There are three main stages of editing. The first two, structural editing and copyediting, are about improving the writing. The third one, proofreading, is about fixing errors (commonly known as 'typos') and tidying up the document.
Structural (or substantive) editing
Here you are looking at the overall structure and shape of the document.
- Is the information set out in a logical order your reader can easily follow?
- Is everything your reader needs to know there?
- Does it include information your reader doesn't need? If so, can you cut that?
Here you are looking at the sentences and words.
- Are your sentences as clear and direct as they can be?
- Have you used everyday words that your reader would be familiar with?
- Are all the words and phrases as concise as they can be?
- Have you been consistent in how you have spelt words and used terms?
- Is what you have written accurate?
This is about doing a final check for any errors or typos.
- Are all the words, names, addresses, emails and websites spelt correctly?
- Are all the numbers, including phone numbers, correct?
- Is the layout alright? Are the page breaks in the right place? Is everything that needs to be in the document in the right place?
Small pieces of writing, like short emails or file notes for colleagues, might need only proofreading. When proofreading larger documents, it is best to do this some time after you have finished writing it – at least an hour later or preferably 24 hours later. This way, you will see it with fresh eyes and be more likely to notice errors. If possible, ask someone else to proofread it too.
Use a house style guide
Most organisations have terms and phrases that they use often. It is useful to have a 'house style guide' where these are documented, so that everyone can easily check them. The guide can also include any useful writing or layout standards. Your house style can deal with specific points like these below.
Examples of what you can include in a house style guide
Your organisation's name
- How do you spell it?
- Do you use things like 'Incorporated' or 'Pty Ltd'?
- Do they have capital letters?
- Are they up to date?
- When do you use the acronym for your organisation, for example, RACT for Royal Automobile Club of Tasmania?
- What other acronyms do you use?
- What jargon will everyone you are writing for understand?
- What standard explanations will help those people who are unlikely to understand the jargon?
A simple way to set up a house style guide is to have a one page list of common words in alphabetical order. This is useful when you are working on a single document or if your organisation is small. You can include words that may be spelt, capitalised or hyphenated differently, such as ageing or aging, state government or State Government, and part-time or part time.
Test your document with readers
You should test your document to see that people will understand it quickly and easily. Even if it is an internal memo for a small number of staff, it is still worth asking people for their opinion.
People who know nothing about your area are sometimes the best at spotting unclear text. It is also worth testing your document with some of the people who are likely to use it.
Testing saves you money, time and energy in answering questions or in printing corrections later.
Use readability tools as a guide only
Readability tools are designed to give an idea of how difficult a piece of writing is to read. They measure syllables per word, words per sentence and sentences per paragraph, then work out the average and provide a rating. Some computers come with this already installed. There are also plain English software programs you can buy that assess extra aspects like unusual words, abbreviations, and clunky writing. Some also offer suggestions for how to simplify, cut and rewrite.
Treat them as broad guides only, as they do not consider the content of your document, your reader's needs or whether your document helps your reader find information quickly. People are the best judge of any document.
Summary based on
Style Manual: for Authors, Editors and Printers, 6th edition, 2002, Commonwealth of Australia, pp. 256–261.