Editing tips

This page is a checklist of things to do when editing your own work. Most of these tips are equally relevant when editing someone else’s work.

  • Edit in small doses, and take frequent breaks. Divide big projects into sections you can edit completely without tiring. Never edit for more than one hour at a time without taking a break. The longer you edit without a break, the less effective you’ll be.
  • Make several passes. Don’t try to find everything at once. Skim for some things (such as fonts, spacing, missing illustrations), read for others.
  • Try to read for content only once; skim when looking for other problems on other passes.
  • Add to your checklist any common errors you know you make, and anything you know needs to be checked or verified.
  • Use a style sheet and a checklist of things to look for. Keep your checklist and style sheet handy and refer to them often.
  • Don’t overlook the obvious. Pay special attention to the document title, document number, and chapter or section titles.
  • If you re-used material from another document or chapter, or you use “boilerplate”, check that any required changes (such as the product name) have been made.
  • Seek out copy that is in small print. That is where many mistakes tend to cluster.
  • Check the line breaks and page breaks. Transitions to the next line or to the next page are common problem areas, along with headers and footers.
  • Look for symbols that come in pairs – parentheses, brackets, and quotation marks, for example. Writers often leave out the second mark in a pair.
  • Hold the copy upside down to check the line spacing, word spacing, general format, and type quality.
  • Use a straightedge or a sheet of heavy paper with a rectangular cutout to help you focus on specific areas of text. Use a horizontal cutout for ordinary text and a vertical cutout for tabular text.
  • Read the copy out of sequence or backward. Consider reading paragraphs or pages out of order. Or, read each word from the end of a passage to the beginning. Reading backward can help you focus on each word as a group of letters instead of as part of a meaningful phrase.
  • Double- or triple-check equations. Check calculations.
  • When skimming, use a highlighter pen to mark problems as you notice them, but don’t stop to make changes; it slows you down and distracts you.
  • Avoid copy-editing at the same time as you’re doing substantive editing; it slows you down and distracts you.

Last updated 30 January 1999

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