After slaving over a piece of peerless prose, many writers fall in love with their own work. You may have revised it a time or two and feel it is ready to launch, but you need to tackle the last important steps: editing and proofreading your work with diligence and precision. Both take some patience and a critical, distanced approach. With a little literary cosmetic surgery, you can make your work attractive to future readers.
How to Edit and Proofread – Professional Guidance
Editing and proofreading are both important to ensure clear and clean communications. If your news release, media pitch, blog post, website content, letter or email message has typos, misspellings, and bad punctuation or doesn’t flow well, your reader may perceive you as unprofessional, lazy or sloppy. Even simple typos such as misplaced apostrophes and commas can leave a bad impression and raise questions about your professional skills.
By editing and proofreading well, you will be able to ensure a level of quality control for all your communications and reinforce your growing professional image.
To set the stage, first let’s go over the difference between editing and proofreading. In Leah McClellan’s “25 editing tips for your writer’s toolbox,” she defines editing and proofreading with some examples of how they differ:
“Editing refers to structural changes (the big stuff) and rewriting sections of the manuscript, article, or blog post. Editing also focuses on changes at the chapter, section, and sentence level. Examining and correcting content, organization, style, and logic as well as grammar, spelling, punctuation, and more are all part of the editing process.”
McClellan adds: “Proofreading, on the other hand, is about little stuff that’s hard to see. Proofing does not include changes beyond spelling errors or typos, minor punctuation errors that don’t require text changes, spacing, format, numbering, or stylistic matters such as italics and underlining.”
McClellan recommends setting aside separate time blocks for both editing and proofreading in order to stay focused. Always allow time between writing and editing – and editing and proofing. You are guaranteed to catch and correct more items if you give yourself a breather and space out these activities. If you aren’t on a deadline, revisit the piece to edit the next day. If you are in a time crunch at least wait a few hours before you start editing. For proofreading, go ahead and review your piece yourself. Then, for important and more complex communications, have an eagle-eyed friend or colleague provide one more level of scrutiny and quality control. A fresh perspective and a second set of eyes (and brain!) will significantly reduce the chances for error.
Editing should always be done before proofreading. The proofreading stage is not the time for rewriting or rewording. If you find yourself doing these things, you are still editing. You may lose your focus and introduce new mistakes if you start editing when you are supposed to be proofing!
The following can serve as a handy checklist for improving your editing skills.
Follow these 10 tips to become a better editor:
- Eliminate unnecessary words; keep words and phrases concise. Use the fewest words possible to communicate your meaning. Avoid using adverbs, adjectives, and other modifiers. Strong verbs (simplify instead of make simple) and precise nouns (blouse instead of top with long sleeves) are better choices than lengthy descriptions.
- Stay on subject, don’t introduce off-topic items. Don’t go on tangents or rants, which will get you sidetracked. Make sure any statement you make adds value and ties back to your main point. If it doesn’t, cut it.
- Delete information that is not strictly needed, any extra paragraph or sentence that isn’t absolutely necessary. Get to the point. Don’t ramble. As covered in a fine piece in The Harvard Business Review on the art of writing, kill your darlings. Enough said!
- Set a word count limit and stick to it. Give yourself a goal on word count. Setting a guideline will help you stay focused on what’s important and only necessary to include in your piece. Writing shorter, more compelling copy takes time. As Blaine Pascal, French author and scientist, noted in the 17th Century (to be echoed by Winston Churchill three centuries later), “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.”
- Fact-check. Names, titles, locations, dates, numbers, references to other resources such as legal documents or regulations — any and all factual information – should be checked for accuracy. A quick Internet search can often find answers in minutes. When in doubt, consult a colleague.
- Don’t rely solely on grammar or spell check. Make sure you read for errors, too. The spell checker on Word and email catches the obvious typos and mistakes, but it overlooks context and won’t correct misspelled words that are, in fact, words (for examples, its, it’s; their, there, they’re; herd, heard; here, hear).
- Read it out loud to check flow. Go to a quiet place where you can concentrate and read your piece out loud. How does it flow? Do you trip up on any sections? If a sentence or paragraph reads awkwardly, you should reword or rework it.
- Consult a style manual routinely. A style guide or manual provides a set of standards for writers. Scan it; become familiar with it. It’s a great reference for grammar, style, and formatting and will come in handy in all your writing and editing. The preferred source: The Associated Press Stylebook, used by journalists, editors and broadcast producers (and most top PR professionals!).
- Take breaks. During earlier revisions, most writers develop a feeling for when they are at your creative or critical best. For editing, you need to be extra sharp. Never try to edit when you are tired or frustrated. Set the piece aside for a better time, when you are alert and reenergized. You will be more focused, with heightened editing skills.
- Lastly, request a colleague’s review before calling it final. Sometimes you just don’t see what others see. Ask a colleague or a friend to read your piece for feedback, proofread your document and pay close attention to anything you may have accidentally missed. An outsider’s review and seal of approval makes a big difference and will confirm your piece is ready for its recipient.
Now, you are ready to launch your fine work!
- “25 editing tips for your writer’s toolbox,” by Leah McClellan. From Ragan.com, July 5, 2013.
- The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well, by Paula LaRocque. Grey and Guvner Press, 2003.
- Eats, Shoots and Leaves – The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynne Truss, Gotham Books, 2003.
- The Associated Press Stylebook, Perseus Publishing, 2013.