Kateproof: Professional and Friendly Proofreading Service

Light, medium and heavy levels of editing

Posted on 27th November 2016

I have previously written a blog post about there being no such thing as a 'light proofread' and I stick by that assertion. The main point of proofreading is to correct any spelling, grammar and punctuation issues, meaning I have to read every letter of every word and I can't speed that process up, or at least not without seriously jeopardising quality, and I'm not willing to do that (speed-reading a book for pleasure does not work for proofreading). With editing, however, there can be a lot more variation in the level of work required.

I'm not talking about the difference between developmental editing and copy-editing, for example, but more about when working as an author's editor, helping to get the work fit for purpose (regardless of what that purpose is). I know other blog posts have been written on this, suggesting that the terms light, medium and heavy editing are meaningless, but I'm not sure it's so clear-cut when working outside the traditional publishing realm, where boundaries are blurred and editing can be used to mean anything from a developmental edit sometimes even through to a proofread.

The level of editorial intervention might vary according to how much the editor actually amends text as opposed to querying it; for example, if headings are numbered incorrectly, a light edit might just involve the editor commenting on this for the author to deal with the changes, but a heavy edit would involve implementing all the changes, possibly even introducing new levels of heading if the structure requires it. If a client has a limited budget, assuming they can implement the changes correctly, they will end up with the same end result but they will have done part of the work rather than paying the editor to do it.

Or the level of intervention might vary according to how much text is changed; for example, with a light edit, the focus would be on correcting all errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation but not necessarily correcting something that perhaps seems wordy but not incorrect; with a heavy edit, all slightly wordy sections or convoluted phrases would be changed and any outright errors would be corrected.

Some of the definitions of editing services even look at levels of fact-checking, with a light edit querying something and a heavy edit changing the text for the author to confirm; with my editing service, fact-checking is always discussed separately and never considered an automatic element.

At a recent conference in a session looking at different levels of editing, someone commented that even if a client asks for a light edit, if it needs a heavy edit, that's what they will do, or they won't take the work on at all. However, I think this raises a few important issues: what if the client can't afford to have that level of work done? What if there isn't time to have that level of work done? What should be done then?

This is where I think a light edit can be very useful even if the work requires a heavier touch. Here are some hypothetical cases where a light edit might be done even if a heavier edit is required:

  • If I am due to work on a PhD thesis and the budget is tight, I can make comments about inconsistencies or missing acronyms, for example, leaving the student to find the details and implement the changes (this is sometimes all that a university will permit anyway, though that's another issue altogether).
  • For a journal article, if the reference section has lots of inconsistencies, I can make comments to highlight these and ensure there are correct examples for different sources (e.g. books, journal articles, web references), leaving the author to amend the rest of the entries, slowly and methodically copying the punctuation and format from the examples.
  • If a fiction author regularly breaks dialogue with a non-speech tag, I could make a comment for them to review the file and include details of options for dealing with the issue, and they can then make those changes rather than me doing this.
  • If a print deadline is looming, a few wordy sections that have no outright errors might be better left in place as this will save me time making changes, not to mention time for project managers or authors to work through the amendments to determine what to keep/reject.

As these examples illustrate, the most appropriate course of action for a document can mean a variety of things to different clients and different projects: business issues can be more important than the pursuit of 'perfect' copy.

I have to admit I rarely use the terms light, medium or heavy edit, particularly as I doubt many authors want to be told that their work requires a heavy edit.

Assuming I have the time, budget and permission to do so, I will do what it takes to get the best end product for the client, regardless of what level of editing that might be. If a client contacts me and says that something requires a light edit, I will bear that in mind but I will still want to see a sample and then discuss the details of what I think the file requires and what the client hopes I will do.

The reality is that regardless of whether a client asks for a light, medium or heavy edit, or what I say the level of service is, the client and I need to understand what my remit is and both be in agreement about this.

Written by Kate Haigh.