At one time or another we've all had to edit somebody else's rough draft. Maybe a friend asked you for advice, or maybe as part of a class you had to comment on another student's work. Whatever the occasion and whoever the author, you probably found that editing
was a pretty daunting task. But, just like any other skills, editing is something that you can learn, practice, and improve at.
Why Makes a Good Editor?
It's often easy to criticize a piece of writing, particularly if it's not your own. Inconsistencies and logical errors will leap off the page, and mistakes in grammar or spelling can stand out like they're under a spotlight. But while spotting errors is an important part of the editing process
, it's usually not the main reason you're proofreading. Instead, the end goal you should pursue as an editor is to help improve the text you're working on.
Think about the last time somebody criticized your work. Maybe it was a teacher or classmate who wrote comments on an essay you'd spent days laboring over. If your paper was covered in comments like "this doesn't make sense " or "this is wrong," you probably came away feeling pretty bad about yourself, and, possibly even worse, without any idea of how to fix your paper
. But, if you got back a paper with remarks like "you need to tie this idea back to your thesis statement" or "fix this run-on sentence," you likely headed into your next draft with a clearly idea of what you needed to do to improve your work.
When editing, it's important to keep this distinction in mind. A good editor won't just point out weaknesses; he or she will also try to help guide the writer toward a way to fix those weaknesses.
What to Look for
Whether you're a helpful friend or an expert in your field, there are several key issues that you should try to address when providing feedback on a paper.
1. Grammar, spelling, and continuity errors
It's always good to start with the easiest editing task: finding mistakes in grammar, spelling, and consistency. Many students trust spellcheck to handle these issues, but this usually means early drafts will be full of misplaced punctuation, homophones (words that sound alike but are spelled differently), and grammatically suspect sentences. These mistakes can be hard for writers to spot in their own work, but as an outside observer you'll likely find a lot of the things they missed.
When checked for these types of errors, keep an eye out for issues of consistency as well. If the writer uses abbreviations or chooses to use one particular term over another, that choice should be consistent throughout the paper. Problems of this type can often result from writers changing their minds partway through their work or just plain forgetting a decision they made several paragraphs earlier. Again, as an outside observer you can do a better job of identifying these errors.
2. Formatting issues
As with spelling and grammar mistakes, problems with formatting that also easily slip by writers will be more obvious to outside editors. These include issues like missing or incorrect citations, strange spacing, or an incorrectly done title page. For this part it's important to be familiar with the style guide the writer is using. For example, MLA and Chicago have different requirements for things like citations and running heads, so it's important to give the advice that's right for this particular assignment.
Again, as with spelling and grammar, it's important to look for consistency in the formatting. If the writer is using one space between sentences, that should be the same throughout the paper. Same for the choice of font, heading style, and margins. Citations are an especially important place to examine for formatting troubles. Every in-text citation needs to have a corresponding entry in the Bibliography, and vice versa, and all those references need to be formatting the same way.
3. Consistency across the work
In addition to consistency in formatting and grammar, you also want to check for consistency in the work as a whole. Does the author do what they say they are going to do in the introduction or abstract? If not, where do they go off track? Does the conclusion fit with the evidence provided in the rest of the paper?
Because ideas and arguments will evolve as we write, it's not uncommon for our paper not to end up where we thought it would. And there's nothing wrong with this, except that it's then important to make sure that that change is reflected in the rest of the work. So, when you're editing, be on the lookout for sections that don't fit within the larger framework of the paper, claims that are dropped later in the work, or conclusions that aren't supported by the rest of the paper.
4. The reader's viewpoint
If you've ever worked on a paper you know that it's easy to get lost in the details of your research and leave out crucial details that the reader will need. Sometimes this is a reference to a study or theory that seems like it should be obvious but actually won't be for the reader, or maybe an idea you though didn't need more explanation is actually pretty confusing.
By definition, a writer can't really see his or her work from the prospective of the reader, and that's where you, the editor, come in. As someone who's probably not familiar with all the research the writer has done, you can hone in on areas that are confusing or poorly explained. Just remember, when you're giving feedback it's important not just to point those spots out, but also to provide advice on what could be done to improve them.
6. What's working
When you're editing you don't have to limit yourself to pointing out the flaws in the paper. Writers also need to know what they've done well. If there's a particular paragraph or section that does a good job of supporting the work's thesis or if there's just a sentence that you really like, don't hesitate to point that out. Not only will this help the writer
feel a little bit better about all the other stuff you've commented on, but it will also let them know which parts of the paper they should keep or expand.
5. Ask questions
Sometimes there will be parts of the paper that you simply don't understand. This might be because the writing is poor, or it might just be that you don't have the background necessary to analyze the writer's argument. When this is the case, don't be shy about just asking questions; after all, the writer isn't going to know how easy or hard his paper is to read unless you tell him.
The key to good editing is to help the writer see his or her paper through the reader's eyes. This means pointing out confusing sections or continuity problems that the writer can't see, but it also means that you should be guiding the writer towards a way to fix the problem. Don't just say "This paragraph is confusing" - that's not going to help the writer make it better. Instead, try to address why you think it's confusing and what could be done better. "This paragraph doesn't have enough evidence to support its claim" is a better than "This paragraph is too short." Think about how you would like editors to help you with your work and try to do the same.