My Pre-Editing Checklist

I’ve been working as an editor for seven years now. Over that time, I’ve developed four habits that I do before I start editing a document. As an editor, I want to support the writer’s work. I’ve found that these four habits give me a better understanding of the manuscript and, thus, help me create a smoother experience for both me and the writer.

1. I format the document.
Every editor has a preferred set up for editing documents. Mine is: Times New Roman, 12 pt. size, a single space after a period, single spaced lines (unless I’m printing, then it’s 1.5 lines), no indents, one-inch margins, and one line between paragraphs. For some documents, all I have to do is a simple “Find & Replace” for spaces after periods; others take a lot more work. Either way, going through a few steps to set up the document always helps me get in the right mindset.

2. I read the style guide.
I have a few regular editing jobs, and they all have different style guides. I usually glance through the style guide before I start to refresh my memory and make sure I don’t, for example, spell out numbers above one hundred when I should be using numerals.

3. I read ahead.
If I’m editing an article, I read the entire thing. If I’m editing a novel, I read, at least, the first three or four chapters.

By reading ahead, I give myself time to learn the central themes or arguments of the piece, as well as the writer’s voice. If I start editing right away, I might take out something that is relevant later on, or I might make changes that just make no sense to the writer’s goals. Both examples require me to go back later and change my edits, which wastes time.

I may make a note or two while reading ahead if a problem is glaringly obvious; I’ll highlight a section or add a simple “come back to this.” Other than that, I don’t start marking up a document until I’ve read enough that I know I can make the right edits for it.

4. I make sure I have enough information.
I once copy edited a collection of essays, creative non-fiction pieces, and poems. I wasn’t the primary editor; my job was to make sure that the style was consistent and that the phrasing was clear and concise.

The primary editor, however, did ask me to edit the poems, since he wasn’t a poet, but I am.

One writer did not like my edits to her poem. But, once we talked about it, we realized that I was missing an important piece of contextual information. After that, we were able to work on the poem together so that we were both happy with it. We could have avoided a lot of trouble if I had had that bit of information to begin with.

If I don’t know enough information about the project’s audience and background, and the writer’s goals for the manuscript, I can’t edit effectively. I now make it a point to ask writers about their intentions, especially if I’m working on something creative, like a novel, if that information hasn’t been provided at the outset.

Bonus Step: I set up my environment.
I don’t always do this, but sometimes I like to light a candle, just as something physical to say, “Okay, now I’m going to get to work.” (Also lattes – I can’t start work without a latte.)

Writers and editors: what is your checklist? What steps do you take to get yourself in the groove for writing or working? If you’re a newer writer or editor, have you noticed that you’ve started to accumulate habits? Everyone has their own process, so a checklist may not be right for you, but I find that just preparing myself mentally goes a long way when starting a new project. My checklist has never steered me wrong, and I’m a better editor because of it.

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