Definitions of common writing and editing terms

If you’ve ever hired an editorial team, you’ve likely heard the following terms tossed around casually. But what do they mean? They can be confusing, particularly to people who don’t need to use them very often. But each term refers to a specific and important step in the editorial process, and it is by taking our time with each of these steps that we are able to provide clients with thoughtful, clear, and darn-near-perfect pieces of content.

Narrative development

This stage is really the first in the editorial process. During the narrative development stage, we have conversations with the client and among ourselves on the editorial team about what story we’re telling. Where’s the juiciest info? What makes the client’s perspective different? Where can they add insight? Is there anything counterintuitive about what they have to say? Basically, we ensure that what we create is original and adds to the industry-wide conversation. We never want to create something that simply contributes to the noise, echoing what’s already been said. That’s why we think really hard here about the client’s perspective and what they have to offer.

Top editing

Top editing comes after we have a draft. We’ve already written something that we believe more or less tells the story we want to tell, but now we want to make sure we’re telling it in the best way possible. During this stage, we think at a high level about whether we’re doing what we set out to achieve. Are there any leaps in logic? Gaps in the story? Does the structure make sense? We make sure all the elements of the story are there without worrying too much about individual sentences.

Copy editing

The sentence is the concern of the copy editor. Once we have written, top edited, and iterated on a draft and it is considered final by the authors, it moves to the copy editor. This person goes through it at a much lower, pickier level than the top editor. Does every sentence make sense? Is that really the optimal word for what we’re talking about? Copy editors are free to adjust the structure a bit but mostly within individual paragraphs since the top editor should have considered the structure of the full piece. They can ask questions where they believe information is missing or a point needs to be clarified. They get rid of redundancies, they ensure the piece is concise, and they think about every word.


The proofread is the final stage—right before the piece goes to print, is posted online, or is shared at an event. It is the polish on what is at this point a very solid, logical, complete story, and it has two primary goals: 1) to ensure the document is free of typos and 2) to ensure consistency throughout the document. So the proofreader checks that every comma is in its correct place, every word is spelled correctly, every word that should be capitalized is and those that shouldn’t aren’t. They ensure we follow every rule of the client’s style guide. It is the job of the perfectionist. And it is, to some of us, a whole lot of fun.

Did I miss one you’ve always wondered about? Ask in the comments and maybe we can shed some light.


Annie Mullowney

As a senior editor, Annie focuses primarily on developmental editing and drafting, helping clients sharpen their stories and tell them in a compelling way.

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