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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