Editor's desktop with laptop, notebook and coffeeThis brief guide explains the basics of editing, what to aim for and what to avoid. You will be editing text for booklets, leaflets, newsletters, magazines or web text all of which require slightly different skills. However, the basics remain the same. Editing copy is about making sure the text flows, that it is correct and concise and that its style reflects that used by your organisation in all its materials.

Use an active voice not a passive one. Consider your audience and edit accordingly. If the materials are for the public, keep the tone warm and informative. Use personal pronouns rather than ‘the patient’ or ‘the client’. Keep the structure and ideas simple. Often one idea per paragraph is enough. Avoid using long words or phrases where a shorter or simpler one will do. Adjectives are generally superfluous. Do away with them and you will have more space for information.

Numbers one to nine are generally written as words and 10 or more as numerical figures. However, any number followed by a unit is generally written as numerical figure. For example, 6 cm, 5 kg; with a space after the number and before the unit. Also, numbers are more likely to be familiar to those with low literacy skills.

If you are editing material for professionals, the language can be more technical (using proper names for procedures and tests, whilst still avoiding jargon and unfamiliar abbreviations) and written to an appropriate level of knowledge. However, it is still a good idea to keep the ideas and structure simple. You want it to be easy to read whoever it is aimed at.

Avoid using health jargon and convoluted sentences. Acronyms should be lower case (Nato, Unison) except where confusion may arise (the WHO, AIDS). For names, unless they are unquestionably familiar, (NHS, BBC) make sure these are spelled out at first use with the abbreviation in brackets afterwards. For example, The Royal College of Nursing (RCN). Do not give the abbreviation if there will be no further mention of the name.

Your materials need to have a uniformity of style – the layout and tone should be recognisable. Break up copy using boxes. Use a font of at least 12 point size and beware of using coloured font particularly on a coloured background. Black on white may seem boring but it’s readable. Add colour to boxes or headings to give shape and style. Keep the size of headings consistent. For example, you may have three levels of headings – the main heading, sub headings and then minor headings beneath these.  Keep all at a consistent size to each other so it is clear to the reader what relates to what.

Version control is essential if you are to keep track of the changes you have made. You can do this by adding a number at the end of a file title. Each successive draft is numbered sequentially 0.01, 0.02 0.03 until the final version. This would be titled version 1.0. If version 1.0 is altered, this becomes version 1.1 and so on until 2.0. The version should be recorded in the footer of each page of the draft as well as in the file title.

If you are consulting on a document make it clear in advance to the consultees the status of their comments – ie will you implement them or will you only implement them if you agree with them? A good rule is that any points of accuracy must be changed, especially on clinical grounds but opinion about how something reads should be up to the editor. If comments clash, you make the final decision and explain your reasons to consultees. Remember to use version control when you incorporate comments. You may want to indicate on the front of the document alongside the version number, what changes you have made.

Evaluate your materials. Ask for feedback and make changes accordingly in the next print run. If possible, and if your organisation can afford it, ask the Plain English Campaign to check your leaflet. They will advise on any changes and award a Plain English crystal mark to the leaflet  if you wish. Go to: http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/ for more information.

Top Tips 

  1. Read the copy for sense before you do anything
  2. Edit once for style and once for content
  3. Check the spelling of all proper nouns
  4. Check all phone numbers and make sure email links work
  5. Be consistent
  6. Always keep your audience in mind
  7. Include your organisation’s contact details and website
Acknowledgement: Claire Laurent, Freelance writer, editor, blogger, public health professional
Page last updated: 03/12/12