What do I think about, when I think about editing?

startA colleague recently asked me to note down some general pointers and principles to consider when embarking on a major copy-edit (non-fiction).

I came up with 12 – would your list differ?


1 Read/scan the WHOLE text before starting

That way you start to familiarise yourself with the job, and can let the client know immediately if anything is missing, or any files are corrupted or unopenable. Then look at the client’s brief again, and get clarifications if required.

2 Create a copy of the author’s file(s) to edit

Keep the author’s file(s) unaltered so you can go back to the original if necessary. Use a sensible system of file names for work in progress, so versions of files are never mixed up.

3 Get to know the house style, if there is one

Sometimes clients require absolute adherence to their house or series style. Sometimes they may be happy to accept an author’s style variations as long as those are consistent and correct. If you don’t know their preferences, ask.

4 Make an editing plan and follow it

Decide what needs doing, make a list – ideally, have a template list that can be adapted for each job – and do the tasks in a sensible order. This will require multiple passes through the text: it’s impossible to focus on everything at once.

What’s a ‘sensible order’? I liken this to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: start with the basic essentials (clean-up, formatting, style basics) and work upward to the highest level of sense, clarity and content. For long or multi-part texts, I create a table and tick each editing task off for each chapter/section as I do it.

pyramidPsychologist Abraham Maslow described how humans strive to satisfy a hierarchy of needs, starting with the most basic physiological ones (air, water, food). The hierarchy is usually shown as a pyramid. (Image from Wikipedia)



(To state the obvious: if the text needs substantive reorganising/cutting/rewriting, then that must happen BEFORE copy-editing. These notes assume that the text is edit-ready.)

5 Put yourself in the reader’s place

For whom is the text intended? Will they understand and appreciate it? Is too much background knowledge being assumed – or unnecessary detail given?

6 Distinguish essential edits and real errors from your own likes and dislikes

It is not our job, as editors, to impose our personal preferences. We don’t have to justify our editorial existence by changing everything. The author’s ‘voice’ and tone should not be altered without compelling reasons.

7 Create a style sheet

Editors work on lots of projects and our memories are not infallible. Record spellings and style decisions for the current project, and keep the style sheet updated. Supply it along with the edited text – it will help the client (and proofreader) later on.

8 Use track changes wisely

Even if the client wants edits tracked, it’s usually not a good idea to track EVERYTHING. Heavily tracked text is hard to read. Even small changes, such as removing extra spaces after punctuation, or switching between -ise and -ize spellings, can make the text look very heavily edited when it isn’t. Forests of red tracking will create panic and horror in the author’s breast … But anything that is changed ‘silently’ should be noted in the style sheet.

Consider supplying a clean copy alongside (or before) the tracked one, especially if the editing is heavy.

9 Global search and replace is great, but …!

This can be a great time-saver, but the unintended consequences can be disastrous/hilarious … every editor will know a horror story. Think it through before, and check the results after, the search/replace. (Likewise macros.)

10 Make appropriate use of editing software tools

I highly recommend PerfectIt: http://www.intelligentediting.com/

11 Check how edited text should be presented

Ask the client for any specific requirements for formatting and presentation (they won’t always remember to tell you). If you are using tracked changes and comments, check that the recipient understands how to deal with them.

12 Be tactful in notes and queries

You can make or break your relationship with the author by page 3. Show some empathy with the writer, who has put so much effort into creating the text. Give reasons for significant edits, to show that changes are not simply capricious. A high-handed tone will probably make the author resist your edits; ‘I suggest …’ is a useful phrase. An editor–author relationship should be a respectful collaboration, not a power struggle.


These notes are based on (what sometimes feels like) several centuries of editing non-fiction texts, usually for traditional book publishers. I’d love to hear how other editors’ opinions, experiences and priorities differ.

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