Save time and avoid frustration during content collaborations

Here are some common workplace issues that are one focus for my technical editing students this week.

Content Collaboration #1

You’ve just started work on a document and are gathering information to include from several individuals who represent different departments at your organization. You get a response from three individuals.

  • Individual A suggests deleting an entire section of content.
  • Individual B sends you a report with information that will create an entirely new section of content.
  • Individual C gives you a thoroughly copyedited document, with punctuation, grammar, and other mechanical revisions.

Individual C has wasted time copyediting content that has been deleted. If you multiply this wasted time across the work of individuals throughout an entire organization, even a small one, you have identified a tremendous source of inefficiency.

Content Collaboration #2

You’ve been working on a document for months. It’s been reviewed by multiple individuals, representing various departments, and you are now seeking final approvals.

  • Individual D suggests deleting an entire section of content.
  • Individual E provides you with an entirely new section of content.
  • Individual F gives you a thoroughly copyedited document, with punctuation, grammar, and other mechanical revisions.

The actions of individuals D and E are the source of your frustration. They should have provided these changes in earlier reviews.

A 2018 industry study found that collaborating on workplace documents was one of American businesses most broken processes. To reduce inefficiency and frustration, you can adopt tools designed for content collaboration. But understanding what professional editors call “levels of edit” will help regardless of your tool. Read on for an explanation.

A Primer on Levels of Edit

I’m going to start with a little background, so skip ahead if that doesn’t interest you today.


Most of us recognize the origin of levels of edit as the result of a publication by two technical editors named Robert Van Buren and Mary Fran Buehler from the Jet Propulsion Lab under a NASA contract , which was published in 1980.

JPL Editorial Work TypesLevel 1 EditLevel 2 EditLevel 3 EditLevel 4 EditLevel 5 Edit
Copy ClarificationXXX
Mechanical StyleXX

Here’s how they differentiated between levels of edit.

In a Level 5 edit, the editor verifies that JPL policy has not been violated, routes the manuscript through the various production processes and performs a liaison function between the author and publications personnel… [T]he editor, performing a Level 3 edit, will be required to clarify the copy for the compositor and to indicate the format… And in a Level 1 edit, the full range of editorial capabilities is applied to produce a first-class publication.

Van Buren, R., & Buehler, M. F. (1980). The Levels of Edit, JPL Publication 80-1. Jet Propulsion Lab., California Inst. of Technology, Jan.

The JPL system is specific to an organization and a genre. Let me introduce a more generic and simpler system that categorizes editorial activities.

Basic Principles

First, let’s make sure we’re on the same page about the types of content that are relevant to this post. I’m focused only on workplace or professional contexts. Some, but not all, of what I have to say is relevant in the context of book or periodical publishing.

Here’s a way of categorizing the possible levels of edit based on the professional editorial standards published by the Editors Association of Canada.

  • Structural editing is assessing and shaping material to improve its organization and content often communicated to an author in an email or meeting.
  • Stylistic editing is clarifying meaning, ensuring coherence and flow, and refining the language often marking up the author’s digital file, for instance, using tracked changes and inserting comments in Microsoft Word.
  • Copyediting is ensuring correctness, accuracy, consistency, and completeness, usually done in the same way as stylistic editing.
  • Proofreading is examining material after layout or in its final format to correct errors in textual and visual elements often marking up “special” files like a PDF produced from Adobe InDesign for a production professional.

The different levels of edit actually define the different types of professional editors.


How could applying the levels of edit increase efficiency and reduce frustration in the situations described at the top of this post?

When sending material, give people instructions like these:

Please respond by supplying or correcting information. You can email me or send me documents with information that is needed. You can also insert comments into the document file. Turn on tracked changes if you add information directly into the body of the document.

You may also suggest reorganizing content. Please do not focus on wording or mechanics or format at this stage. You’ll have the opportunity to help with this after the content and organization are finalized.

Levels of edit applied in Content Collaboration #1

To save time and frustration when collaborating with others during content production, make sure people know what level of edit you’re requesting. Be explicit. You may have to provide a couple of examples (e.g., a “do this” and “don’t do this”). What directions would you provide for Content Collaboration #2?

Ideally, you would get together with all of the stakeholders and agree to a review process that assigns the appropriate levels of edit to each collaborator. If you can’t make that happen, you can still use levels of edit to make your workplace collaborations less frustrating.

Sources for Learning More

Buehler, M. F. (1977). Controlled Flexibility in Technical Editing: The Levels-of-edit Concept at JPLTechnical Communication24(1), 1–4.

Buehler, M. F. (1988). The Levels of Edit as a Management ToolIPCC ’88 Conference Record ‘On the Edge: A Pacific Rim Conference on Professional Technical Communication’., doi: 10.1109/IPCC.1988.24000.

Grover, S.D. (2021). Levels of Edit. Grover’s English (blog site).

Grover, S.D. (2021). Types of Editing. Grover’s English (blog site).

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