How to Edit Writing Like a Professional

Many of us are called upon to provide reviews of documents written by others as part of our job or academic program. If conducting a professional-level editing job was not part of your training, follow the procedures described here to provide valuable feedback to an author.

Ask who the intended reader is. As an editor you will need to know who the intended audience is. You will assess the readability level, the tone of the writing, the clarity, and the appropriateness of the use of jargon with regard to the intended reader.

Read the work through. When editing, read through a piece several times in order to catch as many errors as possible. In the first read-through, do not concentrate on catching errors. Instead, focus on getting a sense of what the author is trying to communicate.

Do a “spell check” and readability index. Use the spell and grammar check functions in your word processing program to identify possible errors. These functions can point out certain types of errors quickly, but they are not infallible so stay alert. I use Microsoft Word for this step in the process. Once the spell check function finishes, a “Readability Statistics” box is displayed. While all the statistics in the box can be useful, the two which help the most are the Word Count and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score. The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score is intended to reflect school grade reading levels.

Make sure the readability score is appropriate for the intended audience. If the writing is meant for a first grader match the reading level to a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 1.0 to 1.9.

If the piece is to be read by a general adult population, the readability score should be between 8.0 and 9.0. This level ensures easy comprehension and retention by the vast majority of adults.

If the writing is intended for an academic audience or a highly trained group of professionals such as engineers or doctors, then the writing level can be 12 or higher. Jargon is permissible when writing to a specialized audience who will be familiar with this selective vocabulary.

School papers and articles for publication may have word count requirements. In general, other pieces of writing do not. Word count is important though, because readers will stop reading documents they deem too long. They appreciate writing which conveys its message fully and quickly. You may want to edit to lower the word count. Here are some guidelines.

1. Less than 150 words:
books for children under the age of 3
2. 400 - 500 words (one page):
business letters
executive summaries
press releases
3. 400 – 600 words:
books for children ages 4 to 6. The word count levels mentioned here are for books intended to be read by these children without assistance from an adult. Children should be read to from books with higher word counts allowing for the possibility of growth in vocabulary and language skills.
4. 500 - 1,500 words:
Internet articles
newspaper stories
magazine articles
5. 100,000 - 125,000 words (200 - 250 pages):
most novels.

Calibrate your review to the intended reader. If the reading level is too high, use these techniques to revise the writing.

  1. Simplify sentence structures.
  2. Use vocabulary containing three syllables or less.
  3. Use sentences with “active voice” and in the present tense.
  4. Rewrite sentences which require semi-colons or dashes to make them less complex.
  5. Trim wordy sentences.
  6. Spell out contractions.
  7. Revise a paragraph, when possible, to a list. A list, well derived, shows essentials briefly and clearly.
  8. Keep all writing on target. Eliminate rambling or extraneous thoughts.

Read through again and mark possible errors. Check the following:

  1. Spelling – spell check functions can help with this task, however, look for words spelled correctly but used incorrectly.
  2. Punctuation
  3. Capitalization
  4. Grammar – pay special attention to skipped words since grammar check functions do not reliably catch these.
  5. Repetitious word use – use your dictionary or a synonym finder for possible alternative words.
  6. Accuracy of statements of fact
  7. Flow and consistency of the piece
  8. Logic – make sure any argument presented is supported and follows a logical thought pattern.

Once you have marked the possible errors, research them to confirm the error and provide suggested changes. Note down references as appropriate.

Provide feedback to the author. If you are reviewing in an academic or business situation, you may have guidance on how to provide feedback to the author. If not, here is an example of how to present your feedback. This format allows the author to locate the potential change, gives a solution, and a reason for the suggested change.

Page 1, Para 12:
Line 1: Delete “Not” and replace “too soon” with “later”. Reason: Places the action in the correct time sequence.
Line 4: Replace “her nose” with “Emma’s nose”. Reason: Clarifies the reference noun for the pronoun. As it stands the “her” would refer back to the immediately preceding noun which is the crab.

Reference material. Have an unabridged dictionary and a style manual on hand while you edit. I recommend the “Associated Press Stylebook” for the editing of articles, correspondence, and general writing. Most people are familiar with the results of this style manual since it is used by journalists writing for newspapers, magazines, and television news. For books, the most common style reference is “The Chicago Manual of Style”.

You can find more information about editing, questions to ask yourself as you review, and checklists, in the article “Teaching Editing”.

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