Navigating the Narrative: Strategies for Copywriting, Editing, and Proofreading

Clay Walker, a technical writer and writing instructor, delivers invaluable guidance on how to formalize the editing process. Walker defines four stages of editing—planning; revision of higher order concerns, like organization; sentence level revisions; and proofreading. He provides tips for each stage.

By Clay Walker, Lecturer III in Technical Communication, University of Michigan College of Engineering, Ann Arbor, Michigan, cledwa@umich.edu

It’s easy to think about “editing” as the last, quick phase of getting a report or PowerPoint out the door. But editing is more than proofreading—and that is not to discount the importance of proofreading. Editing is the process of improving the structure and clarity of your writing, and it typically takes place throughout the project lifecycle. We edit for many reasons, some of which have little to do with the written product itself and everything to do with our own credibility. After all, if our clients perceive us as sloppy in our writing, so too may they question whether we are sloppy in our analysis.

In this article, I present a four-phase system of editing and offer some ways to approach and take action in each phase. For the purposes of this article, we can think of the four key phases of editing as:

  1. Planning how/when to invest time and resources in moving from the first full draft to the submission
  2. Developing the key higher-order elements of your report (claims, organization, and evidence), thus ensuring your messages are clear to an audience outside the analysis team (and outside the audience inside your own head!)
  3. Copy editing sentences to make sure you’ve made the best choices in terms of diction and sentence structure, improving clarity and flow
  4. Proofing to look for sentence-level mistakes such as unfinished sentences, grammatical errors, or misspellings

In university writing programs, we have our version of the real estate agent mantra: “location, location, location.” Ours is “revision, revision, revision.” Good writing is not about good writers or bad writers; it’s all about the process. Accept that first drafts are terrible and focus on making incremental improvements through revision.

If you are anything like me, you go through ups and downs throughout project lifecycles, feeling everything is spectacular one day, and then it’s all coming apart the next day. Revision is the process of moving through these ups and downs until they start to stabilize.

In the following section, I break down the four phases of editing and “revision.”


The Phases of Editing

Think about editing as a process with phases in which your attention shifts from one aspect to another in the document.

These phases can further be separated between a focus on higher-order revisions, such as developmental editing, and lower-order revisions, such as copy editing or proofreading.

Developmental editing focuses on making larger-scale changes that can affect the document as a whole. Copy editing and proofreading focus more narrowly on improving the finer details in your prose at the sentence level.

Earlier rounds of editing should be more developmental, with attention paid to higher-order concerns like the organization of ideas. These aspects are “higher order” because if you don’t have the connections here figured out, no one is going to care about where you’ve placed (or misplaced) your commas! Developmental editing is about making clear connections between claims, evidence, and the reasons why that evidence supports your claims.

Later rounds should consist of an increasingly narrow focus on language and mechanics. “Language” here can mean word choice and word order. “Mechanics” refers to the nitty-­gritty of word form, spelling, punctuation, and all of the other requirements to make the sentence function. Don’t spend much time editing for language and mechanics until you’ve sorted out the developmental issues because as you work on those pieces, you will likely make significant changes to how you phrase things. The final copy editing and proofreading should happen just before you are ready to send out your project.

Phase 1: Make an Editing Plan

Just as you made a plan for data collection and analysis, you also need a plan for editing.

Why does this matter? Your time is limited; without a plan, the cart will tend to get in front of the horse.

First, consider the resources available for editing your project. Your time and attention come with caps. Align your plan with the resources available for the project—in terms of time, money, and your own intellectual energy. Projects with a shorter timeline will require you to focus on the most critical issues of style, language, and grammar that affect clarity of meaning. Projects with more time available will allow you to develop a more polished approach.

Second, focus on higher-order concerns before focusing on lower-order concerns. It can be easy to get caught up in the small stuff, like grammar and mechanics, during higher-order editing, only to realize later that a slide is redundant, slightly off-topic, or just needs to be reorganized. Make sure you carve out time for developmental editing and copy editing/proofreading as separate phases.


Phase 2: Developmental Editing, or Revising for the Bigger Picture

Once you’ve finished the first draft of your report (or text), you’ll want to start the editing phase of your project with an assessment of its organization, claims, evidence, reasoning, transitions between sections, etc.—the higher-order items.

First, examine the connections between claims, evidence, and reasons.

  • Note the moments where you make key claims to ensure they are clear for your target reader and well-placed for maximum visibility.
  • Look at the evidence marshaled to support these key claims and consider whether the evidence you’ve included is appropriate, sufficient, and persuasive.
  • Review your discussion of the evidence to ensure you make explicit statements that justify the evidence as support for your larger claims.

Second, review the organization of the document.

  • Revisit your initial organizational decisions and determine how well they’re playing out.
  • Ask yourself whether the subsections are working or whether you need to add/delete subsections to improve clarity.
  • Examine transitions between subsections and consider whether you need to preview subsequent elements or circle back to earlier content to make the entire project feel more complete.

If you find yourself going down a grammar revision rabbit hole during this phase, check yourself and come back up for air. Refocus on higher-order concerns.

No doubt, you are going to notice little things that bother you as you move through the higher-order concerns of your writing. I’m not saying you can’t address those; just try to stay focused on your main editing goal at this time. You can note issues using comments, sticky notes, or whatever system you prefer. These observations can make the final push to proofreading easier to complete.

Once you’ve satisfied these larger concerns, you can focus more directly on improving clarity sentence by sentence.


Phase 3: Copy editing, or Seeing More Clearly

It’s now time to work at the level of individual sentences. Copy editing consists of focusing on the language of your writing—word by word, sentence by sentence. The goal of this phase is to improve the clarity of your style. When you copy edit, you correct things like grammar and punctuation, but you also make changes to word choice, sentence structure, etc., to improve clarity.

Think of your report as a play—the main actor is the subject of your sentence, and the audience is trying to connect all the action to that main actor. The sooner they know who the main actor is and who the supporting actors are, the easier it is for them to put it all together in their heads as a complete scene.

At the level of the sentence, the primary editing goal is to revise word choice, word order, and word or phrase placement to make the relationships among the actors (nouns), processes (verbs), and their circumstances (adverbs, prepositional phrases) as clear as possible.

These changes might impact the headlines of your slides or the bulleted lists on your slides, which might only consist of phrases, not complete sentences. Make sure your wording and structure provide the main finding or point in a way that is immediately clear and meaningful.

Below, I give some high-impact practices that can improve the clarity of your communication. Usually, this involves making grammatical choices about what you want to highlight. The following examples really focus on making the subject easier to spot and, therefore, more effective in your writing.

Place old information before new information. Improve flow by placing information readers have already been introduced to in the subject position. Use the verb and objects of the sentence to add new information, thus building connections from one point to another. This strategy will help readers connect the idea(s) from previous slides, sections, and/or sentences to the subject of the sentence at hand.

EXAMPLE: Due to the recent budget cuts, our annual company retreat, which we have held for the past 10 years, will be canceled this year.

REVISION: For the past 10 years, we have held an annual company retreat, but due to budget cuts, it will be canceled this year.

Use sentence structure to emphasize the most important elements in the sentence.

Sentences can often be spun around so that an object becomes a subject and vice versa. For example, consider how the following sentences each highlight a different element:

EXAMPLE: 1            Nadia threw a rock and broke the window.

EXAMPLE: 2            The rock Nadia threw broke the window.

EXAMPLE: 3            The window was broken by the rock thrown by Nadia.

None of these sentences is inherently “better” or “worse” than another. But what is highlighted in the sentence shifts depending on whether it is placed in the subject, verb, or object position. Place your most important sentence element in the subject position to draw maximum attention to it.

Place the main actor early in the sentence.

The sooner your audience knows what you are talking about, the easier it is for them to follow along.

Improve clarity by introducing the subject at the start of the sentence and reorganizing the sentence so that other elements, such as an introductory phrase, follow the main clause. Consider the following examples:

EXAMPLE: In light of recent changes in the pharmaceutical industry, patient education and transparency can have a bigger impact on treatment outcomes than in the past.

REVISION: Patient education and transparency can have a bigger impact on treatment outcomes than in the past due to recent changes in the pharmaceutical industry.

Trim the fat around your subject.

Shorten subject phrases by removing or limiting prepositional phrases. Prepositions are often easy to spot because they generally describe any place a mouse can go (e.g., in, above, behind, under, over, next to, between, through). Prepositions usually mark the start of a phrase or clause—thus becoming a “prepositional phrase.” Although prepositional phrases can put context around the main point of your sentence (e.g., “after the pandemic”), prepositional phrases can also delay the introduction of your actor.

EXAMPLE: After the pandemic, parents employed in middle-­class jobs, with their daily commutes and shift schedules, often have difficulty attending after-school youth sports events.

REVISION: Parents employed in middle-class jobs often find it difficult to attend after-school youth sports events due to their daily commutes and shift schedules.

Consider whether your noun should become a verb or vice versa.

English is a dynamic language that will let you turn pretty much anything into a verb—like to Xerox and to Google (and, maybe soon, to ChatGPT?).

While we all know the basics, a good refresher from time to time is always good. Understanding sentence structure is important for any type of writing. Placing ideas in the subject (noun) or predicate (verb) position gives you certain possibilities for meaning-making, including writing with more concision, highlighting actors, or commenting on a complex idea.

EXAMPLE: Parents employed in middle-class jobs often find it difficult to attend after-school youth sports events due to their daily commutes and shift schedules.

REVISION: Middle-class parents often find it difficult to attend after-school youth sports events due to their daily commutes and shift schedules.

Verbs become the nouns.

Some people say that you should always make your writing more concrete, and while that’s not bad advice, it’s not always true. Sometimes, you need to create concise, abstract phrases by converting verbs into nouns.

EXAMPLE: people talk to each other

REVISION: interpersonal communication

The revision is more concise because it combines the actor (“people”) and object (“each other”) with the process (to communicate) into a single abstract concept (interpersonal communication).

When you move the verb (to communicate) into the subject position as a noun (“interpersonal communication”), you can then comment on that concept. For example: “Interpersonal communication plays a strong role in building relationships in both personal and professional settings.” By turning the action (“people talking to each other”) into a noun (“interpersonal communication”), you’ve created space to concisely describe the benefits of interpersonal communication.

Nouns become the verbs.

On the other hand, you can reveal hidden actors when moving a process or activity from a noun phrase to the verb position.

EXAMPLE: The investigation into the incident led to the discovery of new information.

REVISION: Katie and Robin investigated the incident, leading to their discovery of new information.

This first sentence uses the term “the investigation” as the subject and does not disclose who did that investigation. Police reports use this rhetorical move time and again to shift attention away from officers as the agents (for example, “a suspect was shot” or an “officer-involved shooting”). However, the revision highlights the actors in the sentence who are only implied in the first version by moving the process to the verb position.


Phase 4: Proofreading, or Leave No Comma Behind

When the dust settles, you can proofread. Unlike copyediting, your task with proofreading is only to correct any previously undetected errors in spelling, grammar, mechanics, etc.

Be wary of making any substantial changes to wording or sentences at this stage because doing so may have unintended effects on other aspects of the report—and you might not be able to notice those effects at this stage.

The biggest challenge of proofreading is approaching the text with a fresh eye. If you are like me, it can be very difficult to critically read your own writing when you have been working on a project for an extended period.

It’s easier to evaluate your work once you’ve had the chance to step away from the document. Unfortunately, you don’t always have the luxury of time.

The problem with proofreading when you are too close to the document is that you carry all sorts of ideas in your memory as you read what you’ve written. This background information fills in gaps during the reading process, effectively leading to a kind of tunnel vision.

What should you focus on at this stage?

Formatting. Look closely at the formatting of your document, whether that is line space, space before/after paragraphs, placement of lists, text boxes, graphics, etc. Make sure color and font choices are consistently applied. Ensure the small details (page/slide numbers, headers, etc.) are in place.

Punctuation. Verify that the punctuation of each sentence is correct and consistent with the meaning of the sentence.

Grammar, Usage, and Spelling. Look out for easily confused words (affect/effect, lay/lie, insure/ensure, etc.) that spellcheck won’t catch. If applicable, consult the style guide for your client. If a style guide is unavailable or a given word/phrase is not addressed, use a resource like Merriam-Webster’s College Dictionary or the New Oxford American Dictionary to review the nuances of usage and convention for a questionable phrase.

Finally, it’s worth acknowledging that proofreading is a challenge. (I seem to always notice the mistakes immediately after I send the document.) How can you lessen this problem?

Try using these four strategies to help refresh your proofreading eyes.

Take a break. Taking a break from the report will help put some space between your memory of writing the report and the actual surface features of the writing. If you can schedule your writing to let a report draft rest for at least three days, you will be able to read the surface features of the text much more critically.

Consult someone else. Have someone else edit the report. This might not always be possible, depending on your situation, but it is another workaround when you don’t have the luxury of taking a few days to separate yourself from the writing.

Read it backwards. Reading the report from back-to-front is probably the one strategy we’ve all heard of and almost never use. This technique is effective because it separates the sentence from the broader context of the report, forcing you to focus on the technical elements of each sentence on its own.

Use a different medium. Changing the medium you work in will open up your perspective on what you’ve created. Even doing something simple like moving from screen to paper and marking up the report can help prevent you from missing mistakes.


Once you have your first full draft in place, the tools I’ve presented will allow you to effectively navigate the narrative you want to present to your audience. Remember to set goals for your editing work based on the time and resources available. Set aside some time for developmental editing, and once you’ve finished dealing with the higher-order concerns, you can make edits to your sentences for clarity and proofread for mistakes.

Good luck, and keep revising!