… I wanted to share

Tips for editing and proofing

When I started to type this post I intended to use a paragraph from the first draft as a working example.  Not surprisingly this led to a particularly paranoid approach to the first draft and what I ended up with wasn’t all that useful for a demonstration.  I hope the tips speak for themselves, but if you would like any clarification or examples please ask.

I feel I should clarify that I don’t have any special writing qualifications or experience that sets me apart from others (if you’re a potential employer, ignore that, I’ll think of some!).  But I do tend to get good feedback on my writing so I must be doing something right.  Writing is one of my favourite parts of the academic process and I have a methodical approach to it that I would fall to pieces without.   I would like to share some of the more definable parts of that process with you, so here are my top 5 (in no particular order) tips for editing and proofing. 

Tip 1: House styles

This tip was inspired by time I spent proofing work written by others and correcting it to match the particular house style of a magazine.  Many of you will already do this; many without realising.  Following a house style means keeping to a set of clear rules such as fonts, referencing systems, number and date formats.  If you’re writing a piece and don’t yet know the required referencing system, use your usual one and stick with it.  Adhere to a system, however basic it may seem, and you should build up a natural consistency in your writing and weed out many potential corrections before they happen.  As you use your house style more you’ll find that you won’t need to second-guess yourself when you find something slightly off (do you normally write Jenkins’ or Jenkins’s?), because you’ll know how you’ve written it elsewhere without looking for comparisons in the rest of your work.

Tip 2: Highlighting: writing’s string around the finger

Use Word’s highlighting function as a memory prompt.  A common example would be if you need to cite something but don’t have the exact details to hand: type what you remember and then highlight the text.  When you return to it later you’ll see that something needs to be completed.  By following this tip you’ll find you won’t need to break off mid-thought to find important information, and won’t run the risk of forgetting to complete citations.  Taking this tip further, use a particular colour to highlight sections of text that refer to other chapters or parts of the work.  So if you type, “as we will see later” or “see Appendix 1”, highlight it so you’ll remember to check the referral is still correct when your paper, chapter or book is complete.

Tip 3: Divide your time

Make the purpose of your current task clear to yourself before you begin; divide your editing time between thinking and correcting.  You are likely to read through your work at different stages of the writing process, one day you intend to check for errors, another to work on restructuring.  These two processes often don’t work well in tandem; restructuring creates new errors, and checking for errors can obscure structure.  To avoid this, and make the best use of time, decide from the start what you plan to do during your read-through.  If you then find yourself drifting from that purpose, make an in-text note to yourself (Word’s comment function is great for this) to return to problematic sections later, then move on.

Tip 4: Colourful language

This tip is particularly useful for paragraphs or short sections that you can feel need to be restructured or worked over, but you’re struggling to work it out.  Change the colours of the sentences in the paragraph so they are all different.  Now look for the cause of those feelings: are the sentences too long?  Do some sentences repeat the same sentiment?  Are the sentences in the wrong order?  Are some of them unnecessary?  Once you see what’s going on you can begin to fix it.  As you hone the section, and change back to black those sentences you’re happy with, the most problematic elements will emerge for correction or even deletion.  If you think about deleting something, change it to grey while you think.

Tip 5: Fonts of knowledge

We all know how easy and frustrating it is to overlook an error time and time again until it’s spotted in the submitted piece.  One way to avoid this is to change the font of the whole article to something that is unfamiliar to you (particularly switching between sans and serif).  You’ll find that you need to adjust your level of attention and instead of complacently looking at the words you actually read them again.  That’s the time when you notice the error you’d have kicked yourself over later.

So those are my five practical tips for proofing and editing.  What do you think?  Do you have anything to add?  Did you find any errors in this post? (Please don’t answer that one!)

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