Have you ever wondered what happens to your manuscript when you pass it on to your editor? How does it go from draft to squeaky clean? Very often, during the editorial process, a manuscript gets read several times. This is because of the many times an editor runs through it from start to finish.
I work primarily on academic manuscripts, and the process I describe here assumes the presence of many features of academic documents. But I expect that the editorial process is similar for most kinds of writing. This little guide offers authors insight into what their manuscript goes through.
Although we each have slightly different processes, every editor at The Clean Copy has a certain method to their madness. Here, I elaborate on mine. The steps I offer may be reordered or adjusted, depending on what the job entails, but regardless of the kind of manuscript, I make multiple passes. In this way, I reduce the pressure on myself to remember every detail at every moment during the edit. During each pass of the paper, I focus on a new aspect. I’m really strict about limiting myself to one thing per pass. This ensures the cleanest possible edit, including consistency in minute details and clear prose.
I like to get my housekeeping jobs out of the way first so that I don’t get distracted by unwanted red squigglies, different fonts, or spaces the size of the Grand Canyon while working on the main text. However, I know that some of my colleagues at The Clean Copy save this sort of nitty-gritty work for the end: ‘I’ll come back later.’
I start by getting rid of double spaces (find and replace is my friend in this and many other editing ventures). I then choose the appropriate dictionary (usually in consultation with either the OED or the Merriam-Webster) and standardise it throughout the document, even in footnotes and endnotes. If the document has come to me unstyled, I usually apply a basic format to the entire thing, focusing mainly on the font type/size, line spacing, and indentation. For more extensive formatting jobs, I get into much more detail at this point in the process. This includes using Word Styles and creating customised styles based on Word pre-sets.
My next step is to run simple macros. As I am a macro novice, I use Paul Beverley’s most basic ones – DocAlyse, HyphenAlse, ProperNounAlyse, PunctuationBoldOff, and PunctuationItalicOff. The first one gives me a summary of the document, which identifies the spelling conventions and trends in punctuation. This summary forms the basis of my style sheet (in case one hasn’t been provided) and highlights where the writing deviates from the necessary style. HyphenAlyse and ProperNounAlyse are also incredibly useful, especially for research in the Indian context, where many non-English place and other names, because they are not yet widely documented in English, have several variations. (Before discovering these two macros, I did the painstaking job of manually making such spellings consistent.) The last two macros, PunctuationBoldOff, and PunctuationItalicOff, are helpful in case I miss a mistakenly italicised or bolded piece of punctuation, although this rarely happens because my eyes are magnets for these little rogue marks.
The next beast I tackle is the references list, alongside the in-text citations. First, I format them according to the appropriate style. Then, I ‘add to dictionary’ all the last names of the authors. This helps me to get rid of red squigglies and highlights the in-text citations that are not included in the list at the end (assuming they are not already in my dictionary). Obviously, this method is not fool proof, so I do use find and replace to make sure that every in-text citation has a corresponding references list entry. (Note: There are macros that do this cross-checking automatically for you, but I haven’t yet gotten around to installing one.)
Typos, names, and abbreviations
Once the references are done, I scan the document for obvious typos and correct them as I go. Then, I look for capitalised proper nouns and official names, and look up the spellings and formatting online if I’m unfamiliar with them. I then look for abbreviations and make sure that they are expanded at first mention and not several times; I also look out for alphabet soup that could result from too many abbreviations occurring close together and try to strike a balance in the text.
In the next pass, I edit the headings. This gives me the chance to get a sense of the paper’s structure without actually reading any of it. As important markers in the text, headings give the reader – in this case, me – a necessary blueprint to follow. At this point, I check that the headings are formatted correctly – casing, font type/size, level, etc. And, if it seems like there are too few headings or too many (as in stacked ones), I flag this up.
Figures and tables
In much of my work, I encounter extensive figures and tables, often all formatted differently from one another. On my ‘figures and tables’ pass, I look out for titles, sources, content, and formatting. It’s important for authors to note that even when the information in tables/figures is the product of their own work, many style guides prefer that they list themselves as the source so that there’s no room for question.
At this point, you might be wondering when, if ever, I get to the main text. Not yet, but soon. In this pass, I work on the footnotes or endnotes in the document. The reason I edit the notes in one go is that I’m concerned that if I do it while editing the main text – leaving and returning, as required – I might lose track of my place and leave large chunks unedited. By dealing with them all at once, I avoid this potential issue. And fear not: I do eventually read the notes in conjunction with the main text. If the document contains front matter and appendices, I usually get to these parts in this step.
Possibly the most important part of a paper or report is the abstract, sometimes replaced by a longer portion called the executive summary in reports and policy research. This is the bit that most readers peruse, especially if they are pressed for time, or if they’re doing a quick literature review. The abstract/executive summary is, therefore, crucial. I spend a disproportionate amount of time on this part because I know that it gets the most attention, often even more than the introduction or conclusion. If the paper is especially long, I tend to save the abstract for the end, so that I know what the manuscript as a whole deals with before I edit its summary. For short papers though, I typically edit the abstract in chronology.
Finally! I make it to the main text. This is arguably the most enjoyable part, the reason I do this work. I get into the brain of the author/researcher through their writing and get the benefit of learning about their work before the general public does. For more challenging papers, I leave myself comments to return to, especially for things I’m not sure about.
My next step once I’ve made it through the main text is – you guessed it – to return to the comments I’ve left myself. In most cases, I go with my gut, or if I can’t decide what to do, I ask a colleague or the author.
Once I’ve gone through every part of the paper, I take a break. Often, this is only an hour or two away from my laptop, but if I’m lucky, a whole sleep.
The final big thing left to do is proofread my work. This involves reading through the paper in the correct order – including notes as they appear in relation to the main text – and making sure I haven’t introduced any errors, even in my comments.
To close, I run Word’s spellchecker/editor and the Grammarly plugin – with a pinch of salt, of course, because robot editors have nothing on human editors just yet – the latter only if the document isn’t too long. This helps take care of anything I might have missed in my 101 passes. If necessary, I return to housekeeping – or if for some reason I chose to leave it for the end, I get to it now. For especially complex documents, I check for double spaces and run the basic macros again to make sure everything is in the order I thought I left it in.
At last, I’m done, and I move on to the next project. Rinse, repeat.