When There’s No Time to Read It All before Editing

When There’s No Time to Read It All before Editing

The Typographic Oath was suggested by senior editor Erin Brenner as a guiding principle of editing ethics.* Her second point was originally, “Read the entire manuscript first.” But she revised that to include “Whenever practical,” with reason.

Why You Can’t Read It All First

I’m jealous of speed readers who can read an entire manuscript before editing and still not whittle their pay down to $4 an hour. I’m further jealous of the schedules they are given that allow time for this! Most of my work has to fit in the last hour before distribution because the writer blew myriad deadlines already, or because no one realized it might take more than an hour to proof 34,000 words, or that editing takes at least four times longer than straight reading. (Or worse, never knew their “organization” required editing as a step!)

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So, here’s how I get a feel for the style and content without taking the time to read every word. I start with the first method, and add more steps until either I run out of time or feel ready:

  1. Read the style sheet or run a macro to decipher preferred style (such as MegAlyse by Paul Beverly).
  2. Read the product** description or “brief.”
  3. Read the TOC and figure/table captions.
  4. Edit in passes, each one addressing a different element/concern, as your eye will inevitably land on nearby contents, orienting you to the material and style choices. For example:
    • formatting
    • PerfectIt
    • captions and tables
    • headings
    • spelling
    • references
  5. Skim the summary/abstract, or conclusion.
  6. Skim the first sentence of each paragraph (or first and last paragraph of each chapter).

Followed by the linear edit, all the way through. (As opposed to a sort of “spot edit” triaged approach when there’s no time at all.)

This works even for things that don’t have subheadings to guide the reader, but is less effective, for sure. Key in this is discerning the desired patterns if they weren’t prescribed in the product brief. For example, don’t decide spelling based only on the first instance, check for the dominant pattern in use if you can’t verify it some other way (such as looking up the spelling of my name, to see that it properly ends in IE).

*Since Erin first penned the oath, many ethical guidelines have emerged from professional editing associations around the world. See the roundup here.

**Editors work on games and annual reports, packaging and ads, and all manner of “product,” not just books and not just things that have “manuscripts.”

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