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Effective onscreen editing. Part two of a four-part series.

by Geoff Hart

Previously published in a different form as: Hart, G.J. 2000. Effective onscreen editing. Part two of a four-part series. Corrigo, Newsletter of the STC Technical Editing SIG 1(2):1, 3–5.

Click here to read Part 1 of this series.

Workflow issues

Murphy’s law applies as strongly to onscreen editing as it does elsewhere in life, and at some point you or Murphy will do something unfortunate to a file. So before you actually begin editing, make a backup copy of the original file and store it somewhere safe, far away from your computer. Then make additional backups of each version of the manuscript along the way, at each important stage of your work, so you won’t have to start over from the beginning if something bad happens to the file. Follow this advice and you’ll always have something to go back to if you make a serious error; don’t follow it and you’ll find yourself wishing you had, usually in the middle of a frantic rush to beat a deadline. At these times, Murphy’s law is particularly likely to take effect because that’s when you’re most hurried or fatigued and thus least likely to take the care you should take. This warning is particularly important if you’re new to onscreen editing, but even old pros occasionally get careless or unlucky.

Unfortunately, even good backups won’t protect you against one common “bad thing” that happens to files: “infections” caused by viruses. New or inexperienced clients most commonly cause this problem, but even experienced computer users sometimes get infected. You can save yourself considerable grief by purchasing the most recent release of commercial antivirus software and keeping that software current by downloading updates from the vendor’s Web site. “Macro viruses”, which are so far restricted to Microsoft Word, pose a particular problem because they attach themselves directly to Word files and, unlike traditional viruses, function as soon as you open the infected file; worse yet, they’re relatively easy to create, so new viruses appear regularly, and it can take some time before antivirus vendors develop solutions. [Looking back from 2005: Now most Microsoft e-mail software is vulnerable to a range of viruses and virus-like programs called "malware". If you use these products, it's doubly important that you protect yourself.—GH]


SIDEBAR: Precautions in Microsoft Word

Despite its power, Word has several known problems, each of which has an easy fix.

To protect yourself from macro viruses, open Word’s Tools menu, select Options, and click the General tab; make sure the “Macro virus protection” checkbox is selected. This isn’t foolproof, but it does provide protection against simple macro viruses. For more protection, ask Word users to send their files in “rich text format” (RTF), created using the software’s “save as” feature, since this strips out all macros stored in the file. You’ll lose a small amount of style and formatting information, but at least you won’t have to worry about viruses. Since macro viruses (so far!) only affect Word files, this last step isn’t necessary if your authors are using another word processor.

Word has sophisticated abilities to save files, and one very big hole in these abilities. Back when computers were much slower, the developers created a feature called “Fast save” that appends your keystrokes to the end of the file rather than saving an entirely new copy of the file. Unfortunately, as file sizes grow and changes multiply, “Fast save” begins to greatly increase both the file size and the risk of irrecoverable damage to the file. The increased speed in saving files simply doesn’t compensate for these problems. To turn off this feature, open Word’s Tools menu, select Options, and click the Save tab; deselect the checkbox labeled “Allow fast saves”.

While the dialog box is open, consider whether to select the checkbox labeled “Always create backup”; this creates a copy of your file with the file name followed by “.bak” each time you open a file; if you make a mess of the file or your computer crashes, you can reopen the backup file and start over again. Better still, select the checkbox beside “Save autorecovery info every” and pick a frequency and file location that works well for you. With this option selected, Word regularly saves versions of your open files that are more up to date than the automatic backup files; if your computer crashes while Word is open, the autorecovery information will generally let you recover most of the work you did right up to the crash by opening the files in the autorecovery directory.

Most modern word processors have comparable features, and it’s worth your while to find out about them and figure out how to make them part of your work.


That’s the worst of the bad news; the rest of the problems represent inconveniences rather than things that truly threaten your sanity. The largest remaining problem is that most organizations require a “paper trail” of some sort so that managers or editors can determine whether important changes were made and who made (or vetoed) each change. With printed documents, you can create paper trails by adding the most recently edited printout of a manuscript to an ever-growing pile in the file cabinet, retain the old copies until the manuscript is published, then archive the files somewhere. But what do you do with computer files?

Maintaining a paper trail

The general solution is much the same as for paper documents: create a computer directory that holds named or numbered versions of the files. For example, store the original manuscript in that directory as “original.doc”, the July 1st 1999 version as july01-1999.doc, and so on. (Pick names that are meaningful to you and your colleagues.) At any time, you can return to one of these earlier versions of the manuscript to confirm what the author originally said or to start over again if the current version of a file has become damaged beyond repair (e.g., by a virus). If your needs are more complex, specialized document- or version-control software can make the process much easier. Whichever approach you choose, you need to develop a method as simple to use and as rigorous as the paper-based method it replaces if your client or employer requires you to maintain a paper trail.

This raises the issue of how to determine which of your edits the author accepted, and what (if any) new text, comments, or rebuttals the author inserted. Just as in printed documentation reviews, someone (usually the editor or the author’s manager) must take responsibility for ensuring that the author addresses review comments satisfactorily. In the absence of such a formal mechanism to ensure that someone approves the author’s revisions, authors can easily reject important changes and make additional changes without leaving any clues to what they did. Most word processors offer a “compare documents” feature that lets you spot such problems, but the comparison facilities can be primitive. (One colleague discovered that the function had stopped working on a large file midway through the comparison.) More to the point, the only way to ensure quality control is to appoint someone to take responsibility for monitoring changes and enforcing a consistent, predictable workflow that ensures the corrections get done. Although automating a workflow can help you attain a quality product, it can’t take the place of human intervention.

If you have a sufficiently good relationship with your authors, you can trust them to discuss review comments with you before they reject them out of hand, and to use the software’s revision tracking features to mark any additions they choose to make. Though this can work well, it’s not foolproof, since it’s easy to forget to use (or to actively disable) the software’s revision-tracking feature while making changes. One somewhat draconian, yet effective, approach involves providing authors with a “read only” copy of the file, while the editor retains the original. (Each word processor does this in a different manner, though most let you "protect" files by requiring a password before you can modify them.) Authors can review the proposed changes and indicate (by annotating the file) which ones they disagree with, but have no authority to implement or reject any of the changes by themselves; the editor subsequently reads these annotations and transfers the resulting changes into the original copy of the file. The biggest problem with this approach is that it can offend some authors, who quite rightly suspect that you don’t trust them to take proper care in reviewing your edits.

Automating your edits

Tools such as spellcheckers, grammar checkers, and the search and replace function can greatly facilitate your work. Each is important enough that I’ll discuss them later, in their own sections; here, I’ll elaborate on my previous recommendation that you customize your software to make your editing more efficient.

All modern word processors offer an invaluable tool: the ability to create simple keystroke combinations that provide access to a longer sequence of menu choices or commands. These shortcuts go by various names, but are most commonly known as macros. When you record a macro, the software watches your keystrokes and mouse movements, and stores them for future use so you can replay them with a single command or a single menu choice. (For example, Microsoft Word lets you assign these macros to toolbar buttons or keystrokes, and PageMaker lets you create a floating palette of “scripts”.) Assigning each macro to a keyboard shortcut tends to be most productive, since you don’t have to remove your fingers from the keyboard, but that may not suit your working style. Recording macros can let you achieve some surprisingly good results, but if you enjoy programming, you can develop even more sophisticated macro routines by learning the software’s programming language.

Most experienced onscreen editors develop macros based on their unique needs. The specific macros you should develop will depend largely on your work habits and the nature of the work you’re doing. Typical macros include procedures to:

The next time you edit a manuscript, pay attention to the sort of corrections you perform frequently, or that you perform infrequently but that are time-consuming to do via the software’s menus. Ask yourself whether these steps are sufficiently common or repetitive that you should automate them. A short investment of time in watching your own editing behavior can produce enormous paybacks in terms of time savings later on.

Another important time-saver is the ability to create an onscreen “style sheet” that you can keep open in another window for ease of reference. (Editorial style sheets are lists of decisions such as the spelling and capitalization of certain words, how certain words have been defined and used, and so on.) Editors who work on large or complex projects on paper typically create and maintain correspondingly large and complex style sheets, which rapidly become difficult to use because of the limitations of paper as a means of organizing and retrieving information. In contrast, you can easily alphabetize or sort an onscreen style sheet as required, and can search through it using the search function rather than sorting through a stack of paper by hand. Better still, you can submit your final style sheet to a client’s production staff, who benefit greatly from having the style sheet available, without having to retype it.

Click here to read Part 3 of this article.

Click here to read Part 4 of this series.


To learn the details of onscreen editing that are only summarized in this article, see my book Effective Onscreen Editing.


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