Comprehensive Editing: Why You Can’t Do It Alone

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The ultimate goal of your published work goes far beyond being grammatically correct. The ultimate goal is to be correct—in all ways. Herein lies the need for comprehensive editing (also called substantive editing). Comprehensive editing includes copy editing, as editing for content and clarity, so that you achieve your documentation/publication goals:

  • Accuracy
  • Clarity
  • Conciseness
  • Correctness (grammar, usage, spelling, capitalization, punctuation, syntax, tact, avoidance of offensive language, or other correctness criteria)
  • Consistency
  • Reading ease
  • Readability
  • Precision
  • Organization
  • Style

Comprehensive editing is a collaborative effort between subject matter experts, writing experts, and possibly design experts; together they ensure the message is clear, accurate, and correct.

What’s the Difference Between Copyediting and Comprehensive Editing?

Comprehensive editing takes a more global approach to a document than copyediting. When you conduct this level of edit, you consider more than the text; you consider the intended message  and purpose—the usability and readability of the document. You also consider how users will engage with the document. Copyediting is really the final step in this process. Once you get the message correct, make sure you correctly applied all the rules.

What’s the Trade-Off?

As with any endeavor, the more deeply you become involved, the more time it takes to complete. The same is true with comprehensive editing. You must allow time for back-and-forth discussions between author, subject matter expert, editor, and possibly the designer of the document. Comprehensive editing is a multi-stage process that parallels the writing process.

With comprehensive editing, because it’s a more thorough and investigative process, you must have a running conversation between key players. You must ensure that among many possibly correct options, your team of contributors agrees on the most correct word, phrase, image, etc.

Contrast this work with copyediting, most of which is rules-based and concerned with grammar, spelling, punctuation, and other mechanics of style and the internal consistency of facts and presentation. Both types of edit are essential; they just focus on different issues.

With copyediting, you may have only a writing expert amend a document to ensure it meets the conventions of grammar, usage, and style. Usually, copyediting is a relatively quick process, and all amendments may be justified with simple reference aids.

What’s the Process?

Because comprehensive editing is an iterative process, you can’t rely on a single step-by-step procedure. However, you can rely on this general process:

  1. Analyze the document’s readers, purpose, and uses to determine what the document should do and the ways readers will use it.
  2. Evaluate the document’s content, organization, visual design, and style to determine whether the document accomplishes what it should.
  3. Determine the editing goals.
  4. Conduct a functional edit. Ensure the content, or message, is accurate and optimal. This will certainly require more than one read-through, and it will also require feedback from others involved with the project. These consultations are key to the success of the edit; they ensure that the message, intent, and accessibility achieve the primary goal of the document.
  5. Copyedit. Once you have the information in the document correct, make sure it follows grammatical, mechanical, and stylistic rules and conventions. Save this for last though; you don’t want to spend your time copyediting a document that will have grand-scale changes during a functional edit.

Who Should Edit Your Documents?

Certainly, since comprehensive editing is a collaborative process, many will be involved. However, the process will go much more smoothly if you have a technical writer—the writing expert—leading the process. This is true for many reasons, but primarily because technical writers are trained to maximize the impact of a document and to minimize the effort readers must put into understanding a document. Technical writers are trained in all aspects of the writing process—not just writing and grammar, but also document design and usability.

Another reason you should rely on technical writers to lead the editing process: they aren’t subject matter experts. This seems counterintuitive, but it’s in your readers’ best interest to have someone who isn’t an expert make sure your documents are readable—your readers likely aren’t experts either, so a technical writer will help you identify areas where your readers may need additional support.

Carolyn Rude, an industry-respected author, sums up comprehensive editing like this: “Comprehensive editing makes a document more usable and comprehensible. Comprehensive editing requires the editor to imagine the document being used in a context and not simply to apply handbook rules.” Because you’ll invest critical time and resources into your documentation projects, you’ll maximize ROI by relying on writing experts to manage your documentation projects.