Editing playbook

WHEN YOU EDIT a text, you must become a self-conscious reader. As you read, take note, literally, of your reactions. Your basic benchmark is the document’s readability. Don’t be satisfied with second-guessing what the author meant: If you don’t understand right away, neither will others.

You can improve a text tremendously in very simple ways, by pinpointing everything that arrests, disturbs or slows down your reading. Overall presentation and attention to detail is far more important than most people assume: Sloppy formatting, random punctuation, superfluous spaces and poor spelling are eyesores that must be remedied sooner rather than later. If there are too many to wade through, send the draft back to the author; otherwise, take it upon yourself to get them out of the way once and for all.

Editing revolves, fundamentally, around clarity. Whether you are reviewing an analytic piece or a novel, at each paragraph you must ask yourself: Do I understand this part, and why is it necessary? What is the point? Is it conveyed effectively? Is it supported by the right material? Is it in the right place? And does it connect smoothly and logically with what comes before and after? Answering those questions will tell you whether you should cut, ask more from the author, or take the initiative of moving things around.

In an analytic article, a second goal is to identify and sharpen the piece’s main arguments. It may help to highlight or underline key sentences. You may do the same with words and expressions that hint to a section’s structure—firstly, on one hand, however, likewise, and so on—in order to track the flow and identify inconsistencies. Arguments and connectors are the backbone of any analysis, so making them stand out will give you a bird’s-eye view of the text’s thrust and shortcomings.

The third layer of self-conscious reading is the trickiest. On top of sharp presentation and robust structure, you inevitably must look for what, in the text, is particularly engaging or off-putting. Do I find this interesting? Am I convinced, or is something missing to the argument? What gets me intrigued, and where do I drift away? How can this text be made more gripping throughout? Here, the risk is to let yourself get carried away, telling the author to write the piece that is on your mind. Your suggestions will only work if the author can fully own them. That means you must understand their view and bring out the best in them, rather than force yourself into their work.

To keep track of all your reactions, you may use a code of your own. For instance, if you start off working on a printout, a squiggly horizontal line, under a word or a sentence, or a vertical one alongside a paragraph, can signal problems—ideally with a quick comment to qualify their nature. Circles may point to punctuation issues and other troubles with form. In the margins, an exclamation mark will identify an outrageous statement, while a question mark will single out a vague or dubious one. Whatever system you adopt, apply it rigorously, so that the issues with a text appear distinctly on every page.

Once you have done that, you may start fixing it, or providing more detailed guidance for the author to do so on their own. In the latter case, you might spell out your opinions directly in the digital version of the document, in “track changes.” When suggesting alternative language, simply write over the existing one. Comments, however, must be made [between brackets], so your interjections and the author’s voice don’t get mixed up with each other.

Finally, keep in mind, when editing others, how uncomfortable—if not outright unpleasant—it is to be edited ourselves. Writing is arduous and personal, and edits can easily come across as judgmental or obstructive. So praise whatever can be praised, explain your views, and make substantive suggestions diplomatically. Luckily for those who spend their time giving such feedback: A smart author will recognize a good editor, and make the most of the opportunity.

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Illustration credit: plane with wood shavings by Wikipedia / licensed by CC. 

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