A writer thinks – then a writer writes.
An editor reads what is written.
An editor decides, from the words that are actually written, what that writer meant to say to the reader.
An editor makes changes.
A writer may argue. An editor may reinstate changed material or revise the changes.
The main purpose of editing is to make the writer’s message available to the reader. The reader should not have to waste time or energy deciphering what the writer has written.
Like any other hybrid between an art and a craft, editing has rules. Most of these can be bent, or ignored, on occasion. Ignore all the rules too frequently and you may end up with no readers.
The first two rules give rise to all the others.
- Clarity with no ambiguity.
- Conciseness with a readable flow.
An excellent poet or fiction writer, such as James Joyce, is qualified to flout these rules. An amateur non-fiction writer or editor is not.
Who should edit?
It is seldom effective to edit your own writing. Someone else will usually be more decisive and insightful – unless you are superhuman or leave an interval of at least six months.
If you cannot do it effectively, you should pay an editor. He or she might charge $20.00 an hour and take eight hours. As a result, 10,000 readers (each of whom is paid $6.00 – $40.00 an hour) may save an hour each (and finish reading the book). Your benefit – say $100,000 – vastly exceeds your cost – $160.00. Venture capitalists can only dream of such massive returns on their investments.
Ready to edit
If a writer is clearly briefed – on readership, style, length, focus – less editing will be necessary.
Any draft to be edited should always be typed or printed double-spaced, ie with blank lines between the lines of text. It is easier for the editor, the typist/wordprocessor operator and cuts down correction errors.
For clarity, make corrections in a different colour – preferably red.
Use an agreed code of symbols, with marginal marks to ensure no corrections are missed. British Standard, BS 5261C: 1976 is ideal.
Make sure the text is clearly divided, eg into sections, chapters, pages.
Headings within a chapter should be hierarchical, having three levels at most, eg:
Intriguingly, a stethoscope has three ends.
The cold end is actually made up of several parts.
Little heading The diaphragm is translucent.
Ensure, for longer documents, that you have the following, as appropriate:
- title page, with date and place of publication
- contents page
Especially if time is short, concentrate on the first page or even the first paragraph. How often have you picked up a report and cast it aside because the first page was dreadful? Make sure, too, that the last paragraph is worth reading. Many people will initially read only the first and last paragraphs.
Give a summary.
Make sub-headings short, active and interesting. Go for “Who needs a spurtle?” rather than “Introductory remarks on devices capable of stirring porridge”.
Know your target readership. The material should be accessible to all, without seeming to patronise the more knowledgeable. For wordprocessed text, a readability measure can help you see whether you are pitching correctly.
Beware of long sentences. Anything over 40 words should survive only if it is truly excellent.
Beware of constant sentence and paragraph length. Variety is the spice of reading.
Avoid the passive voice. Go for:
“Sid announced…”, not
“It was announced by Sid that…”.
Mind your language
If you must use acronyms, ensure they are given in full on first appearance, eg:
PDQ (pretty damn quick).
Beware of jargon – either specialised words or specialised uses of everyday words.
Steer clear of sexist assumptions – doctors can be female, nurses can be male.
Don’t be afraid to use a dictionary – whether paper, on-line or CD-ROM. It should be big enough to be comprehensive, eg Chambers English, Concise Oxford.
Beware of wordprocessor spellcheckers. They often have limited dictionaries, often miss words that have been keyed in twice, and never pick up incorrect words that have been spelt correctly. For example:
“Ware was the fist bottle fort?”
would be just as acceptable as:
“Where was the first battle fought?”
Beware of the word “very”. It can usually be cut without loss of meaning.
Avoid repetition – do not start three successive sentences with the same word.
Watch out for “it’s”. It’s right only if you can expand it to “it is”. You will find this error in national newspapers, because the apostrophe normally indicates possession. In this case it’s used only for elision (omitted letter). “The cat licked its paw” – correct use of possessive, no apostrophe.
Some authors are phobic about commas – but why should the reader have to scan a sentence twice or more to work out where the pauses are and establish the intended meaning?
Eliminate random variations
Be consistent. If you do not already have a house style for arbitrary matters – e.g. or eg – make sure at least that every document is internally consistent.
Try, try and…
Test the draft – not only on subject experts but also on at least one person from the target readership.
Proof reading – check very carefully when corrections are “completed”. A few errors will have been missed, other mistakes will have crept in.
Material sent for printing should be emailed, put on a floppy disk (in an agreed file format) or printed out single-sided and double-spaced.
Please contact neil at wordpower.org.uk if you find this guide useful.