Sometimes people request that I do a “light edit” on their document, book chapter, or book. “Just give it a read and let me know what it needs,” they say.
I can’t actually do that. I only know how to do a close read.
How I do a developmental edit
There is a switch in my brain. It has two settings. One setting is “reading” and the other setting is “editing.” There is no third setting called “light edit.”
When the setting is “reading,” my only goal is to get information. I’m not attempting to be critical.
When the setting is “editing,” my goal is to imagine a typical reader and identify anything that interferes with that reader understanding what the author is trying to say. An editor always stands in for the reader, but the editor uses editorial skills to not only identify what problems there are, but also to understand why they exist and how the author could fix them.
I read every word looking for things that work and things that don’t. The potential problems include:
- A muddled idea.
- Structure that’s unclear or hard to follow (disorganized sections, subsections, or paragraphs).
- Opportunities for graphics — and problems in graphics that are already included.
- Too much dependence on paragraphs instead of diverse elements like lists, quotes, links, tables, and subheads.
- Paragraphs too long.
- Redundancy — material that can be cut without losing meaning.
- Buried lede — need to get to the point sooner.
- Inconsistencies of any kind: non-parallel lists, shifts in tense, shifts in tone, switching between “you” and “we,” use or omission of the serial comma, or any number of other potential problems.
- Word repetition.
- Passive voice.
- Impenetrable jargon.
- Weasel words.
- Lack of clear advice.
- Incorrect use of numbers and statistics.
- Overuse of exclamation points, rhetorical questions, profanity, italics, underlines, or other “junk” content.
- Tone problems — tone that is too academic, breathless, or chirpy.
- Lack of citations for facts and statistics.
- Too many em dashes.
- Grammatical errors, such as sentence fragments, run-ons, subject-verb agreement issues, misspellings, misuse of capitalization, misuse of punctuation, or the like.
- Errors of fact.
This is far from a complete list. Once my brain is in edit mode, any of these problems become noticeable. I will make redline edits where an easy fix is possible, and include comments addressing more complex issues. If I make an edit, I always have a reason for it, a reason I note in a comment (unless it’s obvious).
I then go through the whole document, pull out and organize the general issues I’ve noticed, and create an “edit memo” that addresses those bigger issues. I advise the author to read the edit memo before diving into the marked-up manuscript.
If I see big problems that will require a complete rewrite, then I’ll point those out and cease to review every word in detail (because those words are just going to be replaced anyway). But if most of the prose will remain in the next draft, I’ll read and edit every word.
There are two reasons I can only do a close read, rather than just a light edit looking for more general problems.
First, only a close read will reveal all the problems. Unless my mind is on everything that could be wrong with a piece of text, I may miss things.
Second, I’m likely to have to read additional drafts of the same material. You can only read the same thing so many times before your familiarity with the material undermines your ability to edit it. If I try to do a light edit now and a close read later, eventually I’ll run out of attention for the piece of prose, which is dangerous at the end when the objective is to perfect it.
Questions to ask your editor
I respect that there are editors who are able to do a more cursory review of the type I can’t. If you find one, perhaps they will agree to do a light edit and charge less for it. But ask them these questions:
- Which kind of problems do you ignore in a light edit?
- If you do a more detailed edit in the future, will it cost less?
- If you read the same prose multiple times, can you still catch all the problems with it?
If you’re an editor with a “light edit” setting in your brain, I’d love to hear how it works for you.