WRITERS tend to use the terms “revision” and “copyediting” interchangeably, but there are some important differences between the two; they are separate activities accomplished at different stages of the writing process, and both are important to crafting a good piece of writing. What are they, how are they different, and why is it important to understand the differences?
Before we get to revision and copyediting, let’s talk about the first draft. The purpose of a first draft is to get your ideas on paper and, sometimes, to discover what it is you are writing about — especially when you’re writing personal essay or memoir. A first draft is just that — a first draft. Also known as the “shitty draft” (Anne Lamott), “garbage” or the “vomit” draft, your first draft is rough and usually just a sketch of what the final piece will become.
Revision and copyediting both fall under the general umbrella of “editing,” and may be considered the real work of writing. So what the heck are they, and what do they involve?
What is Revision?
Revision requires “re-visioning” your work, looking at it with a fresh perspective. Other terms for revision include substantive, developmental, and structural editing. When you revise, you look at your work as a whole and consider message, purpose, coherence, and organization, as well as writing strengths and weaknesses.
Revision is a dialogue with yourself (and often with a writing group and/or developmental editor) in which you ask questions about what’s working and what is not working in a piece. It includes the processes of reviewing and altering or rewriting your work to improve focus, meaning, and structure. Each time you revise, you build upon the foundation created in the first and subsequent drafts, while letting go of the irrelevant. And revising usually involves moving or removing entire paragraphs, extending or narrowing sections, rewriting vague or confusing prose, and adding or removing scenes.
When revising, you:
- Clarify what your piece is about (your message)
- Define your target audience
- Reorganize/restructure your writing for flow and coherence
- Find your best beginnings and endings
What is Copyediting?
Copyediting is what you do after you’re done revising and rewriting, and have arrived at what you believe to be a solid piece of writing. Copyediting includes line-by-line, word-by-word modifications for sentence structure, word choice, grammar, punctuation, and style. When copyediting, you correct any awkwardness or inconsistencies in the writing. It’s the fine-tuning and polishing part of the writing process, which can be compared to fixing cosmetic flaws and painting and decorating a house after the main construction has been completed. Without copyediting, your piece might have good bones, but it’s still a fixer-upper.
Copyediting a piece before revising it is a waste of time. For example while copyediting, you might agonize over word choice in a particular sentence only to later realize that you need to cut the entire paragraph that contains that sentence. So you first need to revise and rewrite for the overall flow of the piece; then and only then start the copyediting phase.
When copyediting, you:
- Examine and revise sentence structure
- Correct grammar and punctuation errors
- Ensure consistency of word usage, style, and tone
- Polish and perfect
Why You Want to Learn How to Revise and Edit
Though to produce our best work, we all need help (see below), I believe it’s entirely worthwhile to learn how to revise and copyedit your own work. Having worked through these processes before submitting your piece to a publisher or professional editor will save both time and money, and the writing you send out will be stronger. Learning how to revise your own work will also make you a better first-draft writer, as well, because you’ll automatically begin to incorporate your new skills as you write.
Why You Need Help
Most writers need outside feedback on their writing in order to revise and edit effectively, because no matter how great a writer you are, you have biases and blind areas that will prevent you from experiencing your writing as your readers will. This outside feedback can come from a trusted reader, a writing group, a person or group that represents your target audience, a professional developmental editor, or all four. Even if you have excellent revision and copyediting skills (and most of us don’t), you’ll miss things in your own writing that others might see.
For your best work, go ahead and write that lousy first draft. Write it all out. Then revise, edit, and get feedback. Rinse. Repeat. You’ll know when it’s ready.