So you think you can edit?
At some point, someone is going to ask you to review or edit a document. Maybe a friend admires your writing and wants you to proofread a paper she’s working on for school. Maybe your boss needs you to finish a report started by someone who has left the company. The task can be a challenge. You may have trouble figuring out what changes to make, and the writer may be unhappy with your choices. Good editing takes finesse, but with practice and the tricks that follow, it gets easier.
Measure Twice, Cut Once
First, think like a carpenter. The old adage “measure twice, cut once” literally means “be sure your measurements are correct before you cut.” Figuratively, you can think of it as meaning “plan carefully before taking action.” That’s good advice when you’re editing.
The Chicago Manual of Style notes that most editors read a manuscript before making any changes. Doing so can help you, the editor, identify the writer’s voice and tone and familiarize yourself with the subject matter. If you can, take some time to read the whole document before you make changes.
It’s also a good idea to ask the writer (or whoever is asking you to read the document) what kind of suggestions he or she wants. Should you make sure the information is correct, suggest where things could be expanded, or just make sure everything’s spelled right?
Watch for Homonyms: The Most Common Error
Most people, at the very least, check their work for typos, but some things inevitably fall through the cracks. The most common errors students make these days is using the wrong word (1). For example, you might see , “These actions will assure we reach our goals,” instead of “These actions will ensure we reach our goals.” If you’ve been a diligent student of grammar, you’ll be able to find and correct these errors easily.
Know Your Style
You also may need to make style corrections. Last year, the editors of the Associated Press stylebook announced that they now preferred “email” to “e-mail.” As a result, many newspapers told their reporters to start spelling the word without the hyphen. Reporters for the New York Times, however, continue to use the hyphen, because the New York Times has its own style guide and didn’t make the same change as the AP.
I use this example because people ask me about it all the time, and there’s no universal right answer. It’s a style choice. When people ask me which spelling they should use, I tell them to consult the style guide in their industry or at their company. In the absence of a style guide, I tell them to pick whichever version they prefer and make sure it’s consistent throughout the document.
Don’t Guess. Sometimes You Need More Info
You may come across items you know are wrong but can’t correct without more information. Let’s say your boss asks you to help prepare a quarterly report. His figures indicate strong January sales for the company’s new toothpaste, but you know he made a mistake because the company didn’t sell the toothpaste until March. He was probably talking about a different month or a different product. Either way, it would be embarrassing for your boss—and your company—to have that sentence in the final draft.
Context clues may help you figure out how to correct the error. If the offending sentence says something like, “Our new toothpaste debuted with record sales in January, and we hope it does just as well in April,” chances are, your boss meant to write “March” instead of “January.” If you can’t be sure, however, don’t guess. Make a note in the document and ask the writer, or someone else who knows the right information, to make the fix.
Don’t Make Changes Based on Your Preference Alone
As a copy editor, I frequently review materials written by people who are not professional writers. Some have a good grasp of grammar and syntax, but others don’t. My job is to clean up the messy writing without changing the meaning of the sentence.
The trick here isn’t knowing what to change, but what to leave alone. If your boss prides himself on his report writing skills, you probably shouldn’t make changes unless they’re necessary.
I usually don’t know the writers whose work I’m reading, so if I come across a sentence I don’t like, I have to make a judgment call. Is it wrong, or is it simply not what I would write?
When you come across these items, consider the writer’s voice and tone. Who is the writer? Who are the intended readers? What is the purpose of the piece?
Recently I came across the phrase “mad skillz” in a document I was copy editing. My first instinct was to change the phrase to something less casual. I would never write “mad skillz,” and the intentional misspelling annoyed me. But was that reason enough to make a change?
The Chicago Manual of Style says copy editing requires “the ability to make quick, logical, and defensible decisions.” That last part is the key in judgment call situations. If you’ll receive credit for writing something, you should have a say in how it’s written. But if you’re reviewing something for someone else, you probably shouldn’t make changes you can’t defend. In other words, if the writer asks, “Why did you change that?” you should have a better answer than, “I preferred it this way.” (Even if you don’t interact with the writer, you should ask yourself this question.)
I left the phrase “mad skillz” alone. It was obvious the author was writing casually for his young readers, and the use of slang was appropriate in this case. A different phrase would have reflected my voice, not his, and he was the credited author.
Editing can be difficult, but in the end, it helps everyone. The reader gets a better document; the writer looks smarter and more polished; and you, the editor, develop a new, valuable skill. It may even make you a better writer.
This article was written by writer and editor Erika Enigk. Find out more about her at www.erikaenigk.com.
- Lunsford, A. “Top Twenty Errors in Undergraduate Writing,” The St. Martin's Handbook, Sixth Edition. http://www.stanford.edu/dept/undergrad/cgi-bin/drupal_pwr/top_twenty (accessed June 11, 2012).