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Editing—How and Why

By Greg Whetsel, Precisely Write, Inc.


A well written, easy to read document not only serves to get the point across to the reader, but gives authors the opportunity to present themselves as competent, knowledgeable, and professional. Advisors often point out that a misspelled word in a resume is the quickest route to the round file. Sadly, many applicants, after taking such care on the initial contact with their future employer, spend the rest of their career relying on a spell checker to preserve their reputation. It is important to understand that every report, letter, and e-mail, makes a statement about the author’s professionalism and credibility.


Style Guides and Resources

There are several professionally published style guides to help writers and editors solve those nagging little questions about grammar, punctuation, or word usage. Some specialize in a particular type of writing such as, journalism, science writing, business writing, etc. A good desktop dictionary such as the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition is an indispensable tool for any serious writer. If the organization you are writing for uses a style guide of their own creation, it will normally take precedence. The organization may specify the guide to use if the in-house guide does not cover the needed subject.


For general purposes, if there is no stated preference, you can’t go wrong with the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS). Try to keep up with the latest edition. The fifteenth edition is the most current as of March 2006. There is a learning curve involved with using the CMS, so buy one and get accustomed to the way information is organized and cross referenced. If you do any professional writing at all, you will never regret having this book on your shelf.


The Editing Process

When preparing to edit a document, make an effort to keep the original and make edits on a copy. With digital files simply click File/Save As and make a copy. For hard copy, save the original and make a copy to edit. Don’t go to the trouble of retyping a document if that is the only way to get a copy, because it is too time consuming. The advantage of having the original is to have the capability of rereading it without edits and markups so you can be certain that you understand the author’s intentions.


Edit a document in stages. Read it completely through once to get a feel for the author’s voice and to identify poorly worded sentences that interrupt the flow of the message. Perform the initial editing pass looking for typos, misspelled or misused words, syntax errors, grammar, punctuation, etc. Watch for subject and verb agreement. Review and refine your edits while making sure that the headings and subheadings are consistently constructed, the tense is consistent throughout the document, and that lists and tables are formatted consistently. Notice the repetition of the word “consistent.” Inconsistency is the surest way to lose an audience. If too much work is required to figure out the message of your document, the reader will likely lay it aside.


Mechanical editing is only one part of the job. There is also substantive editing. Is the document organized in a logical way? Does the presentation aid the reader in understanding the author’s purpose? Reduce and simplify the language. Eliminate ambiguity and redundancy. Simplify and shorten sentences and paragraphs. You don’t want to end up with a document full of choppy sentences, but you also don’t want to leave in so much wordiness that the reader loses track of the thought. Check style issues, such as active voice instead of passive, or using bulleted lists instead of comma-delimited lists if that suits the document’s purpose.


If you are editing another writer’s work, allow the author to review the piece and make the corrections, and then be available to reread the work if the author is amenable and make final suggestions. Keep in mind that the author probably put hours of work into the document and you, as an editor, need to be sensitive to the author’s feelings and make sure that the work is a cooperative effort to improve the document, not a hatchet job.


Develop good writing and editing habits. If you must edit your own work, write a first draft and lay it aside if you have time. Come back to it later and reread it with a fresh outlook. Have a peer or colleague read and comment on your work. A good trick is to read what you have written out loud. Your brain is conditioned to “fix” mistakes for you when you read silently. Often your tongue will trip on mistakes that your eyes will scan over without noticing.


The importance of producing a professionally written document cannot be overstated. Readers develop an impression of an author and an organization based on the quality and competency displayed in their documentation. Poorly written content in anything from an e-mail, to a complex report, to a book, from marketing material and Web site content, to in-house memos and instruction sheets can leave the reader with the impression that the author is incompetent, sloppy, or uninterested. Bad writing and editing will result in one lost opportunity after another. Soon you will be forced to try writing that perfect resume again; if you catch my meaning.


About the Author

Greg Whetsel has an eclectic work history, including several years in manufacturing, where he says he suffered through downsizing so often that he is several inches shorter. He studied technical writing at IUPUI in Indianapolis and is a member of the Society for Technical Communication (STC). Greg is also an A+® and Network + ™ certified computer technician. He specializes in technical writing, editing, and information mapping.


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