In your hands, finally, you hold sparkling copy: a good idea fleshed out in compelling prose, with no design flaws or typos. Everything worked out this time around.
But to get those results every time, you need a foolproof routine: a standard editorial process that helps you create quality publications time after time. Below, we take you through those steps, drawing on the expertise of our team at Dragonfly Editorial.
First, you need to decide what your piece or publication will be about. This decision may be made by an editorial board, a marketing lead, a managing editor, or another senior person altogether. Lisa Péré, writing manager at Dragonfly Editorial, sometimes facilitates kickoff meetings with clients to brainstorm ideas. “We talk about the big questions: What’s the purpose of the piece? Who’s the audience? What’s the takeaway message for readers?”
Now that you know where you want to go, it’s time to start drafting. Or, better yet, assign a writer. Your writer may have subject matter expertise of their own, or you may provide resources for them to consult. Regardless of who is writing, Lisa advises being a bit forgiving with your first draft. “Try not to self-edit. Let it come out crappy then fine-tune it.”
This is also a good time to recognize that the stages of the standard editorial process are not silo-ed ones. If it helps to chat with your designer about how they envision designing the project, start those conversations early. Understanding how your words will come to life visually can help you structure your content.
After the writing comes the first quality control check: the substantive edit. At this stage, the writer should get feedback on the big picture. Does the publication strike the right tone? Does it cover the right topics? Is it organized in a compelling and clear way?
In seeking a substantive editor, subject matter expertise can help, but it’s not essential. The critical skill required is the ability to step back from the minutiae of copyediting and assess whether the piece works as a whole. Kathryn Flynn, senior editor at Dragonfly, puts it this way: the substantive editor must be “well organized and fearless” — not afraid to give the writer substantial guidance on how to get their message across more clearly and powerfully.
The writer and editor should rinse and repeat this process until all content issues have been worked out and the document is ready to be copyedited.
This round of review will have a different focus. Instead of checking the structure and logic of the piece, the copy editor will check the mechanics of the writing, correcting grammatical, spelling, and punctuation errors and ensuring consistency within the manuscript. Editors and authors can take several actions to help facilitate this process.
For example, when the document is sent for editing, the editor can ask the author whether there are any issues outside of routine editing that need to be addressed (such as changing instances of British spelling to American) and confirm what style guide the author prefers.
Michelle Anderson, senior editor at Dragonfly who often leads a team of editors on large multi-document projects, has a few tips: “Set up as much as you can before the work actually starts. If you have a draft from the client or a similar project, that helps. If you have a remote team, create an online style sheet, like in Google Docs, with the client’s style notes and space where the whole team can track acronyms, names, and unique word use. For projects that have an extended timeline, I add a calendar to this sheet. That way, editors can share their availability, and I can know how many pages to assign them.”
Michelle’s work as a senior editor — assigning files, tracking progress, monitoring the style sheet, making style decisions, and submitting files to the client — allows copy editors to focus on their work without the worry of file facilitation and other tasks. However, these duties are still relevant for the single editor, who will have to perform all of these functions themself.
Once the editing is done, a clean copy is sent to the designer for layout. Dragonfly design manager Alexis Nesbitt stresses the importance of sending copy that is final. “Making edits after layout requires a lot of back-and-forth between the designer and editor, which can introduce errors."
Ideally, the editor and designer have been in touch beforehand, ensuring they’re both working from a shared vision. Editors can help designers get a jump start by sharing an early draft of the content, so they can get a feel for the elements in the publication (for example, if there are lots of figures or sidebars).
The standard editorial process wraps up with the proofing stage. Here, proofreaders look for two things: errors that have slipped through earlier rounds of editing or have been accidentally introduced during the design phase.
However, this is not a time to introduce a whole new round of changes to the document. Proofers should focus on embarrassing errors: misspellings, typos, incorrect dates, wrong URLs, missing text. “It’s important to reinforce to editors that a proof is not editing. I’m guilty of going too far during proofs occasionally, but once a document is in layout, you’re looking for egregious errors only,” says Michelle.
Margaret Walker, Dragonfly’s editorial manager, shares tricks for making the proofing stage more efficient: “Breaking the content down into specific design-related tasks and then proofing them helps tremendously. For example, if the images can be created and proofed on a separate track from the text, that speeds things up.”
Dragonfly editor Molly Gamborg notes that it’s also helpful to look at similar elements across the pages of a document. “For example, check all the footers at the same time. Then check all the bylines. Then all the pull quotes. You’ll catch inconsistencies and errors that you wouldn’t spot by reading a piece end to end.”
For materials that will be printed, the team will get another chance to scan for egregious errors — such as blurry images or fonts that didn’t render correctly — when they receive printer proofs. Again, at this stage in the game, only absolutely essential changes should be made. And no, a missing serial comma does not count as essential.
These six components are the building blocks to creating quality publications time after time, and they inform each other. Thus, “communication is key for the whole process,” says Lisa.
The more information writers have from editors regarding style guides and content expectations, the better their drafts will be. When editors know an author’s pain points beforehand, their edits are more thoughtful. When designers know what the author and editor have in mind, they can turn a publication into a work of visual art. The standard editorial process offers a comprehensive way to approach projects. It also captures team spirit.