There’s something oddly satisfying about the process of editing. Sure, it can be a challenge, but taking something average and making it shine is very rewarding.
Even though it’s something I spend a lot of my time doing, until recently I hadn’t had any formal training. I recently attended a workshop by the society for editors and proofreaders and I wanted to share some of the valuable nuggets I picked up.
What’s the difference between an editor and a proofreader?
Nowadays it’s pretty common that most of us are responsible for both editing and proofreading (probably having written the piece too). There’s nothing wrong with this, but it’s useful to know the difference so you can ensure you do both well.
An editor makes sure the text is fit for purpose. This may involve restructuring the document, removing sections or even rewriting parts to make sure the text conveys the right (and intended) message.
A proofreader provides a quality check, looking at things like consistency and typos.
If you’re responsible for both, start by editing the document.
Read it? Edit!
As editor, you need to check that:
- the content is structured in a logical way. Visualise how the message should flow and structure accordingly. Think about headings, sub-headings, use of lists and text boxes. Your ultimate goal is to help the reader successfully navigate the text.
- the length is appropriate for the purpose, and the intended audience.
- the writing style is appropriate for the intended audience. Sometimes technical writing is ok, but most of the time try to stick to plain English.
- the text communicates the intended message. Consider whether the text actually says what it means to say and if the audience will understand it. Sometimes it could just be a case of poor punctuation or use of language. Other things to look out for are repetition, redundant words, jargon, acronyms and words with more than one meaning.
- the text adheres to house style. How should dates be written? What’s the policy for writing numbers (1 or one)?
- the text is consistent. If the text refers to four buildings in one section and five in another, it’s going to be confusing and undermine the validity of what you’re saying.
- the text is free of spelling, grammatical and punctuation errors.
- it’s factually correct. You may need the original contributors to check you haven’t inadvertently changed the meaning of something when rephrasing it.
Skim read the document first. It’s very tempting to dive straight in at the first typo you spot. Resist the urge (I know it’s tough!).
Reading the whole document will give you a better feel for it and allow you to consider whether the overall structure works, as well as get an idea of the other issues to address.
Strategies for proofreading
Proofreading is notoriously difficult (that’s why organisations often hire professionals) but the following tips can help.
- read out loud in a monotonous tone. It’s really easy to miss typos when you’re reading. You’re much more likely to notice a mistake if you hear it.
- read the item backwards. Humans are inherently wired to find the most efficient or easiest way to do things (it helps us conserve energy), so if we’re doing something familiar to us, our brain naturally switches down a gear. Reading backwards challenges our brain and forces us to pay closer attention.
- ask someone else to read it for you, or wait until the next morning and reread it. A fresh pair of eyes is invaluable.
- if you’re proofing a word document, make sure the dictionary is set to the correct language. That way words spelled incorrectly will instantly be highlighted.
- but….you still need to read the document (see ‘Avoid the common pitfalls’)
- if you notice incorrect spelling of a word that features regularly through the document, use the find and replace tool on your home tab to correct them all at once
Have a strategy.
Breaking the document down into different parts to be checked will make you far more vigilant than working your way from start to finish. You could go through the document and check headings first, then ensure that tables and images are captioned/labelled correctly, then check all the acronyms are correct… you get the idea.
Avoid the common pitfalls
Finally, here are some common mistakes to help you avoid them
- check the headings. For some reason, the eye seems to skip headings even though they appear to be the most obvious thing on the page. Having a strategy will help with things like this.
- watch out for frequently misused words – practice and practise, discreet and discrete.
- …and frequently misspelled words (to and too, your and you’re for example).
- your brain will often also miss too many consonants in a row (illliterate).
- and won’t always pick up on missing ‘little’ letters, especially after tall ones (travellng, specifcally), or missing or extra words, particularly short ones like at, in, on, and it.
- another thing to watch out is words that the spellcheck will miss (form/from, for example), as well as…
- wrong letters in short words, such as or/of, it/in, not/now.
Good luck, and consider any typos in the above part of your training!
PS. there aren’t any.