Editing Overview

This section of The Rebus Guide to Publishing Open Textbooks (So Far) is intended to help you throughout the various phases of editing that go into creating your open textbook. It runs through everything you need to keep in mind while working on the book’s content or ancillary materials (slide decks, question banks, assignments, sidebars, workbooks, etc.) It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY) and you are welcome to print this document, make a copy for yourself, or share with others.

In what follows, consider our guidelines as you are creating a new open textbook, adapting an existing book, or remixing multiple resources – editing is critical to each of these projects, but might surface in different ways. Depending on your project, certain editorial functions may be more relevant as you start working on your book’s outline (with project managers as editors), later during writing and review (involving content, structural, developmental, and copy editors), or even towards the time when you are closer to formatting (when proofreaders and others take a final look). We’ll go through each of these functions and roles below, so keep reading! If you have any questions about the guide, please post them in the Rebus Community project home. The Guide is an evolving document, based on our experience managing open textbook projects and from giving and receiving (much) community feedback. We welcome your thoughts and contributions, so let us know how it works for you, or if you have any suggestions to improve the Guide.

Special thanks to Elizabeth Mays for her contributions to this overview – Liz is the former marketing manager for Rebus and current director of sales and marketing for Pressbooks, as well as adjunct faculty member at Arizona State University, and author and editor of two open textbooks (Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship and A Guide to Making Open Textbooks with Students)!

Why does editing matter?

Editing is one of the most crucial phases in creating an OER, equally or perhaps even more important than writing itself! Editing allows the chapters/units, sections, and subsections to come together as a whole, cohesive textbook. It creates throughlines and connections between the book’s themes, and makes the reading experience smoother and more productive for learners. Some editors say that editing is “the process of finding patterns” in a piece of writing—either at the macro level of the trajectory of the whole work, or at the micro level of grammar and syntax. In between those extremes, editing helps smooth out the edges and makes the text more useable. You might say that writing puts together the raw material of a textbook, while editing focuses on providing structure, appeal, and nuance. Editing makes content easier to read.

It’s also important to know that editing is really an umbrella term for a lot of different processes. It can be useful to think of editing in terms of scale, with different editors performing different tasks at the beginning, middle, and end of the project. Editing starts with the big picture, like the subject of the book and how it is treated, as well as the broader discourse of which the book will be a part. It then narrows in on mid-range aspects, such as how the chapters are ordered and structured, and what themes will be included or left out. Usually (though not always), the editing that takes place later on gets down to more granular details, including fact-checking and spelling and punctuation. Remembering to keep the different scales of editing in mind throughout the project is good if you’re aiming at creating a well-rounded resource. Through this approach, editing ensures that the content fits the purpose, and fulfils the learning objectives that you set out for the resource during project scoping.

Editing is also a valuable way to have many different pairs of eyes on the content throughout various stages of creation, from conception and first drafts through formatting, proofreading, and the final versions before release. Along the way, editors will make everything from substantial to incremental revisions, improving the overall quality, readability, and relevancy. In this manner, editing also functions as a kind of review, where people who are not necessarily subject-matter experts read through and adjust the content. Editing as review is an important aspect of this process, and a useful source of critique, feedback, and suggestions that will ultimately improve the resource.

The different kinds of editing, and who does them

As mentioned at the start of this section, editing can take place during all phases of the project, as early as project scoping, and as late as final formatting. Below, we go into the different types of editing that are common to open textbook projects, including who might be best to take on these tasks.

Project management (as editing)

Let’s start with a role that may not seem like a typical editorial function: the project manager. The project manager is responsible for running the process of creating a resource from start to release (and often after). In this respect, it is a role very similar to the managing editor in a conventional publishing house. In collaboration with the other editors and leadership team, the project manager thinks about the resource as a whole, and identifies patterns that allow it to fit in with (or stand out from) other books or resources in the field. The project manager shapes not just the book, but the project as a whole, including who participates and how things unroll over time. The project manager assures that the final resource meets the needs set out at the start of the project, while helping develop style guides, chapter templates, author guides, etc., and how they are followed (or revised) over time.

Content editing (subject-matter editing)

Content editing, also known as subject-matter editing, takes place at a somewhat more detailed scale than project management, but still takes a broad perspective on the book as a whole. It is a function that more often comes to mind when we hear the word “editor.” Content editing includes decisions about what will be included and excluded from a given book, as well as soliciting and synthesizing feedback about the content from the community of potential contributors and users. It is conducted by someone with subject-matter expertise in the field at hand, as well as perspectives on what is currently missing within that field and/or how it could grow. Ultimately, the content editor is largely responsible for moulding and shaping the book, and does so in a fairly hands-on manner, focusing on “what should be said.” Content editors often work closely with authors until they are satisfied that all the content has been appropriately covered. They may also serve as a go-between, communicating the leadership team’s vision to those who are producing the words that speak to that vision.

Developmental editing (structural editing)

Developmental editing is often referred to as structural editing, and the latter name suggests, it focuses on the structure of your textbook. (The first unit of Open Textbook Network’s Publishing Curriculum is dedicated to dissecting just this, and it is worth checking out!) Whereas content editing focuses on the what, developmental editing addresses the how. Developmental editors need not be subject-matter experts, and in fact are often more effective when they come at the material from a distance. Without that “expert lens” on the content, they may be more able focus on “how it should be said.” This type of editing is all about making sure the textbook is set up to meet learning objectives, and in so doing, that students are set up to succeed.

Substantive editing

The substantive editor often involves both creativity and a certain amount of heavy-lifting. These processes include resolving many of the questions, problems, and needed improvements about content that are identified during the developmental edit. The substantive edit refers to structural revisions that happen at the chapter level as well as writing revisions that take place, line-by-line, at the paragraph level. In this phase, an editor may take the liberty of reorganizing sections, recasting sentences, and making queries and recommendations (either for the writers or other editors on the project). Since the substantive editor makes changes to the content itself, ideally they should be a subject-matter expert, or have a strong familiarity with the book’s content. If they are not experienced in the subject, the substantive editor should work closely with the content editor or lead author, and be sure not to make changes that might alter the meaning or accuracy of the text.

Copyediting

The copyeditor does very close reading of the text, making corrections to sentence structure, grammar, syntax issues, vocabulary, and punctuation. At this phase of the of the process, they are less focused on the bigger picture, but may in some cases rewrite sentences or adjust language details. If so, it should be with the goal of serving the editorial objectives of the book as a whole, or in order to maintain consistency with other sections and chapters.

Usually, the copyeditor also does a certain amount of “style editing” or “mechanical editing,” which ensures the book meets the tone and style that has been determined during earlier phases of the project. This may also be necessary to ensure that the “voice” is internally consistent throughout. In some cases, a copyeditor will check layout and design details, such as figure numbers, headers, citations, and other elements, once a book is formatted. A copyeditor may also be responsible for checking permissions on images, media, quotes, excerpts, and other elements in your book.

Proofreading

Often combined (or confused) with copyediting, proofreading is a distinct process that involves fine adjustments at the scale of spelling and punctuation errors, formatting issues, or other non–content-specific aspects of the book. The proofreader goes through the book from start to finish as a final check before (and sometimes after) formatting. You can think of proofreading as a final inspection, ensuring everything is polished and properly lined up. Ideally the proofreader is someone with a fresh eye, who has not already been involved in editing, and therefore does not already know the manuscript well. Proofreaders don’t need to have subject-matter expertise: their experience of reading the book may well be very similar to new students or readers. As such, their feedback on the book overall is invaluable! Occasionally the proofreader may also function as the copyeditor, but we always recommend two separate pairs of eyes for these roles when possible. Having someone do a final read of the book once all the edits and revisions have been made is very valuable.

When does each kind of editing take place?

In addition to the what and how mentioned above, it’s good to keep in mind the when of different types of editing. This helps you plan your project timeline, and account for the work that each stage of editing takes, ultimately allowing you to stay on schedule., The order of editing processes usually follows the outline above—from bigger scale to smaller—and as usual, we find that the more you do upfront, the better. However, you may find that all chapters follow their own timeline to a certain extent, and from week to week may be at different stages of editing. Factors like the timing of what has already been written, what resources you have available, and what holdups arise will all affect the editing process.

Before jumping into the details, here are a few general pointers:

  • Don’t let great be the enemy of good. By this, we mean that editing will always expand to fill the time that is allotted for it. At a certain point, you need to stop and not try to make things “perfect” (which doesn’t exist, in any case!) If you allocate six weeks for the developmental edit, keep to that deadline, and stop work when you get there. Improvements can take place informally down the line, so flag outstanding issues during the official time frame, and deal with them on an ongoing basis.
  • Underpromise and overdeliver – on deadlines, that is. Always assume that tasks will run over time, so be strategic when scheduling. If you have six weeks for the developmental edit, tell your editor that their deadline is in four weeks. If they do require a two-week extension eventually, you will have minimized any flow-on effects that delay things down the line.
  • Revisions can be a seemingly never-ending cycle. Think carefully about how many times you want content to go back and forth between authors and editors. Not only does it affect timelines, but it can also put more pressure on your authors than you had intended. If in doubt, ask authors their preference!
  • Timing is key for all editing processes, but in the case of copyediting it has particular implications for the peer-review phase. If a text is not copyedited before peer review, it can affect what the reviewers focus on and what kind of value they provide to the project. For instance, a reviewer can become frustrated by or be overly attentive to issues of style, grammar, and punctuation, and that is not how their expertise is best used. We recommend doing as much editing as possible before review, so that reviewers can focus solely on content and other components listed in your review guide. However, if you don’t have the time or resources for this, request your content and developmental editors to keep an eye out for glaring issues relating to grammar and readability and inform your peer reviewers in advance that the text has not been copyedited. That way you can either ask them to focus on big-picture issues and ignore the more granular ones.

We’ve divvied up the editing tasks throughout the publishing process below and included some approximations of how long these might take, so take a look and let us know if your experience differs, Estimating timelines is always a best guess (and of course differs from project to project), but the more examples we gather, the more we can keep refining these estimates. The numbers below are based on a book of seven chapters, with 3,000 words each.

Editing before writing

A portion of developmental editing can actually take place before content is written, as part of the project scoping process. Content and developmental editors can work together to help prepare the book’s outline, style guide, chapter template, author guide, concept maps, and more. We expect this kind of work to take approximately two to four weeks.

Editing after writing

Once your texts are largely written, you can expect content editing to take about four to five hours per chapter. The developmental edit, might then take roughly seven weeks for the full book (approximately a week per chapter). This is followed by the substantive edit, entailing three to four weeks for the complete text.

Editing after revisions

Following the content, developmental, and substantive revisions, the chapters should be in a good state to go to the copyeditor. We suggest allocating two to four weeks for copyediting. Once it is done, you should be ready to send the content out to peer reviewers. And if you don’t have the time or resources for a comprehensive copyedit before review, we suggest getting your content and developmental editors to resolve any glaring grammatical errors that affect the readability of the text during their edits, so the content is reasonably easy for reviewers to parse through. In lieu of this, we recommend informing reviewers if the content has not been copyedited, and in some cases, may be able to request them to take a light pass over content during their review.

Editing after review and revisions

If the peer-review process brings forward any recommendations for changes (which it almost surely will), an additional round of revisions will be required, including possibly a light copyedit. Following that, the book will be ready for formatting, which then leads to proofreading. Depending on how “clean” the text is, the proofreader might take approximately two weeks. Hopefully, seeing that the book has by now been through multiple rounds of edits and revisions, this last phase is all about catching small errors and formatting details.

Other considerations while editing

As we’ve said before, creating high-quality educational resources entails more than just writing accurate content. Several other considerations should be given thought up front, to ensure that your content can be read with a critical eye, while also serving the broader needs of open and inclusive education. The following is not an exhaustive list, but should help prompt you as you’re entering and navigating the editing phase.

Accessibility

It’s important to keep all learners in mind when working to create your resource. One of the best ways to avoid the need for excessive remediation once a textbook is released is to keep accessibility in mind during editing. Many principles of good design, technical accessibility, and language covered are in our authoring overview. These apply during the editing phase as well: try to use this time to check to see if you’re meeting best practices regarding accessibility (e.g., clear hierarchy and structure, captions on videos, alt text on images, plain language, etc.). Editing is about making the text work better for its readers—this means everybody reading it, including not only students with recognized disabilities, but all those with varying learning or language abilities. Make sure all editors understand that they have a role in this, and provide them with the guidance resources they need if they are not already aware of the specific issues at stake.

Audience and Reading Level

In a similar vein to accessibility, we recommend that all editors keep in mind the reading level of the book’s audience, as well as the learning objectives that it is supposed to meet. There are a number of online tools that perform readability checks on content, such as Hemingway Editor, but we also recommend speaking to instructional designers and librarians at your institution for standards and resources best suited to your context. With this information, editors can understand how reading levels affect their context, and help the content fit the best standards for target readers.

Rights and Permissions

Checking permissions on images, excerpts, and other media in your book is a team effort. The project manager or section leads can identify open repositories to source these elements, while authors can do an initial check when including external content in their contributions. When it comes to confirming permissions, the editor assigned to a given section can more easily conducts a final check. This type of work is sometimes best done when going through the book line by line, so if your team does not have a member dedicated to rights and permissions, then the copyeditor can take this on, in line with their fact checking duties.

Formatting and Review

During the course of their work, an editor may serve as a de facto formatter and/or reviewer. Content corrections, such as to headings, images, or captions can assist with the book’s formatting. As well, formal or casual feedback from editors (including proofreaders) can be taken as a non-peer, “generalist” review, which provides a student-like perspective, or someone else who is reading the book for the first time. Editors also provide benefit by thinking about the text as a whole, providing invaluable feedback in a way that a reviewer of a single chapter might not be able to.

We’re all human, and that means authors too!

As you work to improve your resource, try to be reasonable about the number of revisions or edits that you ask of your authors. While some are happy to continue redrafting many times over, others might not be as willing or have other demands on their time. It is best to set expectations up front, be transparent as things progress, and carefully gauge how your authors react when you ask them for a second, third, or fourth revision. Tread carefully – writers are only human!

There are practical considerations to being gentle with them, too. Your role as an editor is two-fold: offering critiques to structure and content to help make resource stronger, while recognizing (and crediting) well-executed and clearly explained concepts and ideas to make your authors stronger. By telling them when something works well, it reinforces the models you want to see throughout the draft. Be nice in your comments and suggestions, and start with the positive aspects of what has been written—you want to be sure that the ‘good’ is preserved during the process of revising the less-good. Highlight both the positive and the issues in each draft, because it eventually creates a dialogue with your authors, while supporting the positive environment that will allow everyone to work on improving the book.

If you have the budget, hire some help!

Although these editorial guidelines are generally true for most textbooks, every project differs. If yours includes funding to pay freelance editors, it can be worth the outlay in order to gain the “baked-in” expertise that comes with a professional developmental or substantive editor, copyeditor or proofreader. Many freelancers double as subject-matter experts, and can act as advisors or coaches to your volunteer editors, throughout the process, including input during the project scoping and outline creation stages. See our section on hiring outside editors for more details and considerations (coming soon!).

Rebus’ experience with editing open textbook projects

Over time, we keep being reminded that open textbook projects are never the same – they each have different goals, and as such, different needs. Below, we share a few examples of how editing has played out differently in some of the open textbooks that we’ve supported, so you can see how variable these processes can be.

Perhaps one of the biggest lessons learned to date is around timing and editing. We supported one project in which the project leads decided to keep things moving on a rolling basis, rather than waiting for all the content to be ready before moving it into the editing phase. In this case, a draft editorial workflow was prepared, and as chapter drafts came in from authors (often at different times), the team moved them to the subject matter editor right away, and from there on to peer review. On this project, it was decided that the content editor would also think about structure and take on a more developmental editing role, and that copyediting and proofreading would take place post peer review.

On other projects, we learned about the importance of a developmental edit. The Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship open textbook benefitted from the fact that one of the book’s lead editors was both a subject-matter expert and experienced editor. A majority of this editor’s time on the project was spent conducting a developmental edit of chapters in the book, ensuring the coherency in voice across the book, leading to a more cohesive and valuable resource for students and instructors. With open textbook projects that have multiple authors, this type of edit is extremely useful to check for consistency in structure, tone, voice, and language across the book.

Across multiple projects, we have run into some common questions that seem to recur:

  • Should the author, editor, or both makes changes to content?
  • What is the clearest way to demonstrate workflow?
  • How can timelines be effectively communicated and reinforced?
  • How do we share common tools for editing, formatting, and revisions?

Giving your team some clarity over ownership, practices, and deadlines during the editing phase will make the process smoother. (And trust us, we’ve had to learn the hard way!)

When something does go wrong (and it almost always will), there are some effective techniques for handling difficult situations with care and equanimity:

  • Talk face-to-face with those involved, and if you can’t be in the same room, at least try to be on-screen with each other.
  • Consult frequently with your leadership team, soliciting and listening to their feedback.
  • Make sure that the owner of the editing process is the messenger of news (good or bad).
  • If you’re the editorial process owner, feel confident when asking for changes to a chapter, and feel free to point to signed MOUs if you needed to confirm your rights to use the content.
  • As the project manager or lead of the editorial team, you are the ultimate decision makers for your open textbook. If you can’t get the content into a state with which you are comfortable, you are not obliged to include it in the release.

Need further assistance?

We hope these suggestions will help you plan and oversee the various editing phases of your project. We’ll continue to add to this guide as we work with more projects, and we welcome your ideas on what else we could add, or your feedback on how these approaches have worked (or not!) for you.

If you have questions, or anything to add, please let us know in the Rebus Community project home.

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The Rebus Guide to Publishing Open Textbooks (So Far) by Apurva Ashok and Zoe Wake Hyde is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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