A badly written manuscript will probably be returned without peer review. To stop poor language limiting the publication potential of your manuscript, you can ask a language editor for their specialist help. But what kind of help do you need? There are various levels of language editing and each level has a different focus. To get the most out of what your language editor can do for you, you should know about the different types of editing.
The main levels of language editing are substantive editing, copy editing, and proofreading. Substantive editing is useful during early stages of the writing process because it focuses on the content and overall structure of your manuscript. Copy editing has a sharper focus and looks at sentences and paragraphs to correct language errors and inconsistencies, as well as awkward phrases and repetition that disrupt the flow of your writing. Technically, proofreading refers to the correction of a proof from the publisher. However, the term is widely used to refer to lighter editing of an author’s draft that removes any remaining language errors and inconsistencies.
Which level are you on?
So which level of editing do you need? Different authors will benefit from distinct types of editing depending on their individual strengths and weaknesses. If you are a student writing your first paper, you may struggle to organize your information and ideas (substantive editing). As a more experienced postdoc, you may want your manuscript to sound more elegant (copy editing). As a tenured professor, you may want to make sure that a crucial grant application, scrutinized by every member of the lab, does not contain any grammatical errors (proofreading or light copy editing). Each case requires customized editing. In this post, I explain exactly what I look out for when substantive editing or copy editing a manuscript. This information will help you prescribe the right editing for your text.
Structure your content: substantive editing
Scientific content is the core of your manuscript; a good manuscript must contain good science. Substantive editing focuses on this important content and ensures it is properly structured and well presented. An editor with expertise in your field of study will be particularly useful here. When I do a substantive edit, I ask myself the following questions:
- Does the title convey what the research is about?
- Do I understand the rationale, aim, approach, and principal findings of the study after reading the Abstract?
- Does the Introduction provide sufficient background information to understand the study? Is all the information relevant? Do I know what the study will bring to the field?
- Is the research question communicated clearly at the start of the Introduction?
- Is the same research question answered in the Results and Discussion sections? Or has the author introduced a new research question?
- Have appropriate methods been used to answer the research question?
- Has the author described all the methods in sufficient detail? Could I repeat the experiments if I wanted to?
- Do the Abstract, Results, and Discussion sections agree on what the principal findings are?
- Do the results back up the conclusions? Or has the author overestimated or underestimated his/her findings?
- Are the main conclusions of the study explained at the end of the Discussion? Is the significance of the work emphasized sufficiently?
- Has the author discussed the limitations of the study?
- Are there any inconsistencies or discrepancies in the content?
- Has the author explained his/her ideas in a logical order? Or do the paragraphs jump from one idea to the next without drawing firm conclusions?
- Is the relevant information in the relevant section?
Consider each of the questions above. If this handy checklist highlights any problems with the structure and content of your manuscript, then ask your language editor for a substantive edit. Once your text is properly structured, it will be ready for copy editing.
Make your writing readable: copy editing
Copy editing hones in on the text, focusing on each sentence and paragraph to make your manuscript technically accurate and easy to read. This process should not interfere with your meaning or ‘voice’. During a copy edit, I do the following:
- Correct errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
- Fix inconsistencies in spelling, punctuation, abbreviations, capitalization, citations, etc. You may think that such small details do not matter. Who cares if you switch between UK and US English? But subtle inconsistencies are easily noticed and do not create a good impression.
- Make stylistic changes to improve readability. I tighten up the text by removing unnecessary repetition, wordy phrases, and redundant information.
- Improve the flow. Does each sentence deal with one idea? Does each paragraph discuss one topic? Has the author used transitions to link the paragraphs? If not, I suggest modifications to help achieve this.
- Make sure the author has referred to the correct tables/figures in the text.
- Check the tables and figures for obvious non-linguistic mistakes such as wrongly calculated percentages and incorrect spacing of data points in graphs.
- Check that the manuscript adheres to the journal’s style guide and instructions for authors.
Get the support that fits
It is easy to focus too much on superficial errors and forget about content. But a poorly structured manuscript will still be difficult to read after all the spelling mistakes have been corrected. Consider the checkpoints outlined in this article to decide which type of editing your manuscript needs. Remember that you do not need to choose between substantive editing and copy editing. Your language editor can copy edit and proofread a manuscript after substantive editing. Our job is to make sure your manuscript is ready for publication – whatever it takes.
There's more than one approach to language editing
Claire Bacon is a former research scientist with professional qualifications in copy editing and medical editing. She edits manuscripts for non-native English-speaking scientists and works as a copy editor for a biomedical journal.