The Art of Editing

Many people think that if you can write, you can edit: but the two skills aren’t necessarily interchangeable. When you have written something (whether an essay, a business letter, or a book), you may simply be too close to it to be able to edit it effectively. Often you know what you have written so well, because you have worked on it intensely for so long, that when you read it one last time in an attempt to edit it, you don’t actually read it word for word. Your mind, clever thing that it is, sees what you think you have written and simply doesn’t notice the glaring typo, repetition or spelling mistake. You skip things, you miss things. I’d always recommend a second pair of eyes on any text, to see what you cannot.

Many people think that editing is simply a matter of checking the spelling and grammar in a document; but it is much more than that. A good editor will get your whole document in shape. They will look at the tone and style of the piece to ensure they remain consistent throughout the document. This is especially important when more than one writer has contributed to the text. The editor should ensure that the piece remains fluent and that the reader can’t spot where one writer changes to the next – unless you’re meant to.

Your computer spell checker won’t pick up when a word has been used incorrectly or when the wrong word has been inserted courtesy of a simple typo: “form” and “from” are frequently mistyped and won’t show up via a spell check. How many times are “affect” and “effect” used incorrectly or “there” and “their”, “your” and “you’re”, “it’s” and “its” to name but a few? Are you sure you know when to use “anticipate” or “expect”, “can”, “may” or “might”, “compare to” or “compare with”, “compose”, “comprise” or “constitute”, or “continually” versus “continuously” – your editor will help you get it right.

An editor will review the text for factual errors (where possible) and for consistency of terms or figures. For example, if you refer to an organisation, a place or a Prime Minister’s name, the editor will check that the term or the spelling is correct throughout the document. You’d be surprised how often the spelling changes throughout a text. If the text refers to a name or organisation that the editor cannot verify, the editor will at least flag up any different spellings that they find in the document, so that you can confirm the correct spelling yourself. Likewise if you use an acronym at the start of the text and then revert to the full name or use a different acronym halfway through, an editor is there to pick this up for you. You might also be surprised how frequently a figure quoted at the start of a document changes later in the document; your editor will question which figure is correct.

A style guide is always useful. If you haven’t provided the editor with one in advance, they will create their own style guide as they review your text. This means that they will ensure the same term or spelling of a word is used throughout the text. This may seem obvious, but a writer will frequently change from writing “on-going” to “ongoing” or from “E-mail” to “email” to “e-mail” without even noticing. Your editor will also look at number formats and whether you write numbers in full or in figures, whether to change from one to the other at a certain point (a frequent standard is to spell out numbers zero to nine, but use figures for number 10 and above). The format used for dates can often vary throughout the text, but your editor will make sure such things end up being consistent: 10 Jan. 2013, or 10th January 2013, January 10, 2013?

It is also the job of the editor to make text as clear and concise as they can. Editors will often cut out redundant words and repetition. A couple of my pet hates are: “From 2013 onwards…” and “Going forward we will see…”. “Onwards” and “Going forward” don’t add anything to the sense and if you need to shorten your text, they can go.

An editor will look carefully at sentence and paragraph length. Text needs to be kept light if it is to be understood and easy to read. A paragraph that is the length of an A4 page isn’t going to endear the writer to the reader and it will need to be broken down into sensible chunks. Likewise, sentence length should be varied to improve readability. Different length sentences can be used to change the pace of the text considerably. Long, wordy sentences often are difficult to understand and sometimes need to be rewritten to convey the meaning better. Sudden, short sentences can be used for effect. It works.

Sometimes editors have to condense a document to meet a specific publishing requirement. The text may be written very well, but if it is 200 words over the limit, the editor has to cut those 200 words or cleverly rewrite the text to shorten it without changing the meaning or losing anything important. It can be very tricky.

So what is the mark of an exceptional editor? A truly exceptional editor doesn’t leave a mark. After reviewing and revising a document innumerable times, the reader shouldn’t even be aware of the editor’s presence. The writer’s voice alone should shine out. That’s skill.

Oxford Dictionary: Definition of edit

verb (edits, editing, edited) [with object]: prepare (written material) for publication by correcting, condensing, or otherwise modifying it.

noun: a change or correction made as a result of editing.

Written by: Jacqui Hewitt



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