A recent Wired article explored why people often miss their own typos. In short, it’s because writing is a high-level task; it requires you to turn intangible ideas into written sentences. The mechanics of writing—spelling, grammar, and so forth—are simpler tasks, and they often take a backseat when your brain is busy crunching through complex information to tell a story.
The obsessive among us may claim that proofreading is the answer. Proofreading, however, only gets us so far; as the author explains, “The reason we don’t see our own typos is because what we see on the screen is competing with the version that exists in our heads.” We see what we expect to see—not what is actually there.
I could easily spin this into a soft sell: this is why you need an editor! By the way, have you checked out the Leff Communications services page?
But this idea fascinates me on a deeper level. As a writer, I never really sit down to my computer or notebook without some idea of where I’m going. But regardless of whether you have it all mapped out or you’re leaning on a creative free write, the process of putting complex ideas onto a page should not be a solo task.
Developmental editing, copyediting, proofreading: What’s the difference?
The editorial production process includes several stages, from initial writing through proofreading. A writer begins with a good idea. She may sketch out notes, an outline, or even an entire draft of what she wants to say—but as my colleague Scott Leff has pointed out, even geniuses need to revise their work. That’s when an editor comes in.
The best editors I’ve met are those who read a piece, ingest it, and then push the author for more. This is developmental editing and it is usually the most crucial part of the process. It takes place when the piece is still fluid, the ideas may change, and the structure almost certainly does. The best pieces result when a writer is protective of her ideas, not her words, and the editing process is a collaboration between writer and editor. It is a high-level task, and two minds (or more) are always better than one. It is the editor’s job to pick his battles and to help craft ideas into not only sentences but a story that works.
The editor may not make any changes to the draft at first, because he wants to get to know the author and what she is trying to accomplish. If the piece is about a business concept, the editor needs to know the industry and the audience, as well as how the piece fits into the company’s communications strategy. The first request might be simple: a particular business concept introduced in paragraph three would be better explained if you offer a case study or an anecdotal example. Sometimes this revision process only needs one turn and you’re done. Sometimes it means multiple drafts and rewrites—particularly if you’re working on a longer piece, an undeveloped set of ideas, or a new concept the author wants to get just right.
After the direction is chosen, the ideas are set, and the holes are filled in to create a tight, crisp piece of writing, the copyediting begins. Copyediting is a much more rigid task; the copyeditor’s job is to ensure proper grammar, syntax, spelling, and punctuation. The biggest changes at this stage generally deal with sentence-level form and clarity—swapping out jargon for more approachable wording, recasting passive sentences, and correcting errors in syntax. I’ll be honest; this is the step I nerd out on. I love it just as much as the early stages of editing, when I’m helping a writer nail down the concepts they want to talk about in the first place. Of course, ideally you wouldn’t have the same editor doing both jobs—because your developmental editor may have gotten too close to the material, likely helped craft many of the sentences, and would not be the most objective copyeditor.
The very last step is proofreading. This step may seem unnecessary after the piece has been through multiple rounds of editing, but beware the folly of skipping it: imagine a report that your team has worked on for months being published with a typo on the cover or a misspelled name in the donor list. (We’ve seen both almost happen.) Such an error not only is embarrassing but also undermines the original goal of the piece—to showcase your expertise and insight. As a rule of thumb, the proofreader should be brand new to the piece, as she will have no preconceived notion of what it’s supposed to say in the first place—and therefore she’ll be least likely to miss errors.
It takes a village—or, more accurately, a solid team (and not just a solo freelancer or internal company communications head)—to develop an article, a report, or a book. Almost without exception, more minds are better because you avoid the pitfall of only seeing what you expect to see on the page. Inevitably, someone else will have an idea that will disrupt your own thought process—and that is a very good thing.