Editing for non-editors: an intro

Yes. We. Can.

What is editing?

Editing is actually NOT about fixing mistakes. That’s proof-reading. Editing is about adding clarity, by improving sense, meaning, flow and fullness. In a nutshell:

  • It’s correcting and refining text for readability.
  • It’s bringing conformity to a text, for a specific purpose.
  • It’s revising text to improve quality.
  • It’s about making the writer’s words more valuable and credible.

I call this ‘Level 2’. You’ll see why in a bit. At this level, the three most common issues I see are:

  1. Waffle
  2. Repetition
  3. Missing or confused logic

What is proofing?

I call this ‘Level 1’.

Mark Twain knew how hard it is to proof-read effectively. As he said in 1898:

‘You think you are reading [copy], whereas you are merely reading your own mind; your statement of the thing is full of holes and vacancies but you don’t know it, because you are filling them from your mind as you go along.’

This explains why we don’t see our own mistakes – until later or someone else points them out to us. This is why conscious proof-reading is so important.

When we proof-read text we adapt it in line with ‘the rules’, looking for problematic spelling, punctuation and style.

At this level, the three most common issues I see as an editor are:

  1. Spacing errors
  2. Capitalisation errors
  3. Confused word choices

What else is there?

Then there’s the ‘big’ editing. This is what I call ‘Level 3’. It involves considering things like:

  • Length
  • Structure
  • Organisation
  • Vocab
  • Presentation

Looking deeper into a text, the three most common issues I see as an editor are:

  1. Structural issues like gaps in fact and wandering timelines
  2. Excessive explaining or lengthy chunks of narrative (telling versus showing)
  3. Awkward, clunky writing

So, what to do?

  1. Use my 3-step process.

This works because you’re able to look for one type of problem at a time. Read through your text several times, concentrating on Level 1, then 2, then 3. (None of these includes spell-check*, which you should already have done.)

  1. Give it a rest.

If time allows, set your text aside for a few hours after you’ve finished writing, and then proof it with fresh eyes. You’re more likely to see what you’ve actually written.

  1. Double-check

Check facts, figures, dates, places and proper names. In addition to reviewing for correct spelling and usage, ensure that all the information in your text is accurate.

  1. Review a hard copy.

Print out your text and review it line by line: re-reading your work in a different format (with a ruler to help you) may help you catch errors that you previously missed.

  1. Read your text aloud.

Or better yet, ask a colleague to read it aloud. You may hear a problem (a missing word, for example) you haven’t been able to see.

  1. Read your text backwards.

Another way to catch errors is to read backwards, from right to left, starting with the last word. Doing this will help you focus on individual words rather than sentences.

  1. Create your own ‘errors’ checklist.

Keep a list of the types of mistakes you commonly make, and then refer to that list each time you proofread.


Yes, use spell-check. But be aware that, while it can help you catch repeated words, reversed letters and many other common errors, it’s not fool-proof. You have to use your brain. Spell-check can tell you only if a word is a word, not if it’s the right word. For instance, if you’re not sure whether sand is in a desert or a dessert, use the dictionary (or http://grammar.about.com/od/words/a/UsageGlossary.htm).

That’s it. Have fun.

*This post originally appeared on themarketingsite.com.