the copyedit.
Copyediting is editing to ensure consistency, accuracy and completeness.
Copyediting is not confined to ensuring accuracy and consistency in grammar, spelling, punctuation and other mechanics of style. It also encompasses fact checking, presenting visual elements effectively in relation to the text and putting the document together as a whole, including preliminary and end matter. In addition, copyeditors advise on potential copyright and legal issues and liaise with design and production staff.
Proofreading is examining material after layout to correct errors in textual and visual elements.
Proofreading involves a final careful read, checking key facts and that any late corrections have been taken in without introducing new errors. The proofreader also checks that all necessary elements have been included and cross-checks items such as page and figure numbers. Checking typography and layout (including word, line and page breaks, fonts and spacing, and effectiveness of visual elements) is a vital but often overlooked aspect of proofreading.
A trained proofreader will pick up many technical elements that an amateur is likely to miss.
Examples of specialist editing
Plain English rewriting translates bureaucratic, technical or overly complex material so the meaning is clear.
A student needs approval from their principal supervisor to use an editor for copyediting and proofreading; the editor may draw attention to substantive problems but not provide solutions. The editor's work must be acknowledged. See IPEd's Guidelines for editing research theses.
The role of editors
Editors are part of a team that guides a work through its various stages from creation to publication. All editors need to have a broad understanding of the publishing process and of their role within it, regardless of the extent of their involvement. They should demonstrate initiative and flexibility, adapting to the needs of a project and the specific work environment. They need to communicate clearly and tactfully, and to respect the opinions of others.
Editors work with many different subjects and many types of publication (novels, reports, websites, magazines, textbooks and scientific materials, to name a few) that require specialised knowledge and skills. Editors also work in many different contexts, from book editing for traditional publishing houses to advising on communications strategies in government or corporate sectors. Some editors perform tasks that extend beyond editing, such as project management, design, indexing and website maintenance.
All quotes from Australian Standards for Editing Practice, second edition, Institute of Professional Editors Limited.