Skip to main content

Editing & Proofreading

OWL logo

Welcome to the Purdue OWL

This page is brought to you by the OWL at Purdue University. When printing this page, you must include the entire legal notice.

Copyright ©1995-2018 by The Writing Lab & The OWL at Purdue and Purdue University. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, reproduced, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission. Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our terms and conditions of fair use.

This resource covers process and strategy, not correctness rules. For help there, see our many resources on grammar,  mechanics, and punctuation.

There are multiple levels of editing, and terminology surrounding editing is often used interchangeably and fluidly. These levels have some overlap between each other, rather than being totally discrete stages; similarly, developmental and substantive editing are more closely related to the "revision" step of the writing process. The four editing levels are:

  • Developmental editing: looking at the overall development of the piece, for instance looking for organizational patterns, missing information, inaccurate information, or anything that might confuse a reader
  • Substantive editing: making changes to ensure sections (all the way down to paragraphs and sentences) flow logically from one to the next, ensure each paragraph's topic sentence is present and accurate, adding new necessary material to make connections between ideas, removing unnecessary material
  • Copyediting: addressing sentence level issues such as style inconsistencies, subject-verb agreement, confusing or wordy phrasing, missing words, missing or inaccurate citations, and any other mechanical or grammatical issues that may be present
  • Proofreading: usually the "last pass" before submission or publication; ensuring everything is correct and no lingering errors such as typos, missing words, missing punctuation, etc. remain.

In general, writers should follow this list down in order when revising and editing, from higher order to lower order concerns (in other words, from bigger or more impactful issues to smaller and less impactful issues).

While many writers edit alone at some point during the process, many writers also edit with a partner or writing group. Working with others is strongly recommended when editing; typically, this stage of the writing process comes last or close to last, meaning that writers are more likely to overlook mistakes or potential opportunities (because they have been working on the text for so long). It can be hard for writers to imagine other possibilities beyond what they have already written. A partner or group brings fresh perspective and a real audience who can offer feedback and tell the writer more about what it's like to read their writing. 

If you're intrigued by the idea of a writing group but not sure where to start, you might check out these resources: 

Editing Before Submission

When you're ready to edit, it's important to start with higher order concerns and move down to lower order concerns (as stated above). For higher order concerns, see the editing and revision tips on our Organization and Structure page. For lower order concerns (and sometimes higher order concerns — you might realize something about organization while reading carefully for sentence level issues!), here's a list of strategies that our tutors recommend in sessions with graduate writers. They're usually adaptable to different preferences you might have about working digitally vs. on paper, or working alone vs. with a partner or group. Be creative to find what works for you!

  • Read aloud. You can do this yourself, get your computer to read your text out, or ask a friend. Hearing your writing read aloud can help identify places where sentences are confusing or difficult to read, highlight missing words, and create some distance between you and your writing so you can more easily evaluate it.
  • Color code. You might do this by highlighting or changing font colors on your screen, using markers on paper, or even without color using font styles and sizes. This technique is useful for various applications, including identifying parts of sentences, identifying particular words or phrases you repeat often, or categorizing sentences by idea to check organization.
  • Pick individual issues. When you read through with your focus on only one thing, like correcting comma errors or looking for all the places you write "the ways in which," you're less likely to miss instances of that error by getting distracted with other issues.
  • Use checklists. Venues such as journals and conferences often have checklists for authors to use when preparing manuscripts; if you don't have a checklist from a professor, you can sometimes use these checklists to help guide your editing for writing for courses as well. You can also keep a checklist of known issues that your writing partners, professors, tutors, or mentors have mentioned on previous writing assignments to help you look for things you know you do (for instance, one former tutor always put her topic sentences at the ends of paragraphs — she keeps this item in a revision and editing checklist and it's one of the first things she addresses when she edits).

Editing with Feedback

Often, graduate students will be writing or editing with some type of feedback. This could be from peers in a class, from an instructor or mentor, or from a peer reviewer at a conference or journal. If you're in this situation, please see our resources on writing with feedback for more strategies and tips.