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Deciding what needs to be done

Timing is important
Steps to follow when developing an editing plan
    Analysing the document
    Establishing editing objectives
    Prioritising the work
    Reviewing your plan with the writer or client

Before you begin editing a document, you need to analyse it and plan what needs to be done. The exception is when your job is strictly limited (by your supervisor or the client) to correcting only the glaring errors of spelling, punctuation and grammar (a “light edit”). There is no point to attempting a more substantive edit if doing so will only get you into trouble (or if the client won’t pay you for the time you spend).

If your job is less defined, or if (during the light edit) you see that the document seriously needs restructuring or rewriting, you need to determine what needs to be done and then get approval to do the work. You may need to exercise considerable tact when presenting your plan to the author or other person who must approve your proposal.

In some cases, your job is defined as one of restructuring and rewriting as necessary, so you may not need to seek approval—but you should still plan your work before starting. You may find that you cannot possibly do everything that needs to be done in the time available, so you will also need to prioritise your work.

Timing is important

Substantive editing (also known as developmental or comprehensive editing) should be done during the draft phase of writing the document, usually before page layout.

If someone comes to you with a document that’s ready to go to the printer and asks (or tells) you to edit it, there may not be time for a restructure or rewrite even if the document desperately needs it. The best you can do in this situation is to point out (as tactfully as possible) some of the major problems and hope that someone will authorise delaying printing until the problems can be fixed. You may also wish to ensure that the author’s instructions to you (for a light edit) and your evaluation (that a heavy edit is needed) are put in writing.

Steps to follow when developing an editing plan

Carolyn Rude (Technical Editing, 1998) gives four steps to follow when developing an editing plan for a document:

  1. Analyse the document’s readers, purpose, and uses to determine what the document should do and the ways it will be used.
  2. Evaluate the document’s content, organisation, visual design and style to determine whether the document accomplishes what it should. Don’t get bogged down in design details at this point, especially if the document hasn’t been through page layout yet.
  3. Establish editing objectives to set forth a specific plan for editing. Make a list of what needs to be done. Prioritise the list in preparation for step 4.
  4. Review the plan with the writer or client, to work toward agreement on how much editing to do. Once you have established the editing plan, you are ready to edit.

Analysing the document

While analysing the document, make a list of what needs to be done. Don’t go into specific details at this point; just write down the types of problem. Here are some examples of the observations you might make:

  1. Some figure captions do not agree with the text, or the text is not consistent with what is shown in the illustrations.
  2. Document is not consistent in:
    • Presentation of numbered and bulleted lists; some lists are of the wrong type
    • Capitalisation of headings
    • Presentation of references and footnotes
    • Use of specialised terms
  3. Some chapters are missing the required introductory sections.
  4. Headings in some chapters are too long, too short, not parallel, unclear or missing.
  5. Some material appears to be in the wrong chapter or section.
  6. Some paragraphs are too complex, or contain sentences that would more logically go into other paragraphs.
  7. Writing is at the wrong level for the intended audience, or is convoluted and ponderous.
  8. Writing includes many typographical and grammatical errors.
  9. The most important information is difficult to find and understand.
  10. Instructions are buried in the passive voice, so it’s not always clear what the reader should do, and what someone (or something) else will do.
  11. Instructions are buried in complex paragraphs rather than set out in numbered lists or other easy-to-follow layout.

Establishing editing objectives

To turn your observations into objectives, make statements like these:

  • Check captions against figures and surrounding text.
  • Write introductory sections where missing.
  • Rewrite in plain English and active voice.
  • Restructure to improve logical flow from the audience’s point of view, and to make the most important points easy to identify.
  • Copy edit thoroughly for grammar, punctuation, spelling and consistency.
  • Turn long, complex paragraphs into bulleted lists.
  • Replace some complex instructions (in paragraphs) with diagrams, flowcharts, tables, or numbered lists.

Prioritising the work

What constraints of budget, equipment or time do you have? If you know you can’t do a good job on everything that needs to be done, within the time available, you need to prioritise the work. You may also want to tell the client how long it would take to do the full job.

A basic principle of time management is to classify tasks in two ways: urgency and importance, and then to do them in the following order:

  1. Urgent and important
  2. Urgent but not important
  3. Important but not urgent
  4. Not urgent and not important

The urgency and importance of tasks can vary over time. An important task may not be urgent today, but it may be urgent tomorrow or next week.


The urgency of an editing task rises as the document gets closer to completion, because schedules are always shorter at the end of a project, and the editor’s tasks are more likely to be on the critical path. (That means, a delay in your work causes a delay in the whole project.) Earlier in a project, editing is unlikely to be on the critical path; something else is far more likely to cause delays that will give you a bit of extra time to catch up. Tarutz (Technical Editing, 1992) gives this order of priority:

  1. Checking printer’s proofs (the book is at the printer)
  2. Production edits (the book is ready to go to the printer)
  3. Literary or copy edits (the book is at a late stage of development)
  4. Developmental or preliminary edits
  5. Reviewing project plans and document plans


How do you determine what’s most important? Go back to your analysis of the audience and purpose of the document.

Some questions to ask yourself:

  • Will this document contribute to the profitability of the company? (Will it detract from profitability if it’s poorly written, inaccurate or poorly presented?)
  • What’s the lifespan of this document? Will it be read quickly (or not at all) and thrown away? Read or skimmed quickly and filed? Referred to frequently?
  • What’s most important in this document? For example:
    • A proposal needs to be complete and accurate, and it may have to be prepared in a specified format, but it may not need to be visually attractive. A proposal may not need to sound like it was written by one person, but the consistent use of terms may be very important; plain English may be less important and indeed, for some audiences, could even be considered a handicap.
    • A safety pamphlet needs to be accurate, and the information in it must be easy to find and understand. Plain English may be extremely important, but grammatical construction may be less important. Depending on the audience, non-standard language may be helpful rather than a problem.
  • What’s the worst thing that will happen if the document is not fully edited?
  • Could personal injury or equipment damage (and possibly lawsuits) result?
  • Could errors occur that cause inconvenience rather than serious damage?
  • Will readers be confused and call a help desk for answers?
  • Will readers get the message anyway, even if your company is a bit embarrassed by the errors?
  • Will very few people even notice the errors? (Some editors agonise for hours over issues that no one else—except possibly another editor—would ever notice.)

Reviewing your plan with the writer or client

When reviewing your editing plan with the writer or client, you need to discuss how to implement the plan. Depending on the type of work needed, the time available to the writer and the editor, and the skill of the writer, the best sequence might be:

  • You return the document to the writer for a redraft based on your analysis. (You may need to mark up a sample of the document to give the writer more insight into your thinking.) After the redraft, you can edit the document.
  • You do the rewrite yourself.
  • You make detailed editorial comments on the document (not just a sample) for the writer to implement, then you edit again after the rewrite.


Rude, Carolyn, Technical Editing, second edition, Allyn & Bacon, 1998, ISBN 020520032X.

Tarutz, Judth A., Technical Editing: The Practical Guide for Editors and Writers, Addison-Wesley, 1992, ISBN 0201563568.

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Last updated 20 September 2001