Editing ABCs

Our ‘Editing ABCs’, originally published as a series of Facebook posts, highlights various parts of our process. This list is by no means comprehensive, but it offers a glimpse into our world. So, let’s start at the very beginning…

A is for Abstract

An abstract informs readers about the background, purpose, method, and outcomes of the study in about 100–200 words. As such, it must be direct and precise. The abstract contains one-line summaries of the major components of the study—hypothesis, aim, method, results, and discussion. Since more people read the abstract than the full paper, all the vital information should be included in it.

Although the abstract appears early on in a manuscript, it is often the last piece we edit. This way, we make sure to include in it all the relevant details from the paper. We pay special attention to word choices and phrasing because sticking to the word limit is crucial. 

B is for Bibliography

A bibliography contains all the works cited in a paper, and often includes studies that the author has consulted, even if they have not been explicitly referenced. A bibliographic entry usually has the author’s name, title of the study, year and location of publication, publisher’s name, and journal name, volume, and issue number. Bibliographies are excellent resources for readers/researchers to explore topics in depth.

The format of a bibliography can vary greatly depending on the academic discipline—we frequently use CMS, APA, and in-house styles. Authors sometimes dread creating the bibliography because making sure the entries have all the necessary information in the correct format can be rather tedious. However, they are several free bibliography generators available online that ease up the process; or, even better, they can seek the assistance of editors who are experts at compiling error-free lists.

C is for Consistency

Consistency in our work is key. We scour manuscripts for variations; for example, when referring to centuries, we use either numerals or words (19th or nineteenth), but not both. Similarly, we look for differences in spellings (realise/realize), hyphenation (south-east/southeast), punctuation (single/double quotes), names (Bläsing/Blaesing), capitalisation (Supreme Court/supreme court), and formatting (headings in title/sentence case). In most examples—barring typos—all the variations are correct. As such, choosing which to use depends on the style guide or editor’s preference.

D is for Double Spaces

Double spaces are the extra gaps between words or sentences that jump out at editors and attentive readers. While editing, we always use the Find and Replace function on Word to get rid of them. Historically, using a double space following a full stop (between sentences) was the norm. Today, however, double spaces are largely obsolete. Interestingly (as evident in the image), Word only highlights the double space between two words, and not the one between sentences, as a mistake.

Double spacing, referring to the space between lines in a document (also demonstrated in the image), is typically used by students so that professors have enough room to write comments on their papers.

E is for Edit Summary

We typically do two rounds of edits on manuscripts—one editor does the first one and another reviews, proofreads, and makes any final changes. While we work, we note down our choices and questions in an edit summary for the author. The summary includes the language we used (UK or US English), dictionary we consulted (OED or Merriam Webster), choices in formatting, capitalisation, italicisation, or language use/phrasing, and queries for the author. In addition to the actual marked-up manuscript, authors may look at the edit summary for a concise list of changes.

F is for Fact-checking

Although we primarily work on the language in manuscripts, we also do some fact-checking. This includes verifying bibliographic information (author names, titles of works, dates, and so on), spellings and usage of foreign words and jargon, dates of events and laws, and quotations. As most of this information is available online, the fact-checking process is fairly smooth. In case the author has consulted sources that are unavailable online, we request that they double-check information that we suspect might have been inserted into the manuscript with errors.

G is for Grammar

Grammar is a vehicle, not an end in itself. It provides structure and clarity to pieces of writing, thus allowing the ideas to shine. As editors, our job is to make sure that the grammar in manuscripts we work on is impeccable. In this endeavour, we stick to the conventions and nuances of the language with which we are working (usually UK or US English). We also have certain in-house standards that we use unless authors specifically instruct us not to; for instance, we use serial commas. To stay up-to-date with constantly evolving linguistic trends, we turn to the likes of Butcher’s Copy-Editing, Chicago Manual of Style, or the OED.

H is for Hyphen

Hyphens (-) are distinct from en dashes (–) and em dashes (—), both in physical length and function. They are used, among several other ways, to join words together (e.g., editor-in-chief). En dashes are employed, for instance, in number ranges (e.g., 1845–1964); em dashes are used parenthetically to insert extra information (e.g., This book—one of my favourites—was a gift from my grandmother), or in place of a comma, semi-colon, or colon (e.g., We hiked for a long time—well past sunset).

Hyphenated text divides words at the ends of lines—if they would not otherwise fit in the text boxes—into roughly equal parts (taking into account whole syllables). So, the word ‘preposition’ should be hyphenated as:



instead of:






Although newspapers and magazines require hyphenated text by design, most style guides caution against hyphenated text or using too many hyphens in general, as they break the reading flow and can be distracting. However, when used judiciously, hyphens imbue writing with great clarity.

I is for Italicisation

Italics are used for emphasis, titles of works, or non-English words. When used to indicate stress on certain words, italics are useful and necessary—they mimic the spoken word. Italicising non-English words, however, is the subject of much debate. It highlights the words as being foreign and does not accurately reflect the realities of multilingual thought and speech. When multilingual people speak and think, there are no italics or translations to English. Words flow seamlessly between languages. So, in addition to coddling native English-speakers, italics might actually alienate non-English languages, and, by extension, their speakers.

When we edit papers with non-English words, following convention, we italicise and translate all words that do not appear in the OED, even if they might be familiar to most. But perhaps it’s time that writers and editors consider who their readers are—and accept that some readers may have to look up certain words—instead of automatically italicising anything that isn’t English. In doing so, we may begin to produce more inclusive writing.

J is for Jargon

The use of jargon in academic writing is one of those hotly contested topics with which we constantly grapple. While editing a dissertation, we do not typically ask the author to explain complex terms or phrases that are popular within their discipline—the readers in this case are unlikely to require it. However, when we edit content intended for a wider audience (such as journal articles or reports), we tend to suggest simplifying the writing, or including explanations of jargon that may not be well-known. It is important that academic researchers don’t build an impenetrable wall of complex jargon between themselves and their readers. That said, research should not be ‘dumbed down’ so as to patronise readers. While accessible research is always desirable, there is merit to jargon, which ‘makes our text simultaneously concise and dense with meaning’. Annie Paul discusses why a denial of its value is ‘rank anti-intellectualism’. It’s really a balancing act—finding the right concentration of jargon without either spoon-feeding or distancing readers.

K is for Keep it simple

As a fairly invisible part of the publishing process, our work as editors is to allow the author’s voice to come through in error-free writing. Making this happen includes checking grammar and punctuation, removing typos, verifying facts, and ensuring consistency. Once these more automatic tasks are done, we become interested in how the manuscript reads. This might mean relaxing or even breaking some rules so that the final text is more than just grammatically correct. To produce rigorous writing, we must be direct and unapologetic, but at no point do we impose our own writing styles or ideas on the work. This means that we sometimes have to hold back certain edits that are based on personal preference—exercising restraint is crucial. In the pursuit of excellent writing, we ask, ‘Is the author’s voice coming through in an authentic manner?’, and if the answer to that question is ‘No’, then we take a step back to figure out where we stopped trusting the process.

L is for Layout

Majority of what we do is content or substantive editing, which means that we work intensively on the language. However, we often have to use style guides that have strict formats for manuscripts. If the author does not give us a style guide, we have the following standards for documents:

Times, 12 pt (endnotes in 11 pt)

1.5 line spacing

Un-indented paragraphs

Justified text

Normal margins

No hyphenation

Since publishers have typesetters and designers to make the final choices, we don’t get into the nitty-gritties of formatting/layout. But it’s never a bad thing for the edited document to look clean (apart from the markup, of course!) and consistent.

M is for Markup

While editing, we use the Track Changes feature on Word so that authors know exactly what we have done. As such, the edited document we send back to authors includes markup, which indicates formatting changes, insertions, deletions, and comments. The blue digital markup harkens back to a time when editors marked up physical manuscripts with blue ink. Unlike with physical manuscripts, however, authors today can view the edited document in one of four modes—No Markup, Simple Markup (which includes only comments), All Markup, or Original. It’s also useful for us to toggle between these modes at different stages of the editing process. During the first edit, we use All Markup, and then to proofread, we use Simple Markup. When the reviewer does the second edit, they toggle between All Markup and Original to check edits. Finally, the reviewer uses Simple Markup or No Markup to proofread.

This image of the first page of Check Your Pronoun, a TCC blog post in its first draft/edit phase, shows all the markup and comments. Head to our blog to see how much the writing evolved before we published it.

N is for Numbers

Numbers are formatted very specifically in academic text. In most cases, numbers below 10 are spelled out and the rest are numerals. Decimals and percentages are usually written as figures (e.g., 4.5 and 75%), and large numbers are separated with commas (e.g., 50,000). Numbers at the beginning of sentences should be spelled out; so, it would be ‘Sixty people attended the show’ instead of ‘60 people attended the show’. While these rules are common among most style guides, each style has certain unique conventions. For instance, while APA requires numerals for all numbers above 10, MLA requests that numbers that can be written in one or two words be spelled out (e.g., seventy-one, not 71).

O is for Oxford comma

The serial or Oxford comma comes just after the penultimate item on a list. When used, it ensures crystal clarity in the writing. For example, when reading the sentence: ‘I went to the zoo with my friends, an acrobat and a dog’, someone might think that the friends you are referring to are an acrobat and a dog. But by using the Oxford comma—as in ‘I went to the zoo with my friends, an acrobat, and a dog’—it is obvious that the acrobat, dog, and friends are all separate beings. Although this is a trivial example, paying attention to the use of the Oxford comma (or a lack thereof) can potentially win you millions; it was once famously the crux of a legal case in the USA.

Some style guides, such as the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), require Oxford commas; others, such as the Associated Press (AP), oppose them. We tend to favour the Oxford comma.

P is for Proofread

During our editing process, at least two editors work on each manuscript. The first does the initial substantive edit followed by proofreading, and the reviewer goes through all the changes and does the final proofread. All the work up until the final proofread is extremely detailed—we often rework sentences, restructure paragraphs, and offer the author suggestions on how to strengthen their writing. After making so many changes, the final scan for any remaining errors or inconsistencies is crucial to producing clean copy. So proofreading is like the icing on a cake—the finishing touch.

Q is for Quotes

Direct quotes are used in academic writing to retain the clarity and nuance of the original work. Most style guides require quotes to be accompanied by the author’s name, year of publication, and page number where the quote may be found. Typically, quotes are incorporated seamlessly into the text, and can be distinguished from the main body only by the quotation marks (British English favours ‘inverted commas’; American English prefers “double quotation marks”). When the quote exceeds a certain number of words (usually 40), it must be formatted as a block quotation and appear as a free-standing paragraph. Since the formatting highlights it, a long quotation does not need quotation marks. For a quotation that exceeds permissible limits (e.g., 300 or more words from a single book), getting permission from the original author is required. It is important to adhere to these rules to avoid copyright infringement or plagiarism.

R is for Review(er)

Word has various features under the Review tab that we use frequently, including Track Changes, Markup Modes, Comments, and Compare. Track Changes highlights every edit, such as insertions, deletions, and formatting changes concerning font type and size, line spacing, and layout. During the review process, we look at the document in various modes—All Markup, Simple Markup, No Markup, and Original. Ideally, we would only use Simple or No Markup while reviewing; however, while editing tricky papers, toggling between modes is necessary. Comments allow us to address specific portions of the text—in them, we offer suggestions for improvements, ask questions about phrasing choices, and alert authors to edits that require particular attention. With the Compare feature, we can track the changes made to multiple versions of a document. So if, for instance, we want to highlight the changes made between the second and third drafts of a paper, this tool comes in handy. The Compare feature is a useful training tool for our editors because a ‘compared’ document shows all the changes that the reviewer made after the initial edit. This gives the editor a concrete idea of what they may have missed, and what they can work on in the future.

S is for Stet

The word ‘stet’ is translated from Latin as ‘let it stand’. Proofreaders use the word to indicate that the typesetter should ignore an alteration to the text, and instead, retain the original word, phrase, or punctuation, as the case may be. The proofreader underscores the portion of the text with dots or dashes, and includes a circled ‘stet’ above or next to the section. A circled tick mark can also be used to mean the same thing. Although typically used in the imperative, stet may be used as a verb, as in: ‘Stet this semi-colon.’

T is for Tables

Tables are welcome interruptions within long manuscripts. Typically, they support the text with concise visuals; they are useful reference points for readers. Formatting tables consistently is important to improving the overall quality of a paper. As such, writers and editors must consider the column/row formatting, title, capitalisation, alignment of the text within the cells, and so on. Here’s a handy guide to editing tables in any kind of paper.

U is for UK/US English

British and American English share more similarities than differences; however, if you know what to look for, inconsistencies within a document really stand out. The most obvious differences are in spellings; for example, labour/labor and realise/realize. Another way to tell whether a manuscript follows UK or US conventions is in how it treats punctuation—in the former, punctuation is always outside quotation marks, and in the latter, punctuation usually falls within. Subtler differences come through in phrasing and word choices. For example, in British English, it is more common to use ‘learnt’ as the past tense of ‘learn’, while in American English, only ‘learned’ is correct.

At TCC, we work with manuscripts in both, UK and US English. Most of our editors tend to prefer UK English, but we are all versed in the nuances of both languages.

V is for Verbosity

While editing, we always try to retain the author’s voice and ensure that their work is rigorous and clear. As such, we look out for verbosity, which tends to weaken the writing. It is always a good idea to communicate information in a direct manner, using only as many words as are necessary. One way to limit verbosity is to write, as far as possible, in active voice. Here are some tips on how to avoid passive voice in academic manuscripts.

W is for Word Count

Among the many wonderful features of Microsoft Word is the simple but incredibly useful Word Count. This tool provides information on the number of pages; word count (with and without footnotes/endnotes); character count (with and without spaces); number of paragraphs; and number of lines in the document. This information gets updated in real time as we work, so the figures are never static until the project is complete. We pay close attention to the word count while editing abstracts and other pieces with strict limits.

When a client approaches us with a project, the word count of the manuscript is often a big consideration in whether or not we can take on the work. We have a good idea of how many words our editors can get through per hour, so this helps us with the decision.

X is for XML

eXtensible Markup Language (XML) encodes documents so that they may be read by both humans and machines. XML stores data as plain text, and provides a method of sharing the data that is independent of any particular software, hardware, or operating system. Rather than focussing on how the data look (as HTML does), XML is concerned with the data content. XML is important in publishing; the XML author tags different components of a manuscript (e.g., headings, subheadings, and citations) and the system styles it automatically regardless of the platform on which it is edited.

Y is for Year

Dates are relevant to academic writing in various ways, but particularly to citations and in referring to events.

When formatting a reference list, there are certain conventions to keep in mind with regard to the publication date of a source. For instance, when citing a reprinted book, it is important to acknowledge the original and reprint publishing dates. As such, a CMS bibliographic entry for a reprinted book would look like this:

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. London: T. Egerton, 1813. Reprint, New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.

In reference to the dates of events, Sahapedia uses ‘August 15, 1947’, while EPW prefers ‘15 August 1947’. Similarly, some style guides prefer ‘nineteenth century’ and others favour ‘19th century’—some still have no fixed preference, but request consistency within documents.

Z is for Z-spellings

Among the unmistakable hallmarks of UK English are -ise spellings…or so we thought. Evidently, the OED includes such words as ‘organize’ and ‘realize’. The first example of ‘organize’ in the OED is from a text dated to around 1425, and about 1611 for ‘realize’. It seems that choosing between ‘z’ and ‘s’ in UK English is largely a matter of personal preference. But some words must exclusively be spelled with -ise (like ‘prise’, which comes from ‘surprise’) or -yse (as in ‘analyse’). In US English, however, only -ize spellings are acceptable.

At TCC, to avoid confusion and inconsistencies, we use -ise spellings without exception for UK English, and -ize spellings for US English. While editing, it is sometimes difficult to spot -ize spellings in a document that is in UK English without using Find and Replace—the trusty red squiggly line doesn’t appear underneath certain -ize words because they are not actually incorrect.