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How to edit your colleagues’ documents
Author : Stan Carey
Posted : 07 / 11 / 17
It’s a sad fact that most business documents simply don’t hit their mark. Too often they fail to make vital messages clear, prompt action or even inspire confidence in the writer’s professionalism. But reports and other documents that do work tend to have something in common – smart editing.
Effective documents didn’t always start out that way. It’s likely they were shaped and corrected by an editor, perhaps requiring significant intervention. And usually editing is delegated to a company employee – maybe you.
In fact, the more senior you become, the more likely you’ll edit colleagues’ documents. The question is, how do you do it?
Never fear. In this post, I’ve broken the matter of how to edit a larger document down into bite-sized tips. Print it out (or save the link). Then follow the advice next time you edit a colleague’s work. You’ll end up with a better document (and hopefully a happy colleague).
Create a folder on your computer and label it clearly. Copy the document in this folder as a safeguard against mishaps. You’ll also be able to compare later versions with the original, if necessary. Give the copy you’re editing a short, descriptive title. I’ll assume it’s a Word file.
With a long document, there’s a lot to think about. List everything you need to check: page numbers, spacing, headings, and so on. Then, when you’re editing, if you notice a new item that needs checking, you won’t be tempted to break your momentum with a detour – just add it to the list and attend to it in due course.
Go through the text to get a good idea of its structure. Is it in a logical order? Are there parts that should be more prominent, or moved to an appendix, or left out entirely? If the report was well planned, it shouldn’t need major rearrangement. But you may spot ways to enhance the structure. Pay attention also to the presentation of headings, paragraphs, and bullet points – small adjustments here can do wonders for a document’s appearance.
Review similar items together, for example all the tables and captions, or all the headings and subheadings. Clumping these tasks means you’re looking out for the same things at once, which reduces the cognitive load and also the chances of overlooking something.
Bear in mind the demands on readers’ time. Managers and execs are busy people who read a lot of reports. Ensure that yours is free of unnecessary bulk, and that the most important parts are suitably highlighted. Keep paragraphs and sentences trim, too – if one of either goes on longer than it needs to, break it up. Readers will quietly thank you.
Perfection is unattainable, even in the best literature. We do the best we can, with what skills we have, in the time available. Prioritise what needs to be done. Don’t fall down rabbit holes of trivial tasks or grammar disputes, lest you lose sight of the big picture. But if you have time, go through the whole text at least twice – you’ll always spot things second time round.
Pay special attention to the opening pages and conclusion. Time-pressed readers will read these and may skim or skip the rest, so you need to make sure they get the information they need. Does the executive summary or introduction make the report’s purpose and results 100 per cent clear? Does the conclusion sum up its content and findings?
Revising a text requires sustained concentration. Your mind can slip easily into regular-reading mode, forcing you to go back over the same passages again. To prevent this, try a visual trick: zoom in on the document so the text is much bigger, change the typeface temporarily, or print a hard copy.
I can’t stress this enough. Software works well so much of the time that we are lulled into complacency and may neglect to save and back up our work. Don’t wait for disaster to happen. Cultivate a habit of saving your work every few minutes – preferably with a keyboard shortcut like Ctrl+S in Windows and Cmd+S on a Mac. Make sure you have backups of your files, too. It only takes a moment, and it pays off in peace of mind.
Office reports are often written by more than one person or over a period of time. This can lead to disjointed prose: lines may be added or changed without due regard for context, causing breaks in flow. If your work environment permits it, read the text aloud. This will help you notice any awkward phrasing or non sequiturs.
If your company doesn’t have a style guide, start one. It will be an invaluable resource where all employees can check questions of style: When should numbers be spelled out? How do we write times and dates? Is there a hyphen in ‘cooperate’? The resulting consistency will testify to your company’s professionalism and attention to detail. Creating a style guide will also save time in the long run.
Writers and editors prepare a document, but its value lies with its readers. Is the language geared towards them? For in-house reports, some jargon is fine; specialised terminology is inevitable, even necessary, in specialised domains. Just try to minimise the use of empty clichés and buzzwords, and look out for any phrases likely to distract or confuse. Aim for plain English whenever possible.
Most writers rely heavily on certain idioms to scaffold their prose. For example, vague phrases like in terms of and in relation to often connect elements without showing their relationship. This puts an unfair burden on readers. Such phrases can usually be replaced by a simple preposition. So instead of ‘thoughts in relation to this’, you can just say ‘thoughts on this’. But don’t overrule things arbitrarily just to suit your pet preferences. Be flexible and practical about legitimate variation in style.
In formal writing, nouns are often used where verbs would be better. For example, ‘assist towards decision-making regarding the distribution process’ means ‘help decide how to distribute’. The original phrase is far too abstract, making it hard to understand. Get rid of unnecessary nouns.
You can run a spelling checker as a backup, but you can’t trust it to catch everything. The program will overlook homophone errors and any typos that are themselves legitimate words. Automated grammar checkers are also unreliable and often give bad advice. Consult a good reference book instead.
Writers often switch unwittingly from one style to another. They may use –ise and –ize spellings in a single text, for example. This kind of inconsistency is not a serious fault, but it is distracting to readers, who may wonder how much attention is paid to other aspects of the work. Run a search to weed out variant spellings.
Errors can hide in plain sight, and if they’re in a heading or on the title page, it will sully the whole work. Check the headings scrupulously and systematically.
Go to the View tab in Word, click on Two Pages (sometimes called Multiple Pages, depending on your version of Word) in the Zoom box, and scroll through to review the report’s overall layout. You may notice things like large blank spaces, tables spreading into the margins, or wonky indents. Fix these briskly, without obsessing over them.
Writing lore is full of superstitions and misinformation about grammar and style. Some of the most famous rules (Don’t split infinitives; Don’t end a sentence with a preposition) are nonsense. Don’t waste time fixing non-existent problems. Get a good modern usage guide, or consult a reputable dictionary online. For example, if you look up preposition on dictionary aggregator OneLook.com, the usage notes in the Oxford, Merriam-Webster, American Heritage, and Collins dictionaries all debunk this myth. Never hesitate to look something up.
Page breaks and section breaks allow you to optimise space and avoid ‘stranding’ headers or splitting tables across two pages. They’re also easy to use. Check the table of contents again at the end and make sure the page numbers correspond. If there’s no table of contents, add one.
This feature in Word allows edits to be recorded. It slows things down slightly, but it’s a useful tool for transparency and reference; a writer or supervisor may wish to see the edits, for instance. If you’re not familiar with it, practise on a dummy text first. You can also add comments to query something in the text. When doing so, be polite and constructive – not condescending or passive-aggressive.
If you have a question about the text that would be better resolved sooner rather than later, approach the writer by email, phone, or in person and ask for clarification. If there’s likely to be a few such issues, make a note of them and ask about them together, to avoid pestering.
Finally, try to remember that editing tires the brain. And a tired brain is not an effective editor. So take regular, short breaks. Get some fresh air, walk around the building, do some stretches, even alternate with a standing desk – whatever works for you.
Then, when you’ve put the finishing touches on the document, treat yourself properly and put the kettle on. (You’ll have earned it.)
Stan Carey is a scientist turned editor and writer. He blogs for Emphasis about how to harness the power of plain language in your professional writing. He also gives an Irishman's take on the English language on his blog, Sentence First, and tweets at @StanCarey.
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