Pointing out Mistakes

As an editor, I spot mistakes regularly – in the morning newspaper, on grocery store signs, on websites, and in brochures. Mistakes are everywhere.

Once I’ve spotted a mistake, I have to decide whether or not to point out the mistake. It is tempting to always point out mistakes, but that can make editors annoying friends.

If the mistake can be easily corrected, then I will point it out. Mistakes on websites are quick and easy to fix. When I saw an issue on a brochure that is going to be used for a year or more, I let the responsible person know so that when he reprinted it, he could correct the mistake.


However, when there was a typo on a flier that would only be relevant for a few weeks, I let it go. The organization was not going to reprint the flier, so it wasn’t worth pointing out the error. But the mistake still bothered me – I can’t un-notice errors.

If there is a process improvement that will prevent future mistakes from occurring, then I do usually point out errors. I might even mention that I am available for contract work!

During a beach vacation, I spotted a glaring error in a message scrawled in the sand. I just couldn’t resist, I had to add the missing letter. My husband still teases me about never turning off my editorial brain.

Editing Out Loud

During a dinner table conversation, I read an interesting piece of copy to my husband. It was from an editorial project I’d worked on earlier in the day and I thought he would resonate with the topic. As I was reading the selection out loud, I noticed a typo. What should have been the word “it” was “if” in this first draft. Not a problem, because the article was still in the early stages of the edit and design phase and I could easily make corrections. But the experience reminded me of the value of reading out loud to catch errors.

Brains are amazing in speed and ability. Fluent readers quickly move through text and their brains process content so quickly that many small errors are smoothed over in the process. This is especially true if the reader is already familiar with the content. It is as if  the brain has an autocorrect feature – one that is much better than autocorrect on texts!

So how do we counteract this auto-correcting brain process and catch errors before they get to print?

First of all, having another person who is not familiar with the text perform a round of copyediting is important. Another reader will have fresh eyes and not be lulled into skipping small errors.

However, sometimes fresh eyes are not available for a project. In this case, taking the time to slow down and read the text out loud, pronouncing each word, can reveal lingering errors.

I also find that planning sufficient time for a break in my schedule improves the quality of my work. I try to finish up a project or chunk of work the day before it is due. Then I can give myself some space and let the project (and my brain) rest overnight. In the morning, a fresh round of edits will catch any errors that might not have been obvious at the end of a full day of work.

editing picture

Where to Cut

I relish the challenge of cutting an article down to size. Not that there is anything wrong with 1,000 words, but usually I need to fit an article into a particular spot in a magazine. While writers have a word count with their assignment, they often go over their allotment. Even for online content, where space is theoretically unlimited, judicious trimming results in a tighter, more compelling piece. Good writers will make their own cuts before submitting articles, but it is easier for editors to cut because they are not wed to each word.

Before Cutting

Before I start cutting, I try to understand the big idea of the article. This will help me in the cutting process, as I identify extraneous ideas. If the big idea isn’t clear, then it is hard to determine what to cut, and the article might need a complete re-write to hone the main message prior to cutting.

Next I read through and make edits that add clarity and correct errors. This process might actually make an article longer, but is an important step. For example, if there is an abrupt transition that leaves the reader wondering, adding a few words or sentences can smooth the bump and help the reader follow along.

The Hatchet

If an article is significantly longer than the target, the first cut is with a “hatchet” to chop out entire sections. Perhaps the author gives five supporting examples for the big idea. Each example might be interesting, but the hatchet edit chops the article down to the two or three most important examples. The guiding question for this chop is to consider the reader and whether or not each example illuminates the main point for the reader.

Another area to chop is predictable prose. A great editor keeps the content that is original, but cuts out areas that have been overdone in other platforms. Content should add to the conversation, not just rehash tired thoughts.

In addition, as the editor, I may chop a section that covers content which is present in another article in the magazine. This is an edit that writers cannot make, since they are only aware of their article, not how the whole magazine fits together.

The Knife

I use the knife to cut away unnecessary words that don’t add meaning; words such as really, actually and basically are throwaways.

Watch out for lists that go on and on. While a bulleted list can add clarity for the reader, no one is going to read a list of 15 items. I will focus a list on four or five essentials and trim the rest.

Often I straighten out meandering sentences with multiple clauses. I rewrite such sentences into clear, emphatic prose. Not only will content be shorter, but it will be more compelling.

After the Cut

After chopping and trimming, I set the content aside and come back later with fresh eyes to consider whether any of the edits introduced errors or dead ends.  Then I enjoy the satisfaction of clear writing that hits the target.

Note: This article started at 555 words and I cut it down to 511 words.

Why Does Anyone Need an Editor Anymore?

Why use a professional editor when there are electronic editing tools that highlight spelling and grammar errors? Besides the obvious answer that electronic editing tools do not catch all the errors in any document, an editor brings precision to content.

For example, on a recent editorial project, the writer was talking about children, and he kept using the adjective “small” children. After reading through all the content, I discerned that he was actually talking about the age not the stature of the children, so I changed the modifier to “young” rather than “small.” This minor changed added precision to the word choice. To which some of you might ask, “Who cares?”

The changes that an editor makes to good content might seem insignificant; however, the difference between good content and great content is in the details. Spell check or grammar check will never tell you that there is a better word to use to express meaning. Nor will these tools help you use a colon or semi-colon correctly. Why care about such precision?

Precise language communicates meaning. An editor can take your thoughts and good content and make them great so that the meaning you want to convey comes through to the reader. An editor will take your very, very, very long sentence that is technically correct but confusing to the reader and massage it into a form that allows the reader to understand your meaning. An editor will challenge your word choice to strengthen the meaning you want to convey. An editor will clean up your punctuation so your ideas and thoughts flow smoothly.

I could go on and on, but I am an editor, so my goal is to convey this idea in less than 300 words.

Insider Language

“Why don’t our customers follow the instructions?” is an all-to-common lament. If your customers can’t figure out how to register, pay, interact or respond to your communication, then it is a problem for your organization, not for the customer. Rather than assuming customers are dense, it is likely that the communication was written with insider knowledge and it is not clear to the customer. This is especially true for online processes that require several steps. It is popular to blame user error, but the onus is on the communicator to make processes clear to users who may not have sophisticated knowledge of organizational lingo.

How can you avoid unclear communication that uses insider language?

  • Be ruthless in editing word choices and selecting words that have common meaning, rather than acronyms and titles that are not obvious to your customers. Insider language does not belong in any communication going to external customers. Don’t assume they know what you mean, they don’t!
  • When editing instructions, actually take each step as it is given. This may seem obvious, but it is too easy to give a superficial edit. Always ask the question, “Now what do I do?” If the answer isn’t evident, then the instructions are not clear enough for an outsider.
  • Have real customers review key messages that impact revenue streams. What do they think and do when they see a message? Give out prizes and incentives to develop an advisory team of customers.
  • Listen to your customers. What words do they use to describe their interactions and activities? Use their words in your content and instructions.
  • Make sure visuals match instructions. People don’t actually read all the instructions on a computer screen or a paper form, so make sure there are clear visual cues for each step in a process.

It is hard to shed insider language, because everyone in your organization knows what it means, so all your internal editorial review will not eradicate insider language. Take intentional steps to think and talk like your customers, because their impression and actions related to your communications is all that matters.

Incomplete Sentences

Overzealous editing can result in boring content. Rendering a grammatically perfect article or essay means that incomplete sentences are edited out, and emphatic expressions get toned down. So the goal for an editor is to balance grammatical accuracy and readability with the writer’s voice and purpose in the article. This is where the art of being an editor intersects with the science of correct grammar and an editor needs to exercise good judgment.

When I approach editing an article where the author uses incomplete sentences as part of her style and voice, I ask the following questions:

  • Does the whole piece make sense to an independent reader?
  • Does the author’s signature phrasing and style create ambiguity for the reader?
  • Are the first paragraph and the last paragraph tight and clear?
  • Are the stylistic elements appropriate for the readers?

There isn’t a right or wrong answer for each of these questions, but rather each is an opportunity for editorial judgment. The balance I seek as an editor is a clear piece that represents the author’s voice and communicates to the reader. Obviously, editorial judgment will vary for an academic audience versus a consumer audience.  A conversational style of writing includes incomplete sentences, because we don’t speak in complete sentences all the time or we would sound like stilted actors. Academic writing will result in different editorial judgments because the goal is precision and authority, not conversation.

The goal in editing is to clearly communicate with an audience. Accuracy is important, but voice is what breathes life into content, so both are considerations in editing. The art of editing is finding the right balance, and as the Fine Print Editorial tagline says, the difference between good and great is in the details.

  • Enter your email address to follow the Fine Print Editorial blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

%d bloggers like this: