A Brief Editing Guide

  1. Before you even read the piece, do these things:
    • Search-replace for double spaces between sentences and replace with single space (more professional). –Search-replace to change % to percent (or per cent); choice doesn’t matter but it should be consistent.
    • Search for “U.S.” and “U.N.” to make sure they are adjectives; replace those that are nouns with “United States” and “United Nations.” Either use or don’t use periods, but be consistent.
    • You might also do search-replace for some unwanted words (utilize, linkages, to impact, to access, hopefully, etc.), or for common goofs: Obama Administration (to lowercase the A), Congressional (to lowercase the C, and so on. Save the document!
  2. Read the first few paragraphs to get a sense of the subject and general tone.
    • Make sure the document has the structural parts the form requires: contact info, page numbers, documented sources, table of contents, the Five Ws, budget appendix, whatever.
    • Glance through to see the font size and style of headings, subheads and secondary subheads, if any, and make a note of how you’ll standardize it: you can say that major sections will be all caps in 20 pt bold, centered or flush left or right or whatever, subsections will be bold-italics in 16 pt and next level bold only, or whatever, etc at each level, line spacing, indents, etc.
    • Do a spell-check to eliminate obvious typos and inconsistent name spellings. Save!
  3. Begin editing — sentence by sentence. Have confidence!
    • Does the opening read well? Is it interesting? If not, rewrite. First lines and paragraphs are critical.
    • Consider each sentence to see whether it is decently constructed, coherent and as short as possible while still being meaningful. Can you combine sentences to shorten the piece?
    • Watch out for accidental double meanings (see “Best Headlines.”)
    • Eliminate unnecessary words and most adverbs (ending in -ly). Rewrite sentences starting “there is/are” and passive voice constructions (do a search for the word “by”).
    • Change clichés, pompous bureaucrat-speak, jargon, repetitions. Make sure acronyms are spelled out on first reference.
    • As you go along, fix errors in spelling, grammar, syntax and punctuation. Watch out twice as hard for subject-verb agreement, and for comma faults that should be semicolons or separate sentences. If in doubt, separate the phrases. Follow your chosen style guide.
  4. Read each edited paragraph over. Are lists parallel in structure? Does the paragraph make sense? Does it make one point? Does it need rearranging? Should it go somewhere else? Does it repeat something said already? Can it be shorter? Is the sentence rhythm varied and unobtrusive? If you have questions, insert them as comments or highlight. No such thing as a stupid question.
  5. When you’ve completed a sub-section, read through it for repetitions and general grace. Rearrange for flow and transitions. Check the headings and subheadings for relevance and pith.
  6. When you’ve finished a chapter, read through to catch errors you missed. Revise headings.
  7. At the end, check back to make sure heading and subhead style is consistent, and that the Table of Contents, if any, follows the wording of your revised headings.
  8. Finally, ask the most important editing question of all: does this piece achieve its intended aim? Do some parts seem fuzzy, soft, incoherent, knobby, etc? What’s missing? What’s irrelevant? Trust your gut rejections! Rewrite, rearrange, question as necessary. You’re done. Give it to a copy editors.