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Overcoming objections to onscreen editing

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2003. Overcoming objections to onscreen editing. p. 472–475 in: Proceedings, STC 50th Annual Conference, 18–21 May 2003, Dallas, Texas. Soc. Tech. Comm., Arlington, VA. 509 p.

Although onscreen editing has been available for many years, it remains underused in many workplaces. Editors offer many reasons for their reluctance to embrace this technology, and by understanding these reasons, it becomes possible to mitigate the problems and help editors begin using the technology. By doing so, managers can implement a process that is more efficient for both the editor and the authors being edited.

Advantages of onscreen editing

Onscreen editing offers many compelling advantages to an organization:

Barriers to onscreen editing

Yet despite these benefits, many editors have been slow to embrace onscreen editing. There are three main categories of reasons that editors use to justify their reluctance. The barriers include:

I’ll discuss each of these barriers and propose a means of dealing with them. By understanding the source of a barrier, managers can take steps to remove the obstacles it poses to the adoption of onscreen editing, thereby letting their organization reap some of the benefits of this software technology.

An organization’s culture or established practices

Lack of proficiency

Some organizations lack full-time editors, and as a result, those who perform occasional editing have less opportunity to develop proficiency at onscreen editing. Full-time editors are more likely to work onscreen, and this suggests a simple solution to the problem of proficiency: practice. Onscreen editing initially appears difficult because of its unfamiliarity, but as editors use the tools, the tools gradually become more familiar and more comfortable to use.

Some editors have reported bad experiences when working with clients who don’t use the tools correctly or who overruled edits without consulting the editor. Learning to review edits onscreen also takes practice, and many authors will require training. For authors who don’t write frequently enough to develop and retain the necessary skills, editors should help the author remember the correct procedures and use the software tools and workflow procedures effectively. This echoes an important fact of life that many editors forget: good working relationships with authors are essential whether the editing is on paper or onscreen. When authors learn to trust an editor and accept editing as a way of improving their writing and facilitating the task of writing (rather than another obstacle on the road to publication), the two can work together more productively.

A division of labor that separates writers from editors can easily undermine the trust required to work together. The solution is to ensure that writer–editor relationships are developed and maintained irrespective of the organizational structure.

Controlling the process

Some organizations have a heavy investment in paper-based workflows, particularly where peer review replaces the use of professional editors. This approach often develops because of a legal or practical need to maintain a “paper trail” of all changes made to manuscripts. The solution for onscreen editing is no different, though the storage medium changes: create backup copies of all old versions of files on CD-ROM or other long-term storage medium. Version-control software such as Visual SourceSafe or the Concurrent Versioning System can satisfy those with more sophisticated needs.

Because authors working at different locations from their editors find it time-consuming or difficult to exchange printouts with the editor, there is a stronger incentive to use onscreen editing and transfer files by e-mail. Authors working close to their editors sometimes find it easier to exchange printouts, and thus have less incentive to try onscreen editing. In such cases, managers should encourage editors and authors to test onscreen editing. If you can identify authors and editors willing to try onscreen editing, pair these individuals and ask them to work together to develop a simple, efficient editing process. Once that process works well, you can share it with more-reluctant staff.

Reluctance to change

When an organization seems to insist on one way of doing things, human nature encourages most editors to “go with the flow” rather than “making waves”. But truly monolithic organizations are rarer than one might think, and it never hurts to explore the possibility of change. The easiest way to obtain permission for this exploration is to submit a proposal that shows the advantages of the new approach, then propose a test case to prove that the proposal is sound.

It’s also human nature to work in whatever medium is presented to you. If an author submits only printouts, most editors will be reluctant to request the word processor file for the manuscript, particularly if the author is difficult to work with. To encourage authors and editors to try onscreen editing, provide a safety net that minimizes the risks of change: provide incentives for trying the new approach, and reassurance that there will be no penalties for initial failures during these trials.

Technological Limitations

Incompatible or unsuitable software

The power provided by modern software comes at the price of incompatibilities between competing programs. For example, FrameMaker can read files generated by Word, but not vice versa, and FrameMaker both lacks its own revision tracking features and cannot read Word’s revision tracking. If authors and editors work in different programs, they may need to manually apply typographic highlighting or use special symbols to mark changes and separate queries from surrounding text. This becomes cumbersome. Sometimes this can be resolved by addressing workflow issues, such as performing all writing and review in Word before moving manuscripts into FrameMaker for layout. Other times, you may need to develop simplified markup and coding schemes.

Some editors and authors feel that the software doesn’t meet their needs. Although onscreen editing tools are still relatively primitive compared with their eventual potential, the bigger problem lies in ignorance of how to customize the tools or supplement existing tools by writing or recording macros that make the work easier. Fleming (1998) discusses some of the automated pre-editing (cleanup) and facilitated copyediting (macros) that are possible when a large organization supports the development of these aids. But even a small organization can make dramatic improvements with a small investment in learning how to record or even to program macros.

Incompatible formats

Incompatible file formats can sometimes be worked around with a little ingenuity. For example, Word can open HTML files but cannot edit them using revision tracking without first converting the files into Word’s native file format. However, once converted, the files can be edited and exchanged using Word’s revision tools, then converted back into HTML using tools such as HTML Transit or Word’s own export function. Other formats such as multimedia files, compiled Windows help files, and graphics can’t be edited at all in a word processor. In my quarterly Intercom column on onscreen editing (cited in the References section of this paper), I’ve discussed simple and effective workarounds for many of these problems.

A trickier problem involves special characters that don’t translate properly between word processors or (more commonly these days) between platforms such as the Macintosh and Windows. For example, science editors often experience problems with special characters such as Greek letters changing between platforms; I’ve often seen micrograms (mg) become milligrams (µg) when exchanging files between platforms. Even switching between programs on the same platform can cause problems; “smart quotes” created in WordPerfect sometimes emerge as strange characters in Word, for example. The solution to this problem is more difficult because it involves careful testing to identify potential problems and developing workarounds such as using HTML entities (e.g., &ampersand) to code for problem characters. Subsequently, the editor or desktop publisher can use search and replace to substitute the actual character symbols.

Individual preferences


There is a widespread perception, particularly among new editors, that working onscreen leads to more missed errors. As a result, many editors do a final on-paper edit to avoid this problem. In my experience, this is not so much a barrier as it is a benefit. Combining onscreen and on-paper edits will find more errors than either approach alone for a simple reason: all editors make at least two passes through a manuscript (time permitting), and editing in both media simply moves the second pass into a different medium.

Other editors investigated onscreen editing years ago and found the process and tools ineffective. Having abandoned this approach, they were never motivated to confirm whether the technology had improved, and instead continue editing on paper based on an outdated perception. The technology has greatly improved in the past decade, and these editors should be encouraged to revisit onscreen editing to see whether it meets their needs.

Many editors are reluctant to edit onscreen because they’re unaware of the available tools or how to use them effectively. For example, some claim that it's impossible to move blocks of text from one place to another within a document and track this change. In fact, it’s easy to insert a comment explaining the move and your justification, then move the text and edit it in its new location.

Some editors fear that authors will reject important changes without consulting them. This problem is best solved by establishing a mutually trusting relationship, but when that’s not feasible, software such as Word lets editors lock a document for revision so authors can only insert comments in response to edits.


Repetitive stress injury (RSI) is a common complaint in our profession (in one survey, about one in six people were effected), but many forget that busy editors complained about writer’s cramp after a long day wielding a red pen and at least one study has shown no increase in RSI among computer users. Many computer problems are mouse-related, particularly for editors who don’t know keyboard shortcuts; moving the mouse to the left of the keyboard or replacing it with a trackball can minimize this problem, as can learning keyboard shortcuts for common mouse commands.

Ignorance of the ability to customize the screen display is another problem. Editors often complain of eye strain and cite the ease of reading printouts compared with reading onscreen text. The solutions are similar on paper and onscreen: don’t spend an entire day sitting at your desk. Moreover, with printouts, you’re restricted to the fonts used by the authors, but onscreen editing lets you select a typeface and size better suited to your own visual needs. When editing is complete, you can then restore the original font for the author.


Despite improvements in computer screens, paper still has superior portability, ergonomics, and readability compared with onscreen text, and provides a better overview of a document’s format and structure. Yet none of these advantages prevents onscreen editing. Some editors do indeed work “on the bus home”, but a more significant portability problem involves taking work home or to another workplace, and modern laptops fill this need as easily as paper. Alternatively, files can be e-mailed to a home computer, particularly if the employer subsidizes a high-speed Internet connection (cable modem or DSL) to help employees receive large files and work at home. New “tablet” computers that resemble clipboards in their ergonomics will solve the problem of commuter editing; a bit further in the future, electronic paper (a medium with most of the properties of traditional paper, but with an updatable display) may eliminate the problem entirely. Modern screens provide excellent legibility, particularly with large screens. As for structure, many editors aren’t aware of Word’s outline view, which actually provides a clearer and more comprehensive view of a document’s structure than paper can provide.


Although there are many objections raised to onscreen editing, careful examination of the source of the objections often reveals ways to solve the underlying problem. Because of the merits of onscreen editing, managers should make an effort to examine these problems and solve them.


Dayton, D. 2001. Electronic editing in technical communication: practices, attitudes, and impacts. Ph.D. dissertation, Texas Tech University. Available online at: <>.

Fleming, J.L. 1998. Electronic copy editing: optimizing the process. Version 1.3. <>.

Hart, G.J. 2000. Why edit on screen?” Intercom September/October:34–35.

Hart, G.J. 2000. File-exchange and workflow issues. Intercom November:36–37.

Hart, G.J. 2001. Automating your edits. Intercom February:38–39.

Hart, G.J. 2001. Spelling and grammar checkers. Intercom April:40–41, 43.

Hart, G.J. 2001. Seek and ye shall find—and replace. Intercom July/August:51–52.

Hart, G.J. 2001. Identifying additions and deletions, Part I: using compatible software. Intercom November 2001:37–38.

Hart, G.J. 2002. Identifying additions and deletions, Part II: incompatible software. Intercom January:37–38.

Hart, G.J. 2002. Special needs: editing tables and graphics. Intercom April:37–38.

Hart, G.J. 2002. Substantive editing: break it to them gently. Intercom June:34–35.

Hart, G.J. 2002. Editing with style (sheets). Intercom November:36, 42.

Hart, G.J. 2003. Keyboard shortcuts and other tricks. Intercom January:38–39.

Geoffrey J.S. Hart
Technical Editor
Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada
580 boul. St-Jean
Pointe-Claire, Quebec
H9R 3J9 Canada
Tel.: 514–694–1140

Geoffrey Hart is a senior STC member and is currently serving as Vice-president of the Montreal Chapter, Manager of the Scientific Communication SIG, and publisher of the SIG’s newsletter, the Exchange. He works primarily as an editor and translator, but also performs various writing and information design duties for his employer.

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

©2004–2018 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved