Reviewing the difference between editing and revision

Note: The WritingEssentials blog is on hiatus. Meanwhile, favorite posts will be published with updates. Ellen ~~

With the return of my Continuing Ed Writing Workshop, I am reminded of the confusion and even reluctance of beginning and nonprofessional writer over editing and revision. Many of these writers, even if they’ve produced a lot of material, feel that it’s ok to merely go back and tweak a few commas or words, even ignoring advice about standard usage – and the confusion caused by nonstandard use, especially if there is no internal logic in their piece. It’s time to revisit original post some 100 entries ago on what the difference is between editing and revision.

Editing vs. Revision

We often use the two terms interchangeably and yet there are some important distinctions. (Even an editing article in the NYTimes in 2020 confuses them, though it focuses on editing, more than true revision.) It is useful to think of editing and revising as separate processes. There is overlap, of course, but basically editing focuses more on stylistic and grammatical points once you have an acceptable draft. On the other hand, revision is a continual process of writing and rewriting to produce that acceptable draft. Understanding the differences will help you understand more about the writing process and to prepare for publishing.

Though different editors or publishing houses may use different terms, the world of professional editing generally divides the tasks into 3 areas or levels:

Copyediting – surface mechanics or graphics, including abbreviations, capitalization, spelling, punctuation. Some copyeditors address grammar and syntax, including comma splices, unnecessary commas, or missing commas. They may as well as identify ambiguous or incorrect statements in nonfiction or macro inconsistencies in fiction (character has red hair in one part of the story and black hair later in the story).

Line editing – sentence level revisions, focusing on how a writer uses language to communicate ideas or the story to the reader. Line editors will deal with issues such as wrong words, wordiness, words in wrong order, and imprecise relationships between words, such as between subjects and verbs and between pronouns and antecedents.

Developmental editing – Editors “roll up their sleeves” and dig into a work, focusing on flow, sequence of ideas, logic, order. Developmental editors help authors with the overall structure and content direction of a work, turning ideas (non-fiction) or scenes (fiction, memoir) into an order that makes sense.

(The rates professional editors charge reflect the level of detail and intensity of the editing: copyeditors often charge a flat rate calculated on estimates based on the number of words or pages in a manuscript; developmental editors usually offer their services on an hourly basis at a set rate which can begin at well over $130/hour and up.)

Many writers say they are revising their work when what they are really doing is editing, especially copyediting – correcting typos or finding a misspelled word or misplaced comma.

Sometimes they will do line editing, or a kind of “cut and replace” technique: cut a bad word and replace it with a good word; rework a poor or awkward sentence and replace it with a good or effective one; find a bad paragraph and replace it with a good one.

Copyediting and line editing are more surface revising which can turn bad to good, it can make your writing look better. But can also show problems in the writing, holes in story, plot, structure, development and organization or flow. Such substantive or developmental editing is true revision, which requires seeing your writing from a completely different perspective, a re-vision, or re-seeing it. At the global level you revise and redraft to get your text right.

In fiction, you pay attention to character development and scenes, what contributes to the story and what keeps it moving. Are the characters drawn well, is the setting clear, is the story engaging, making the reader want to continue reading?

In non-fiction, you pay attention to your overall argument, the logical flow of your ideas, the quality of your evidence. In the same way, you need to tackle each chapter, section, subsection, paragraph, and even certain sentences. For memoir and autobiography, writers need to consider some of both fiction and non-fiction concerns.

Revising and rewriting focuses on major changes that include:

  • Adding, changing, or deleting parts of the piece to help the writing flow
  • Turning worn out words into vivid words
  • Coming up with an interesting lead that hooks the reader (and if non-fiction, a conclusion that sums up things)
  • Adding specific descriptions, explanations, and details
  • Organizing story elements or ideas into an order that makes sense

As discussed in the post on becoming a writer, we begin by free writing, by getting down our ideas and images, to capture those first thoughts, to cultivate the fluency in what some people call the rough or zero draft. It is necessary to move on to subsequent drafts to bring second and third thoughts, to create the material to be able to edit and revise. Few, if any, authors create a polished piece of writing in the early drafts.

In her discussion of the importance of free-writing, of producing “messy writing every day,” Jean Bolker says that “[i]f you look at a piece of finished writing, and know nothing about how it actually came about,” you would think that it was easy (for some [genius] writers) or that it was produced following a “good old-fashioned boring model.”

However, she cites Millier’s longer study of the 17 drafts of Bishop’s poem, saying “The most shocking thing I found out from reading Bishop’s drafts is that her first draft looks nearly as awful as my own first-draft poems do; it’s what Bishop does after that—and how many times she does it—that makes all the difference” (Bolker, Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day 33).

Even after a piece is published, authors may return to it, continually tweaking or revising the prose. The modern writer Henry James was famous for this, even producing a whole different version of some two dozen of his works known as the New York edition in which he “wrote them over.”

Nevertheless, most writers, whether beginner or experienced, should focus on true revision or rewriting before they spend a lot of time on surface revising or editing. Here’s how one resource puts it:

Editing = Making it look better

Revising = Making it sound better

When you put your work out into the world, you want it to be in the best shape possible: of course you want it to look nice, but you also want the story (fiction/personal stories) or argument to be clear and compelling and strong—this is what will grab and keep your readers.

 (References & resources: NYTimes, “Why You Should Edit Your Own Writing”; Robert J. Ray, The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel; www.uq.edu.au, “phdwriting”; thinkwritten.com, “difference-between-revising-and-editing”; slc.berkeley.edu, “editing-vs-revision”; teacherspayteachers.com, “Revising-vs-Editing”; nybookeditors.com, “copyediting-vs-line-editing”; Jean Bolker, Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day; Philip Horne, Henry James and Revision: the New York Edition.)

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