Sweat the small stuff by all means, but don’t lose sight of the big picture



The latest issue of Offpress (the newsletter produced by the Society of Editors (Qld)) includes an article on ‘The false precision of fetish editing’ by John E McIntyre. It was originally published in McIntyre’s regular column for The Baltimore Sun.

McIntyre makes a point that is easy to miss in the detailed work of editing: ‘… there is the problem when copy editors fetishize minor details; the big errors can be overlooked’.

It’s an easy trap to fall into: as editors, we can become so focused on things like consistency with the serial comma, perfect capitalisation, parallel form or careful APA referencing that we forget to think about the document’s meaning and structure.

I got caught this week with a middle-sized error: I’d written an article about ‘elicit’ drugs, so my drugs were responding to information, instead of being illegal. The elicit/illicit error is easy enough to make, and one that might have only trivial consequences – like making me look/feel a bit silly, damaging my reputation as a writer/editor, and perhaps encouraging others to make the same mistake. But it’s not a big picture error and won’t lead to any great misunderstanding.

When I edit a document, I use a stepped process that’s designed to help me address big picture problems before I start to sweat the small stuff.

Here’s my 5-steps for editing:

  1. Read the entire document, preferably in one sitting, and preferably without making a single mark on it
  2. Work out the document’s key message (elevator pitch) – this isn’t always easy, as some authors do a good job of hiding their key message (or not having one); I don’t think it’s possible to edit a document if you don’t have a good grasp of its key message
  3. Edit for structure and content – move sections around, remove content and add content until the document is in a sensible order and all of the content is relevant to the key message
  4. Edit the paragraphs and sentences – rework sentences until they’re the best I can achieve in the time I have available (this step is designed to acknowledge that paragraphs and sentences can always, always be improved)
  5. Sweat the small stuff – giving just as much sweat as is appropriate for this document – sometimes, I care deeply about every comma, every space, and every capital letter – and sometimes, I simply don’t.

My 5-step process allows me to adjust my editing focus depending on the requirements of the document. I find it a useful reminder that the big picture needs to outshine the small stuff.