Editing Etiquette

Watch your style when making comments and queries on documents—especially ones being worked on by teams of reviewers and editors.

Most professional editors working on documents for clients or publishers usually have honed a lexicon of polite terms and liberally use “please” (or more often the truncated “pls”). We stay away from sarcastic remarks and overly dramatic accusations. We try for maximum encouragement. And we eschew wordy comments in the margins.

However, this often breaks down when editor and writer know each other well or when documents are being edited for in-house use. In these situations, you may well find sharp repartee, humor, and even plays by co-workers using an edit as an opportunity to assert power or make bid to move up the office political ladder.

Working with a team of content review editors recently on technical document, provided me with a window into various editorial styles. I share these not as criticism of people who volunteered to review the content of a complex document written by dozens of academics, but as a way to share the pitfalls of review editing.

The volunteers on this project were not professional editors. However, I have worked with professional editors who make the same errors. When you are reviewing a document, whether you are being paid to edit or volunteering to review, here are some tips for maximum efficiency and minimum harm.

Although I am not talking about the official peer review process, many of these guidelines could (and should) be incorporated into that process as well.

Editorial Review Guidelines

Spelling Counts
When criticizing the writing, punctuation, and grammar of others, remember to watch yours as well. How much weight does your correction carry if you have misspellings in your comment?

Shorthand Language
If you find yourself making more than a few abbreviations in your comment or query, perhaps you are prattling on a bit too much. Editors use some standard shorthand, for example, “pls” for “please,” “TK” for something “to come,” and “ref?” for “missing reference.” Beyond such standard forms or shortcuts for other repetitive words in your queries, refrain from “pigeon-speak.” The author needs to be concentrating on corrections—not trying to figure out what the editor means.

Wordy Queries
Yikes! When the query or comment is longer than the paragraph or sentence in question, you really should review your thoughts and organize them to convey your message in the shortest way possible. An author’s eyes will surely glaze over and you will not reach your goal of urging the author to create better content or improve construction.

If You Can’t Tell, Then Show
If it is really too difficult to explain what you want the author to do in a concise way—and there is enough content to fix it—then fix it and query the author for agreement.

Don’t Fix What You Don’t Know
Avoid trying to rewrite something out of your area of expertise. And don’t write a paragraph trying to ask. Simply comment “Not clear. Pls fix.”

Avoid Sarcasm
This is especially true if you do not know the author well. Certainly professional editors would not do this—at least not and keep their clients very long. But among peers and office mates this may become a habit. However, you never know the level of someone’s feelings. What may seem funny to you, may not be so to someone who has worked for months on writing and preparing a document. In addition, you never know who else might be reading the document with your sarcastic comments—which could lead to embarrassment for you and the author.

Sometimes it is easy to resort to a snide “What????” rather than an instructive, “Will the reader understand this?” I admit that I have more than once typed the comment “This is stupid,” and then, of course, changed it to a polite “Not sure reader will understand.”

More than one question mark or explanation point is like yelling. Avoid them in multiples at one location.

Editorial comments are not the place for epics about content or for emotional releases about the poor quality of today’s writers. Stick to the task and save your personal angst for an appropriate time—a beer or a coffee with a fellow editor or good friend.

Review Your Comments
After years of editing, I know all my comments are not necessary. Neither are yours. Review them. You will find that you can shorten them, make them more agreeable, and consolidate some.

And correct those spellings errors.

(P.S. One of the best ways to avoid MS Word “helping” you into more spelling errors is to turn off the auto spell function. You’ll end up typing slower, but you won’t have Word trying to second guess what you are writing and “fix it.”)

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Editors Bring Fresh Eyes

From time to time I perform editing tasks for a professor at a major university here in Florida. The recipient of many environmental education grants, she understands the various stages of bringing a work to publication, especially works that involve more than one person. In addition to having the foresight to bring an editor into the mix, she also takes an active role in the process and is not hesitant to review works and/or ask her graduate students to review works in detail–more than once—before committing them to publication.

This is certainly more than can be said for major publishing houses, even educational publishers and university presses, that in the current economic crunch and tremendous changes in the nature of publishing have found the need to cut corners on everything from editing and proofreading to indexing and book promotion.

The result of these austerity measures is felt by the readers who puzzle over passages and must put up with inconsistent style and sloppy grammar. As an editor, I am much less concerned about making sure that a writer follows every arcane detail of English grammar than I am about being sure that the intent of the content is fully accessible to the reader. If your point is lost in a morass of verbiage, your efforts at conveying information to a reader are useless.

This professor recognizes that the time and effort put in by her staff and graduate students should be honored by being sure that the information is readable and understandable. She realistically understands that often those closest to the work know the material too well to objectively determine readability.

If nothing else, an editor brings a fresh set of eyes to a project. And along with this new perspective, you also benefit from the experience and expertise of someone whose background and focus is working with words and how they convey meaning. In addition, you show respect to your reader when you do them the service of presenting understandable and well-edited text.

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Cookbook Editing

Do cookbooks go through the editing process? The best ones do. Along with having the actual recipes proofed–which rarely happens these days–cookbooks do well to have an editor.

Authors are so familiar with their recipes that most cannot view the instructions from the perspective of the first-time user. In addition to vague, incomplete, and often wrong instructions, there is ample opportunity for typos, which in other literary works might be amusing. However, when it comes to recipe ingredients the difference between 1 tablespoon and 1 teaspoon is not a laughing matter.

Authors often err with vagueness or lack of complete instruction. For instance in an interesting non-gluten shortbread recipe that I recently encountered, I am instructed to cut the butter into “tiny pieces.” Compared to what? Tiny could mean the size of pea or the size of a grain of amaranth. A good editor would have caught this omission.

Additionally, once the dough is chilled, I am supposed to roll it out. How thick? A quarter of an inch? More? Less? I had not made this recipe before and although I could have consulted a similar recipe, gluten-free baking is in a class of its own and the thickness of the dough may be an issue. My only option is to try a few at various thicknesses and see which ones turn out best.

And the most egregious error? No oven temperature. Just “bake for 15 minutes.”

But this recipe is in a book that I purchased. I did not download it from a free Internet site. And so I expect complete instructions, along with some hints about what might go wrong.

I recall another recipe I tried at least three times–a complicated strawberry bombe that imploded every time I tried to make it. I was so frustrated that I sent the recipe to my mother, an excellent cook and former caterer. I was sure she could successfully accomplish this pastry challenge.

Nope. She failed as well and called me to tell me the recipe was flawed. The ratio of liquid to flour was off, and she was not sure which wet ingredient to decrease and rather than waste yet a fifth round of expensive ingredients, she suggested I find a better recipe for something similar.

“Yeah,” I told her, “I’m cutting up some strawberries and serving them over ice cream.

Admittedly, the print publishing industry faces tough economic times, but this is no excuse to take shortcuts in the editorial process. Serious authors should demand that their works are properly reviewed before being rushed into publication.

Electronic publishers of recipes are no better, and here the time from authorship to publication can be done in barely the amount of time it takes to blanch tomatoes. Not a good idea if you care about your readers.

Cookbooks are inexpensive and recipes cannot be copyrighted. As a cook, your best bet is to invest in quality cookbooks produced by publishers that invest in copyediting and proofreading.

As an author you should demand to have your work edited, and if the publisher will not guarantee a professional editor, then spend the money for your own editor and/or proofreader.

Your reputation as well as your recipes are on the table!

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