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Clarity for Editing

By Justin Baker, Senior Member

Reprinted from Capital Letter , the newsletter of the Washington, D.C. chapter of STC, by permission of author and editor.

When I was a young technical editor, I was confused by all of the technical editing stages within one editing model — not to mention the competing editing models. Everywhere I turned, there seemed to be a competing name and a competing label for a particular aspect of editing. For example, substantive editing means developmental editing unless you are thinking of a particular editing model.

I was like a movie character in one of those old cliched film montages where the character walks past one blinking neon sign after another, completely perplexed. To this day, I still do not adhere mentally to The Levels of Edit 1 with its nine editing levels. I have sought to develop my own editing model based on my experience as a technical editor. Some theoretical physicists believe that the underlying formula that explains the theory of everything in the universe will turn out to be a simple, elegant formula. Life is indeed complex, but at the mountaintop of knowledge, things must have a simplicity that is understood by all. I believe that to be true of the levels of edit.

If some editors are not clear on the levels of edit that it takes to edit a document, then most managers are certainly not clear on the levels of edit, either. As we all know, communicating our profession's conceptual models to managers is very difficult. Most managers (excluding technical communication managers) think of writing and editing as a black box activity. They see the document go in; they see the document come out. Most managers are blissfully ignorant of the complexities of our job. Their blissful ignorance may be partly our fault. Perhaps we have not communicated the nature of our activities in the simplest possible way.

This is a usability issue. We as technical communicators are focused on usability more and more, so when the conceptual models in our own profession are not easily understandable, then we need to simplify them. I think it is time to simplify and re-label the editing levels so that they are straightforward and intuitive, at least at the top level. The Levels of Edit espouse no less than nine editing levels, and labels for some of these editing levels are surely not intuitive to either some editors or managers. Let's simplify the editing model down to three editing levels at the very top.

Knowledge Editing

I propose that the first editing level be titled knowledge editing. Knowledge editing refers to the technical subject matter in a document, both in text form as well as in illustration form. In the editing model I propose, the knowledge editing level would be divided into four sub-levels:
  • knowledge accuracy,
  • knowledge completeness,
  • knowledge logic,
  • knowledge hierarchy.

The knowledge accuracy and knowledge completeness sub-levels would ensure that the subject matter is accurate and complete. The knowledge logic editing sub-level would ensure that the a-b-c logic of the subject matter is sound. The knowledge hierarchy editing sub-level would ensure that the 1.0, 1.1, 1.1.1 hierarchy of the subject matter is sensible. Of course, the editing sub-levels in this editing level might be performed at the same time as they might be in the proceeding editing levels.

Language Editing

I propose that the second editing level be titled language editing. Language editing refers to the technical subject matter in a document, both in text form as well as in illustration form. Language editing would focus on the manifestation of the knowledge through words and images. This level of editing would encompass the following editing sub-levels:
  • sentence structure
  • grammar, diction
  • punctuation
  • spelling
  • character mechanics

For visual text, language editing refers to the particular standard visual elements used in any given type of illustration. For example, use case diagrams use particular industry-standard visual elements that must be used in the diagram; for network diagrams, some companies might want to consistently use the same network server icon. The language editing level would ensure that the text language as well as the visual language are standardized.

Layout Editing

I propose that the third editing level be titled layout editing. Layout editing focuses on the following editing sub-levels:
  • standard, large-scale document structures
  • text and illustration spacing
  • large-scale font formatting
  • miscellaneous layout mechanisms such as running headers, page numbers, and hyperlinks


In the editing-level conceptual model that I propose, I do not consider it necessary to build in a layer that prioritizes the levels of editing as is dictated in The Levels of Edit or a Council of Biology Editors (CBE) publication2 from several years ago that proposed the reprioritization of the editing levels found in the Levels of Edit. Simplicity is best in this situation. It is enough to give technical editors the basic editing levels and sub-levels and let them decide what takes priority.

I have not covered all the possible nooks and crannies of the editing landscape in this brief column, but it doesn't matter. Even if I had covered every single aspect of editing, there would be arguments about the arrangement of the editing levels and sub-levels. The point is that the editing conceptual model needs to be simplified at least at the top editing level. I say knowledge editing, language editing, and layout editing. You may say something else. And we can debate on the editing sub-levels that lay beneath. I'm merely making a call for clarity.

Justin Baker has been a technical writer and editor for nine years. You can reach him at bakerjustin at earthlink.net.


  1. Van Buren, Robert, and Mary Fran Buehler. The Levels of Edit, 2nd Ed. Pasadena: Jet Propulsion Laboratory California Institute of Technology, 1980.
  2. Nadziejka, David. 1999. Council of Biology Editors Guidelines, Number 4: Levels of Technical Editing. ISBN 0-914349-5-0. Reston, VA: Council of Biology Editors

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