Writing tip: When editing, use a system

Editing and proofreading are on a continuum that blurs in the middle. Whether you are acting as editor or contracting an editor, be very clear about the brief. What do you mean by ‘editing’ for a particular job? A considerable amount of time and money may be at stake here.

At one end of the continuum is a big editing job that may entail checking and correcting facts, restructuring the document, removing redundant sections and even adding new content.

At the other extreme is proofreading. Technically, proofreading is reading the final proofs of a document just before printing, when you expect only a few typos will need changing.

Actually, when most people say editing they often mean minor tinkering. All the more reason for clarifying the brief before you start. Just how far is the editor expected and permitted to go?

Here’s a horribly common scenario: the writer of a report sincerely believes that it’s almost perfect, and contracts a wordsmith to proofread it. Now the wordsmith discovers that sections of the report are arranged in an illogical order, some information is inaccurate, headings are misleading and a large chunk of the document is superfluous. Will the budget cover the necessary changes? Will the writer’s feelings be hurt?

As a wordsmith, always check and double-check your brief, and insist on assessing any job before you commit to doing it. As the writer of any big document, assume that you will always need expert help from a wordsmith, and earlier rather than later.

When you try to edit your own writing, you are in double jeopardy, because you know what you wrote—or rather, you know what you think you wrote. You may be literally incapable of reading the actual words on the page.

With an important document, demand some editorial assistance. At the very least, ask a colleague to read your draft and highlight anything that is confusing. Ask someone to consider the questions raised in Stage 1 below. A colleague’s instinctive response could save your bacon.

When editing, print out your document and work from hard copy. Don’t try to edit or proofread from the screen—that’s hopeless. This is a fine-muscle task, and reading is much more difficult on the screen.

A major editing job happens in at least five stages. You can’t possibly examine every aspect of a document at once. Follow the system on our blog.

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