Editing Tips from the World's Worst Editor

By Daniel Heuman

I've never understood why people think I must be a good editor just because I designed PerfectIt. PerfectIt is used by over 1000 professional editors around the world, including over 400 members of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. But I didn't design PerfectIt because I'm a good editor. I designed it because I'm a terrible editor!

There are certain types of mistakes that I find especially difficult to spot. They are:

  • Hyphenation inconsistency: Is it 'co-ordination' or 'coordination'? How about 'micro-economics' or 'microeconomics'? The answer is that it doesn't matter as long as you're consistent and stick to the one you choose. But keeping track of that choice can be time-consuming and difficult.
  • Capitalization inconsistency: Is it 'treasury' or 'Treasury'? How about 'Eurozone' or 'eurozone'? Organizational style guides often have a preference (in which case that is the answer for your document), but it's not easy to keep track of every preference in a style guide. And how can you be confident it's written correctly every time the word appears, especially if there are multiple authors?
  • Spelling inconsistency: Is it 'advisor' or 'adviser'? A spell checker won't help you. Spell checkers say that both are correct spellings (and they are). However, both spellings should not appear in the same document or your writing will look sloppy.
  • Consistency of title case: I love that there are now websites dedicated to the question of title case. But the truth is that there isn't one correct style choice. Instead, what's important is that you pick a style and stick with it. Even when you've made that choice, checking all the headings in a document is still time-consuming and prone to error.
  • Figure and table order: Copy and paste can save a lot of time. However, when things get moved around a document, often tables appear out of order. It takes an eagle eye for an editor to notice that Table 4 appears before Table 2, but somehow it seems to be the first thing that readers see.
  • Acronym definitions: Acronyms should be defined on their first use, and the definition shouldn't be repeated. However, it's difficult to keep track of which abbreviations have already been used and which have been defined.
  • Comments: In theory, cleaning a document of comments by the author shouldn't be difficult. But I'll never forget the day that my boss handed me back a report I had written and said "you might want to check this section" as he pointed to the words "insert more explanation here". I know I'm not the only person who has made that mistake.

I found that it's particularly difficult to keep track of all these things at once. Many professional editors recommend making a style sheet or reading through the text multiple times. Those are both helpful suggestions. However, I worked in a consultancy where we had to get documents right despite time pressure and tight deadlines. I may not actually be the worst editor in the world; but with a limited amount of time for editing, mistakes did slip through. I developed PerfectIt to make sure that didn't happen.

Common mistakesFigure 1: Consistency mistakes can be difficult to spot

I get phone calls from people asking if PerfectIt will do their editing for them. It won't. And I actually enjoy (nicely) telling those callers that we don't want their business. PerfectIt does not take away the need for careful editing. To paraphrase Dr McCoy, I'm a software developer, not a miracle worker.

What PerfectIt does is make difficult editing tasks easier and faster. Even if you have the time to manually read through once for capitalization and hyphenation, and then read through again for title case and acronym definitions, that probably still won't be as accurate as a software checker. PerfectIt can compare every hyphenated word to every non-hyphenated word in a matter of seconds. It does the same for capitalized words, numbers in sentences, acronym definitions, title case, spellings, comments and more. It's faster, and (like having a second pair of eyes to look over the text) it leaves your text looking a lot better. That's why so many professional editors use it.

I'm not the best editor in the world, but I can give some editing advice: computer software will not edit your text for you. However, there are programs that can help you to save time and deliver better documents. To try PerfectIt for free, download it now.

Daniel Heuman is the Managing Director of Intelligent Editing and the developer of PerfectIt.

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