Editing Matters

In the latest installment of their series on writing for the academy, Carmen Werder and Karen Hoelscher discuss the importance of proofreading and editing.


January 14, 2011

Editing -- oh, whoop-de-do -- hardly a topic of intense interest in and of itself. One challenge of focusing on issues such as grammar and usage is that they seem to matter only when they’re not in place. Unlike matters of content, where you can impress readers by developing intriguing ideas and clever metaphors, editing issues seem mundane and not a topic for engaging others seriously -- except, perhaps, for rhetoricians or grammarians.

Your readers simply assume you will follow the appropriate conventions until you do something to suggest otherwise.

So why get too worked up about it? After studying the responses of 14 non-academics (business people) to various kinds of errors, Larry Beason suggested why: while the range of reactions tended to be broad, with some patterns of agreement, the ultimate result of error was that readers “constructed a negative ethos of the writer.” If this study points to the potentially negative effects of errors on academic readers, and there is no reason to assume that it doesn’t, then you can conclude that errors -- to varying degrees -- do undermine your authority as a writer, and that’s reason to pay attention.

Joseph Williams advised that in order to treat these matters seriously, it’s necessary “to shift our attention from error treated strictly as an isolated item on a page, to error perceived as a flawed verbal transaction between a writer and a reader,” suggesting that writers really need to know what bothers their readers. In a dramatic object lesson, Williams inserted 100 errors into his article on the subject to highlight how we tend to find what we look for. So if we assume there will be errors (for example, when reading undergraduate papers), we will find them. But if we are not looking for errors, (for example, when reading a respected academic like Williams), we tend not to see then. (Unless you’re tipped off ahead of time, you’ll likely miss at least some of those 100 errors.)

Since professional editors do care about errors at some point in the review process, they are looking for them. But what errors matter to them? And how to get rid of them?

We want to offer you some possibilities. But first, some distinctions in terms. We use revising to refer to the process that involves rethinking global issues such as content, evidence, reasoning, and organization. In contrast, we use proofreading to refer to the process of scouring revised writing looking for surface errors such as grammar and usage, with editing referring to the steps taken to remedy any errors found in proofreading. Big point: separate the process of proofreading -- finding errors -- from the process of editing -- fixing errors.

Proofreading Tips

Based on compiling ideas from various sources here are some tips for proofreading:

1. Distinguish between mistakes and errors. Mistakes are slip-ups that you might make inadvertently, such as omitting words, while errors are slips-ups resulting from not actually knowing a convention, such as misspelling a word.

2. Read first for mistakes. Since mistakes usually result just from being in a hurry or having ideas come faster than you can keep track of them, they are usually easy to spot.

3. Identify your own personal patterns of error and use them as a checklist. Instead of trying to find one error at a time, start by reading for the patterns of error you tend to make. If you’re not sure what your personal patterns of error are, you could revisit responses to past manuscripts or ask a trusted reader to help you identify them. Then note your error patterns and place them prominently near your computer screen to refer to as you write -- until you no longer need them.

4. Determine a hierarchy of error based on general academic biases. Some errors count more with some readers than others do. You can proofread using a typical academic hierarchy that begins with errors at the sentence level, then work down to word errors such as misspellings, and then down further to single letter errors such as with capitalization.

Note: The hierarchy can shift if there is an accumulation of error of one type or if the pattern of error is especially prejudicial. For example, misspelling short, high-frequency sound-alikes such as “its” tends to have more of a negative prejudicial effect on most academic readers than a missing comma, unless the missing comma alters the meaning significantly. These kinds of prejudicial misspellings pose another challenge in that spell checkers don’t catch them.

5. Determine a hierarchy of error based on disciplinary conventions. Another consideration: read for your specific disciplinary conventions. The most obvious kind here involve formatting issues such as where to place the dates in APA style, but they might also involve disciplinary-based conventions such as preferences for incorporating figures, charts, tables.

6. Read aloud and backwards, sentence by sentence. Reading aloud enables you to hear errors (and mistakes) that you sometimes do not catch when reading silently. Be sure to read backwards -- sentence by sentence, though -- because doing so breaks the usual context of meaning and helps you “hear” errors more readily.

7. Read in cycles. Reading in cycles -- looking for one pattern of error at a time -- allows you to focus in a more efficient, systematic way instead of trying to find every error -- one item at a time.

8. Use a consistent code to mark mistakes/errors. In keeping with identifying personal patterns of error, it’s helpful to develop your own code for marking errors. But you can also adopt proofreading symbols found in many handbooks. First identify errors by noting them in the margins with checkmarks or editing symbols that make sense to you.

Editing Tips

Once you have proofread for mistakes and errors, you can more easily edit them out. Here are a few tips for editing:

1. Let time elapse between proofreading and editing. Schedule your writing plans to deliberately provide for this time lapse by building it into your composing schedule. This fallow time can enable more clarity for editing because it provides a useful distance between you and your writing.

2. Use available resources including human ones. Even proficient writers need to verify conventions. When in doubt, determine the name of the error pattern and use it to find out more information. Turn to an expert, and don’t be afraid to ask grammar gurus, as they usually love to talk about these kinds of things for the sheer pleasure of it. You may even have institutional support for a grant to pay someone to edit for you. Or simply find a writing partner who knows this stuff and is willing to swap you something in return.

3. Consider choices for fixing errors. While there is only one way to remedy some kinds of errors, such as misspellings, other kinds may offer more than one solution. For example, comma splices can be fixed in at least three ways. Consider your meaning, and if you're still unsure, consult with a reader(s) to recommend the best option for your purpose.

Given how much work composing and revising writing can be, your hard work deserves thorough proofreading and careful editing. Here’s hoping you haven’t seen an error in this piece that reduces our credibility. If you did, trust that it was likely simply a mistake resulting from our eagerness to get this column to you.

And if you’re clear on which kinds of errors most bother you, we’d be thrilled to see you comment on what they are, dear readers. Which errors matter the most to you? And why?


Karen Hoelscher is professor of education at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., where she guides teacher education majors into and out of the K-8 certification program in the yearlong internship program at Woodring College of Education. Carmen Werder directs the Teaching-Learning Academy (a dialogue forum on enhancing learning that includes faculty, staff, and students) and of Writing Instruction Support (a faculty development program) at Western Washington University, where she is also affiliated faculty in the Department of Communication and part of WWU Libraries.


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