Editing difficulties caused by layout

I’ve been sidetracked this holiday season with a few editing projects – all interesting documents that I couldn’t say no to. I often think that my working time is privileged – I get to read and think about fascinating topics, work on documents that are written with some social justice purpose, and help the authors find ways to make the work easier to read. (And yes, I recognise that this sounds kind of cheesy, but it really is the way I feel about my work.)

But over the last few weeks I’ve been confronted, yet again, by the problems that layout can create in draft documents. Word makes it just too easy for authors to use layout extensively in their documents, in ways that create real difficulties for editors.

I’ve been irritated by inserted boxes (which create all sorts of problems with run-around and text going missing), inconsistent use of styles (which often means that the document goes haywire when I move sections around), difficulties with section breaks, automatic referencing systems (which make it difficult to correct references and to shift references around), and automatic contents pages.

My real problem with these layout issues is that they get in the way of my thinking about the document. The content should be most important, but I often spend a lot of time trying to figure out how the layout was done, and how it can be made consistent.

And that’s before I even think about the minor problems like leading, use of tabs, use of spaces, capitals for headings, etc etc – which are often inconsistent throughout the document.

I continue to resist what would probably be the best practice for an editor: to strip out ALL of the formatting and start again. I usually feel that authors don’t want me to do this (they’ve put effort into the layout, after all). Sometimes, after discussing it with the author, I apply a simple (consistent) layout to the document. But as I do all work using Track Changes (so that the changes can be approved and owned by the author), I think that undoing all the formatting and starting again would make an enormous mess of their original document.

I guess I need to accept it as part of the job, not an irritation that can be solved.