The Difference Between Revising and Editing

Let me caveat this post straight off by saying this is the difference between revision and editing as I see it in my own head. I’ve never really had this discussion with anyone else, so it could be the whole world sees it in the opposite way than me.

Last week I discussed a new way of thinking about revising. A very important component of writing is the post-writing stages. You finish the book, and then you have to revise. Or are you editing? Do you revise and then edit? Or are these just synonyms?

The OED defines “to edit” as “to publish, give to the world (a literary work by an earlier author, previously existing in MS.)”; “to prepare an edition of (a literary work or works by an earlier author)”; or “to prepare, set in order for publication (literary material which is wholly or in part the work of others).”

Meanwhile it defines “to revise” as “to look or read carefully over (written or printed matter), with a view to improvement or correction; to improve or alter (text) as a result of examination or re-examination” (plus about a million other definitions).

So we can conclude they are not synonyms. But what then is the difference between revising and editing? Here’s a list of some key features of each:

1. Editing can mean a lot of things.

Editing can encompass several changes to the manuscript. There’s structural or developmental editing, where the focus is on whether the piece as a whole is working. Are the characters believable? Do their motivations make sense? Does the plot make sense? How is the pacing of the book? Are there any unnecessary parts?

Then there’s line editing, when the reader is paying attention to individual paragraphs, sentences, and words. Have you already repeated this phrase three times? Does this sentence even make sense? Did this character have blonde hair thirty pages ago? Do all the facts check out?

And there’s also copy editing, which is even more minute. Is the grammar correct? Is the style correct? Where are the typos?

My impression is that a lot of people think editors just do the latter two, but we are not solely interested in the small things. Editors are most helpful in the big picture, and it’s there in the developmental editing that the line between revisions and edits starts to blur.

2. Revising is a monologue; editing is a dialogue.

The way I see it, revising is something that the author does by herself to her own work. It can be while the first draft is being written and the author goes back to change a scene. The whole draft can be written and the writer might be completely rewriting it, or the writer might be just tinkering with it. Revising is the writer re-looking at their own work and figuring out what needs to be done to improve it.

On the other hand, editing requires another person: an editor. This is an objective reader (though we could have a whole other post on how objective editors are) who is reading the text to suggest changes. The verb “editing” can be when the editor is reading and commenting on the work, but it can also refer to the writer enacting those changes. And those edits, as I mentioned above, can be structural edits or they can be line or copy edits.

Although the writer can be editing when they fulfill the requests of their editor, I think that often writers take edits and end up revising. In other words, they get these edits, consider them, and then address those changes in their own way. Instead of simply saying, “Of course I will move this scene,” the writer thinks about why the editor had problem with the placement of the scene and uses it as a springboard to rework that aspect of the work. (This is acceptable when receiving developmental edits, not line or copy edits.)

Revising and editing, then, are not the same thing, but they are closely related. Revising is a personal endeavor on the writer’s part; editing is a conversation between an editor (or editors) and the writer about the writing. Ultimately, the two have the same goal: to polish the writing until it excels in structure, character, language, and ideas.

PS Here are some of Nathan Bransford’s guidelines for editing.

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