I edit to help writers express their ideas clearly. Good punctuation and grammar are secondary to clear and focused ideas. And, for that matter, good punctuation and grammar are primarily important for their value in helping express ideas clearly.
Speaking loosely, editing comes in three varieties: content editing, copy editing, and proofreading.
Content editing looks at the large-scale concerns: how are the ideas presented? How are they coming across? Is the structure working? Content editing looks to untangle tangled ideas, and to sort out the many ideas that may be competing for attention. It is concerned with the author’s main story and its successful presentation. If you are struggling with writer’s block, content editing can help a lost (in contrast to copyediting and proofreading, which are often dangerous to people struggling with writer’s block).
Copyediting is concerned with the expression of ideas primarily at the level of sentences and paragraphs, with some attention to transitions. It presumes that the main story is generally sound and generally complete, i.e., that the content is already good, and focuses on issues of presentation, with a lot of attention spent on grammar and quality prose.
This is the final stage, the last step prior to submission of a work. Proofreading is to catch the last typographic, grammatical, and formatting errors that have not previously been removed. It is supposed to be minimal. If you’re thinking that you may do any revision before submitting a work, then you don’t really want proofreading. If you do make revisions, another round of proofreading will be necessary.
Thanks so much, Dave! It has been enormously helpful. Btw, I really value your feedback in the summary feedback doc. Very astute and all around helpful stuff. I really appreciate that you *read* as well as edited.
— Ph.D., City and Regional Planning, College of Environmental Design, University of California, Berkeley