What Does it Mean to Edit a Document?

It’s no wonder authors are often unsure what editing services they need for their document or manuscript. The term editing seems to be used interchangeably to mean copyediting, proofreading, substantive editing, content editing, and technical editing. So, what does it mean to edit a document?

Editing defined

A simple definition of editing is improving text of some kind, whether it’s going to be published for millions or for a college class. Editing services aim for copy to be well-written, high-quality, and error-free. Editing as a service is important for a range of copy types. Maybe it will appear online as a blog or article, in a journal or newspaper, as an announcement or poster, or as a full-length book.

There are several types of manuscript manipulation techniques that require understanding to fully grasp where editing falls within the publishing process. The related services we’ll cover are copyediting, substantive editing, and proofreading.


Copyeditors typically provide editing services on a line-by-line, or sentence-by-sentence, basis. This means they will make suggestions for sentence structure, flow, and word choice and will correct any errors they come across in grammar, spelling, or punctuation. They’ll check formatting and alignment with applicable style guides, such as the Chicago Manual of Style or the American Psychological Association (APA) style. These style guides are especially particular about the references and citation lists in academic or technical works.

Copyediting typically does not include providing suggestions about the style and consistency of the entire document, especially if it is a book-length work. Copyediting is more laser-focused on each sentence, word, and paragraph. Sometimes copyeditors communicate with authors, but often they do not.

Substantive editing

Substantive editing, also referred to as developmental editing, addresses the organization of ideas within a document, and dives deeper into meaning and tone for the intended audience than copyediting does. A substantive editor will pay attention to how ideas are organized, phrasing, and readability.

Developmental or substantive editors will also pay attention to consistency of tone, language, and word usage throughout the entire document. They may or may not be responsible for correcting grammatical or spelling errors, as their focus is on the complete presentation of the text.


Proofreading can be thought of as the “surface” type of editing. Proofreaders look for typos and errors in text that has already been through editing. Their job is to catch anything that the editor or copyeditor may have missed. They don’t pay attention to global issues or tone.

Editing and copyediting, as opposed to proofreading, can include grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, style, consistency, word choice, tone, paragraph length, and much more. Often when people say “editing” they are referring to a deeper substantive or developmental edit. Sometimes, however, “editing” is used to mean proofreading.

This is why it’s always a good idea to clarify if you’re uncertain about what kind of service you need for your document, or if you’ve been asked to edit something. A simple clarifying answer will divulge whether the document should be scanned for errors or if it should be reworked to improve the quality of the writing.

Engaging with an editor is always a good idea for school papers; online publications like blogs, newsletters, or articles; important mailings; webpage copy; or self-published books. Each project will differ in its needs for developmental editing or proofreading. It’s thus important to consider how deep the text should be reviewed to reach the ultimate goal of communicating with the intended audience.

Editor World offers professional document editing services at affordable prices.