Editing online

by Judy Petersen

About 50% of my business involves different types of editing. Most jobs are either short pieces that need immediate attention (press releases, news items, reference cards, etc.) or longer pieces such as books, research articles, and Web sites.

During the past 15 years, I've developed an online editing method that enables me to take on a lot of editing work and at the same time deliver top-quality results. This article describes procedures that I follow when editing longer documents in Microsoft Word.

1. Setting up

When editing online, you should keep four files open at the same time: the original file, the file that you're editing, a file for notes to the author, and a file for creating or expanding a style sheet.

Most often, work comes to me via e-mail. So after I move the file into its appropriate directory, I open:

  1. The original file in Word and save it under a new name.
  2. A new file and then set up a table and save the file with the name Notes.
  3. Another new file and save the file with the name Style (or, I open the Style file that contains the client's style sheet).

The original file always remains intact; I use it when I finish--to run the Compare Versions function for customers who want to see the changes. (I never work with the Revisions function turned on because it slows me down.) I always keep the original file open while editing--in case I make a mistake while rewriting (that way, I can quickly check the original).

Table 1 illustrates the table in the Notes file. I either print this file and fax it to authors before I deliver the finished product, or I send it with the edited file, and the authors attend to the notes, i.e., they assume final responsibility for the manuscript.

I use the Style file to build a style sheet for a new client or to update an existing style sheet.

Table 1. Sample Notes file.
Original text   Questions, comments, suggestions   Author's response
In the concluding section policy alternatives as how to achieve an expansion of tertiary education, an efficient combination of teaching and reset in higher education and appropriate investments incentives, are briefly addressed.   What does reset mean in this context? Is the rest of the rewrite OK?

The concluding section briefly addresses policy alternatives regarding how to achieve: an expansion of tertiary education, an efficient combination of teaching and reset in higher education, and appropriate investments incentives.

2. Using the style sheet

Before reading the manuscript, I check that it complies with the style sheet. Here's a sample procedure:

  1. Print the style sheet, and then open the copy you created from the original file.
  2. Select Edit and then Replace.
  3. Turn to the "Cutting out the fat" section of the style sheet.
  4. Type: a number of in the Find field. Do not type spaces around the phrase.
  5. Type several in the Replace field.
  6. Select the Find Next button.
  7. Read the sentence. Can you safely replace the phrase? If so, the select the Replace button.
  8. Repeat steps 6-7 until Word finishes searching the entire file.
  9. Repeat steps 4-9 until you have searched for all items listed on the style sheet.

My style sheets contain the most frequently occurring problems that I see in my daily work as an editor (see Table 2). They also contain client-specific terminology.

I organize items, such as rules for capitalization, Latin abbreviations, numbers, and titles, in alphabetical order in section I of the style sheet. Section II contains terminology, and Section III contains wordy phrases that can be replaced without affecting meaning or content (see, for example, Edit Yourself by Bruce Ross-Larson, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1982, ISBN 0-393-01640-4).

Table 2. Excerpts from a style sheet.
Type this in the Find field:   Type this in the Replace field:
's   s (as in 1990s)
  bar code
fall   autumn
Intranet   intranet
in the beginning of the 19   in the early 19
given rise to   led to
macro-economics   macroeconomics

3. Editing mechanical stuff

For authors who are submitting articles to journals or magazines, I match the heading, captions, and graphics styles with the targeted publication. This extra procedure in the editing process gives me an overview of the document:

  1. Select the View and then Outline.
  2. Scroll through and correct capitalization and punctuation according to the particular publication's style sheet or guidelines.

4. Editing content

Before I read the file, I raise the percentage in the zoom field to 120% and activate the Show/hide function so that I can see the paragraph and spacing symbols. Note that these options are a matter of taste. Some people are distracted by symbols that are displayed when the Show/hide function is activated.

I rely on the symbols to determine, for example, if authors have inserted nonbreaking spaces between monetary abbreviations and digits (USD 5 million).

Then, I start reading to:

  • Correct all errors and inconsistencies.
  • Change passive sentences to active whenever possible.
  • Restructure paragraphs as needed. (For example, sometimes researchers inadvertently place information that belongs in the results section into measurement and analysis sections.)
  • Break extremely long sentences into smaller sentences or into lists. Transform nominals into verb phrases.

While editing, I work with the other files, for example:

If...   Then...
A compound adjective isn't hyphenated ...  
  1. Stop reading. Select the Replace option. Type the words into the Find field. Type the hyphenated adjective in the Replace field. Work through the file and replace where appropriate.
  2. Copy the correction and paste it into the style sheet.
A sentence is as clear as mud and you must rewrite it ...   Copy the author's original sentence and a suggested revision (rewrite) into the Notes file. Ask the author to ensure that the revision is correct.
A term looks suspicious...  
  1. Highlight the suspicious word and open the Microsoft Word Thesaurus.
  2. If the choices are limited, then open the Microsoft Bookshelf Thesaurus.
  3. Still not happy? Then search the Web and report the results in the Notes file. For example, heteroscedasticity had more hits than heteroskedasticity. When I pointed this out to the author, he insisted on the latter because of the word's origin.

5. Checking references

Problems are plentiful when it comes to references: An author's name can be spelled correctly in the reference list but incorrectly in the body or a footnote.

Sometimes dates in the body don't agree with dates in the reference list. An author might be in the reference list but not in the body or may be in the body but not in the reference list. So to ensure as much accuracy as possible:

  1. Print the reference list.
  2. Go to the top of the file, and select the Find option.
  3. Type the first author's name (in the printed list) in the Find field, and select Find Next.
  4. Does the date in the body match the date in the reference list? Is the author in the reference list but not in the body or footnotes? Copy and paste any discrepancies into the Notes file and ask the author to make the necessary corrections.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until you've worked through the entire printed list.
  6. Go to the top of the file, and then activate the Spelling checker.
  7. When an author's name comes up in the body, compare it to the printed reference list. Does it match? If not, copy and paste the discrepancy into the Notes file. (Here, you find out if an author is cited in the body but not listed in the reference list.)
  8. Select Ignore (do not select Ignore All) and continue running the Spelling checker.

And finally ...

Run the Spelling and Grammar checker and save the file. Close the file and then open it again to run the Compare Documents function against the original manuscript (if required).

Then save the file that displays the revisions under a new name. Read through the Notes and Style files and clean them up (edit/format as needed).


I know that online editing isn't suitable for all documents or file types, or for all work situations. What I've described here reflects my reality--a win-win situation: I can take on more jobs and earn more money. And my clients save time and money because I charge more for working on paper and they need not enter my markup.


Adapted from an article for INTERCOM. Reprinted with permission from INTERCOM, the magazine of the Society for Technical Communication. Arlington, VA, USA. For more information, contact Judy Petersen.