On Editing


Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Editing #1


Years ago I took a speed-reading course.  Before reading a book, it was suggested we scan the cover flaps and the table of contents, then quickly flip through the pages of the first couple of chapters. 


The theory is that you should get a feel of the subject matter, see what names and key words pop up frequently and generally get acquainted with the text.  Surprisingly tests showed this technique improved reading speed.


The same goes for editing.  Before you make any changes—even as simple as fixing a typographical error—read the story from top to bottom to familiarize yourself with the big picture.


Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Editing #2


Editing is a form of polishing, preferably using a soft cloth rather than sandpaper.


In short, it involves making sure words are spelled correctly, language is used properly, punctuation is in the right places and the facts are accurate.


Sloppiness can undermine the reader’s understanding of a story and can put in question its believability. 



Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Editing #3


Spelling, correct word use, punctuation and accuracy are pretty specific.  Generally there is a right and a wrong.


Other editing issues are more general and require judgment.  Among those issues are clarity, awkwardness and focus.


Is the story clear to anyone with average intelligence?  Are there sentences, clauses or phrases that would make you stumble if you read them aloud?  Does the story stick to one point?


So the two roles of editing are:  1.  Make right what is wrong; 2.  Use your best judgment as to whether the story is up is told well.



Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Editing #4


Editors are often thought of as butchers waving a meat cleaver.  That, of course, is an exaggeration, known as hyperbole.


While it is true that an editor should tighten up a story by cutting out excess verbiage, it is also important for the editor to make sure the story is complete.  Sometimes writers assume that the reader knows basic information:  When the US Constitution was signed; who Mark Twain was; where Athens is.  Use your judgment as to whether to expand on this kind of information.  If you think one out of ten readers is unsure, it’s better to include the information.


Doughnuts have holes in the middle, but stories shouldn’t.  If you think more detail or description is needed, fill in the hole.

Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Editing #5

The easiest way to find holes in stories or to find other flaws that need editing is to put yourself into the mind of the reader.

What questions would the reader ask?  Does the story answer those questions.

Odd as it may sound, the best editing often occurs when an editor finds something that's missing.

An easy example would be something like: "The teacher made three points." And then the story only lists two.

More difficult is the process of realizing that a piece of information necessary to make the story complete is lacking.  A story with a hole cannot be whole.


Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Editing #6


Driving down a road you notice a variety of signs.  Most have symbols, such as a curved arrow, meaning there’s a bend in the road; some have words, such as STOP.


Punctuation in a sentence is like a sign along the road;  it is intended to be helpful in guiding the reader through sentences and paragraphs.  Each punctuation sign has a function.  The signs are not for decoration, a dab here and a dab there. 


If in editing you see a punctuation mark that performs no role, take it out.  The reader, like the driver of a car, doesn’t need needless distractions.



Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Editing #7


The most misused punctuation mark is the comma.  Writers think they should throw one in every time there is a pause in a sentence.  Not true.


The word “and” seems to trigger the most problems.  Examine the following two sentences:


Marguerite went to the store, and Juan rode his bike.

Marguerite went to the store and bought some yummy candy.


Note that the first example has a comma; the second doesn’t.  The reason?  Example #1 is a compound sentence.  How do you know?  Because if you take away the word “and” you have two sentences.  But in Example #2 you can’t take away “and”.  Marguerite is the subject of  “went” and “bought”.


A comma is unnecessary unless it serves a specific purpose.  Pause and analyze the role of each comma but don’t use one every time there is a pause.

(How necessary are commas?  Notice that only one comma is used in this tutorial).



Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Editing #8


A close look at spelling, punctuation, capitalization and the like will reveal differences in usage between one publication and another.


Example #1

Red, white, and blue

Red, white and blue


Example #2:




In a series (Example #1) formal English calls for a comma before the word “and”.  Informal English, often found in newspapers, leave out that comma.  This practice originated because of the need for speed when type was set by hand.


“Labour” is a common British spelling used in many countries around the world.


Publishing groups develop manuals for what is known as style, because there can be so many variations.  Textbooks set the style in schools.


Whether you labor or labour doesn’t matter much; what’s most important is that you are consistent.



Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Editing #9


Lingo is a form of language fashioned by those who share a special interest.  Sports enthusiasts refer to the baseball field as a “diamond”; basketball players “dunk”; football tailbacks run “sweeps”.  Just about every profession has its own lingo.


The advent of email has also brought with it a lingo that is almost like a foreign language.  The use of email lingo is fine if the recipients understand it.


Stories on the web or in print more often than not are written for a general audience.  Lingo should be avoided.


By the same token obscure words, particularly those with four syllables, should also be replaced with common words, unless you are writing for an erudite audience.  Erudite?  It describes those who have extensive knowledge, mostly from books.  Probably a good word to avoid most of the time. 



Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Editing #10


Editing requires common sense, because rules cannot cover every situation.  Still, any changes should be made with good reason, because the story belongs to the writer.


An improvement in the choice of a word or a phrase or a clarifying insertion or the correction of  mistake are appropriate in the editing process.


What happens when substantial changes are required, such as the insertion of a paragraph or putting paragraphs in different order or reducing a story to half its original length?


In those cases the writer should be consulted.  Major changes should be agreed upon between the writer and the editor before a story is published.   The fine line between editing and rewriting can be dissolved by discussion and agreement.



Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Editing #11


Stories need to contain certain elements that make them worthwhile:

1.      They should inform, educate, guide and, in some cases, entertain the reader.

2.      They should be of general interest to the reader.

3.      They should provide readers what they need to know or have the right to know.

4.      They should contain timely information.


In short, stories should not be written for the writer but for the reader.



Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Editing #12


The first step and the last step in the editing process are the same:  Read the story from beginning to end.  When practical, read it aloud.  Occasionally you’ll hear a bump in the story that needs smoothing.


How clear are the answers to the four basic W questions:  Who?  What?  When?  Where?  Most stories also should clearly explain the How and Why as well.


Also, editors occasionally leave a stray comma here or a mistyped word there.  Those need to be fixed, because this is the final polishing process.  The next step is publication.


Publication is a gratifying last step that follows a long process involving the forming of an idea, researching, reporting, writing, revising and editing. 


                                      Copyright, 2003, MIT Media Laboratory