Working electronically

Some editors, even technical editors, are still marking changes on paper, with someone else typing the editor’s markup into the file. But authors and editors are learning that having the editor type changes and questions directly into the file can be a lot more efficient.

Some editors may have the luxury of needing to deal with files in only one format, produced by only one program, and managed through software on their employer’s internal network.

Many editors (especially those of us who work freelance) have to work with files in more than one format, sent to them on disk or over the Internet, often by people who don’t understand how to check files in and out, compress files, or do a variety of other tasks that may be automated when done internally.

In either case, editors need to know some basic techniques for dealing with files if they are going to be editing them electronically. These techniques apply to files in any format, but exactly what you do depends on which word-processor, desktop publishing program, help authoring system, or other software you are using.

The necessities: working with the client

Here are the things I need to know how to do when dealing with the client. (I often have to teach the client how to do those things, so I have to understand them.)

  • Receive and send files (including compressing and uncompressing them)
  • Use virus-checking software and keep it up to date
  • Use a file naming, tracking and archiving system (if the client doesn’t have a system, I may need to suggest one)
  • Use project management, spreadsheet and other software to track whatever information the client requires
  • Work with fonts and printer drivers
  • Print to file
  • Authorize someone (grant permission) to edit a file
  • Keep track of multiple text and graphics files in one book or project
  • Convert between file formats
  • Accept or reject editorial changes and comments; remove comments from a file

1. Receiving and sending files

When sending and receiving files and e-mail, follow these rules:

  • Ask whether the recipient prefers e-mail in plain text or HTML format. Many older e-mail programs don’t handle HTML, or don’t handle it well, and many people simply prefer their notes in plain text. If your correspondent doesn’t understand the question, and you like using HTML in your e-mail, you could send a test message and ask if it looks the way you intended.
  • Never send attachments with e-mail unless you have agreement from the recipient first. Because attachments can carry viruses, many people do not appreciate receiving unexpected ones.
  • Get agreement on what word processor format and version to use for the files. For example, if you’re using Microsoft Word, is it Word 6, Word 95 (a.k.a. Word 7) or Word 97 (a.k.a. Word 8)? If you can’t use the same format, and must convert, problems may arise.
  • Check your files for viruses before you send them.
  • Compress attachments before sending them, unless they are quite small. (Compressing is often called “zipping” because a common compression format is .zip.) Make sure the recipient can uncompress the files you send. If necessary, provide a copy of the software and instructions on how to use it.

2. Using virus-checking software

If you don’t already have a good anti-virus program on your computer, get one immediately, install it, and use it. Set it up to automatically check all incoming files.

Even more importantly, keep it up to date. If you’re not sure how to get updates, check your documentation. If you’re not disciplined enough to get and install updates at least once a month, use a virus checker with an “automatic update” feature that will do all the work for you—logging on to the company’s Web site, finding the appropriate file, downloading it, and running it.

3. Using a file naming, tracking and archiving system

Be sure you and the client agree on when, where and how often you save files on their server. Do you upload files only when you’re finished editing them, or do you upload your latest (unfinished) version once a day, or what? If you can’t upload files directly to their server, to whom do you send them?

Does the company you’re working for have a file naming, tracking and archiving system? If so, use it. If not, or if you only want a way to keep track of things on your own computer, here’s a fairly simple manual technique that I use:

  1. Create a folder for each project or document. Create several subfolders in each folder: In, Pending, Out, and Archive (or whatever terms you prefer).
  2. When you receive a file, put it into the In folder for that document.
  3. Copy it into the Pending folder, and edit that copy. Don’t touch the original.
  4. When you’ve completed editing the file, move it into the Out folder. You know that anything in the Out folder is ready to send to the client. I rename the file to indicate its changed status (for example, I might rename “Procedures” to “Procedures edited”).
  5. After you send the edited file, move it to the Archive folder. I usually archive the compressed file, to save space. I also move the original file to the Archive folder, which is why I need to rename the edited file.
  6. At some point I’ll remove the archive files from the hard disk; depending on the client, I may keep a backup copy or I may not. (I haven’t mentioned backing up your files daily and weekly, because that’s something you should be doing anyway, unrelated to your client’s requirements. I also haven’t mentioned security issues; that’s a separate, though related, topic.)

You may also want to include tracking information in the file itself, for example in the header or footer of each page, or on a cover sheet that’s included in the file but removed when the document is complete, approved and ready for distribution.

4. Tracking information you and the client require

Does the client have a system for tracking information required for accounting or other purposes? If so, use it. Otherwise, devise one for your own use. Even if the client has a system, the data required may not be what you need to know for your own use.

You need to keep track of your projected and actual editing schedule, including the projects you’re working on, the length of time you estimate you need to do the work, when you expect to receive the files, when they need to be returned, what level of editing is required, how long you actually took to edit each file, and the accounting or other code to which you’ll bill your time.

What software to use? You probably don’t need project management software, unless the client wants you to provide data in that format. A spreadsheet normally does all you need, and if you set it up properly you can extract a wealth of information about your editing projects, your clients, and your own work patterns. Even a table in your word processor is better than nothing!

5. Working with fonts and printer drivers

If you’re doing anything related to page layout, even as simple as checking page breaks, you need to ensure that you are using the same fonts and printer driver as the person who prepared the document.

If you’re working on-screen, you don’t need the physical printer attached to your computer, but you do need the identical printer driver (software) installed, and you need to choose it as your printer when working with any document that requires it—if you want to see the same line breaks, page breaks, fonts and some other layout features that the author used.

If you’re only dealing with drafts, and aren’t concerned about the details of page layout, you may not need to worry about the fonts or the printer driver. Your system will substitute fonts; things may look a bit odd, but that need not interfere with your editing. For example, special bullet characters may turn into odd symbols, numbers or letters.

If you want to print the file, you have two choices: use the correct physical printer (as well as the correct printer driver), or change the driver to match the printer you do have, and understand that what you’re getting is a draft, which may not match the real thing.

6. Authorizing someone (granting permission) to edit a file

Some software (Lotus Notes, for example) can make a file read-only, except for people who are authorized to edit it. If you’re using such a program, learn how to do this—you may need to explain the process to the author.

7. Keeping track of multiple text and graphics files in one book or project

You’ll need to know where your software stores the files you’re working on. If multiple files are involved, you must be sure to bundle them all together when you send them to someone else. Most software stores files by default in places that are not useful to you as an editor, so you’ll need to learn how to change the settings so the files are stored where you want them to go. Because “where you want the files to go” will probably be different for different projects—so you can keep them separate—you may need to change the settings frequently, or adopt some strategy to ensure everything goes where it should.

I generally use a system similar to the one I use for tracking and archiving files: I create a folder for each project. I may store all the project’s files in that one folder, or I may create subfolders for, say, graphics and text.

Some software has utilities you can use to bundle multiple files into one for archiving or distribution purposes. Otherwise, if you know where everything is, you can simply zip all the files into one—being sure to keep the subfolder structure intact, if that is required by the software.

8. Using a reader, PDF file, or print file

Readers, PDF files and print files have their uses, but helping you edit electronically is not one of them. However, it’s worth knowing about these techniques, in case you need to print on a printer that you don’t have, or from a machine (for example, your travelling laptop computer) that doesn’t have your publishing program on it, or you’ve been asked to edit on hard copy (so the fact that you don’t have the publishing software doesn’t matter).

Readers. Many people are familiar with Acrobat Reader, but not with the readers available for Microsoft Word and other programs. Readers can usually be distributed without the recipient needing a license, but check the documentation to be sure.

In most cases distributing a file and reader will result in a file that recipients can’t change or annotate, although they can read the file online and print it.

Printing to file. This technique results in a file that can normally only be printed, not viewed on-screen, unless the recipient has software that can display print files. Like reader files, print files can’t be changed or annotated.

PDF files. PDF (Portable Document Format) has pretty much taken over the “print to file” role, and has the advantage of easily being viewed online, as long as you have Acrobat Reader. If you have the right tools, you can attach comments to the file.

9. Converting between file formats

File conversion can be a problem. If a document is being converted from one format (used by the writer) into a second format (used by the editor) and converted back to the first format when it’s returned to the writer, formatting is likely to go a bit awry (if it doesn’t dissolve into total chaos).

If the formatting of the document matters at the stage when you’re editing it, then if at all possible, use the same software as the writer. Ask the client for a copy of the program you need. Uninstall it afterwards if necessary.

If you’re working on a draft, and the formatting doesn’t matter at that stage (and graphics aren’t embedded so they don’t get messed up), then conversion isn’t a problem. If that’s the easiest solution to a lack of a common software package, by all means use conversion.

Note that I’m not just talking about converting between, say, WordPerfect and Word or between Word and Framemaker. Just moving from Word 6 to Word 97 and back again can cause interesting problems, even if you have the latest filters. Test—test—test before you rely on conversion.

Sometimes file conversion is the best solution. If the purpose is to get a document from one format to another, and it’s going to stay in the second format, then file conversion is quite appropriate. For example, you may receive files from contributors to a magazine; these files may arrive in a variety of formats but will ultimately be put into one common format that goes to

the layout artist.

10. Accepting or rejecting editorial changes and comments

If you’ve used the program’s revision feature to mark your changes, the author can either use the file with all the changes in it (but hidden), accept all your changes, or go through the changes individually, accepting some and rejecting others. The author can also view your comments and make the associated changes.

After revisions are accepted or rejected, they no longer appear as revisions. Comments can be tricky, because they are automatically removed from the file. If they are hidden, people can view and print the file without knowing the comments are there, but anyone can make them visible. Since comments often include discussion among the writers, reviewers and editor, you may want to ensure that whoever does the final pass on the file removes all the comments before the document is made public. Archive a version with comments if you need them as an audit trail.

The necessities: editing the file

Here is my list of the top ten things I need to know how to do when editing a file.

  • Check spelling and grammar
  • Find and replace text
  • Mark and track changes
  • Insert comments and questions
  • Edit indexes and tables of contents
  • Edit headers and footers
  • Edit footnotes
  • Change page layouts
  • Apply and change paragraph and character styles
  • Edit or annotate graphics, including photographs and screen captures

1. Checking spelling and grammar

Even if the author assures you that the spelling has been checked, check it again yourself. You might have to change a setting or two to make sure the spelling checker looks at the entire file (with the possible exception of code).

While most editors sneer at grammar checkers, they can be very useful. For example, I use them to search for passive constructions. I can then look at each instance and decide whether that particular use of a passive is appropriate or not. Check the options provided by your grammar checker and select those that can help you identify possible problems quickly. Turn off any options that just get in the way.

2. Finding and replacing text

Find (sometimes called Search) is a much more powerful tool than most people ever discover. You can usually search for a wide variety of things in addition to text.

For example, you can search for and replace specific formatting (bold, italics, hidden text and so on) and special items such as paragraph marks, tabs, page breaks, fields or graphics.

You can often use wildcards to fine-tune a search in quite complex ways (familiar to UNIX users of the “grep” function, but often unknown to users of word processors such as Word).

Learn to use the advanced features of Find – it will speed up many editing tasks dramatically.

3. Marking and tracking changes

The electronic equivalent of the editor’s pen is the “tracking changes” or “revision” feature. If you use this, all your insertions and deletions can be made visible or hidden, so the author can see exactly what you’ve done and the file can be archived with all the changes in it. The author can accept or reject your changes with little or no retyping required.

4. Inserting comments and questions

In addition to (or instead of) tracking changes, you can make editorial comments. Typically these can be printed as footnotes, with a reference mark in the text. I use them for questions to the author.

Some workgroups prefer all changes to be made as comments (and some programs provide only a comment facility, not a facility for marking insertions and deletions); in these cases, the author must copy or retype the accepted changes into the body of the document.

5. Editing indexes and tables of contents

To edit an index, you need to edit the index entries, not the terms that appear in the index itself; otherwise, the next time the index is compiled, the changes you have made will be overwritten. To electronically edit an index, you need to know how to get to the index entries themselves. These are often formatted as hidden text, or stored separately from the main file, with a reference mark in the file. (This paragraph assumes that the index is generated from markers in the file, instead of being completely separate.)

Tables of contents are usually compiled from text tagged as various heading levels, or marked in some other way. To edit a table of contents, you need to edit the heading text, not the text that appears in the ToC; otherwise, the next time the ToC is compiled, the changes you have made will be overwritten.

If you are not making corrections directly into the file, you could electronically mark up edits to an index by working on a copy of the compiled index. Copy the index into a separate file, edit it and return it to the writer, who will then have to make the changes to the index entries in the original file.

6. Editing headers and footers

When working with documents to be printed, you’ll need to edit the headers and footers. In many cases, you will not be able to make changes to headers and footers in the same view of your file as you make changes to text. Check your program’s online help to find out how to get to the headers and footers and edit them (this may be on a “Master Page” or in “Headers and Footers View”).

While you’re looking at the headers and footers, check the pagination. Do you want page numbers to start at 1 on the first page of the main text (for example, following pages i through xii in the front matter)? Do you want a more complex numbering scheme, such as “page x of y” or some variation? You’ll need to know how to make the page numbering work, in case your author doesn’t know how.

7. Editing footnotes and endnotes

Footnotes and endnotes (and the text markers associated with them) are features that you may not be able to edit in the main text view. If that’s the case, you will need to check your program’s online help to find out how to get to footnotes before you can edit them.

8. Changing page layouts

Some editing is done before page layout, but often the author is laying out the pages while writing the text. In the latter case, you need to know what devices the program uses to place graphics and text on the page, for example sections and frames. If frames are used, they may or may not move when the text around them changes. The captions to graphics may or may not be linked to the graphic and move with it.

You need to be familiar with the basics of such things in the program you’re using, so if something goes a bit weird, you have an idea of what’s gone wrong and how to fix it. Some things to check: page size (US letter size? A4? other?), margins, columns; check all chapters to see if something has changed (that should not have changed).

9. Applying and changing paragraph and character styles

If your authors aren’t using styles, they should be. More likely, they use styles, but they cheat a lot. You may need to educate them, or clean up the mess they’ve left. Learn where the settings for paragraph and character styles are stored and how to change them.

10. Editing and annotating graphics

Some graphics (usually fairly simple ones like flowcharts and organisation charts) are created using tools within the word processor or publishing program itself and can easily be edited using those same tools. It’s reasonable for you to correct spelling and capitalisation directly in those graphics.

Other graphics are created by outside programs, or are screen captures, and need to be edited using the appropriate program. You can best deal with these by inserting comments detailing any changes needed. Occasionally I’ve resorted to using built-in drawing tools to produce crude callouts (in lurid colours) to identify exactly where I think a change is needed, if it’s difficult to describe in words. The author or graphics person can easily delete my callouts where they are no longer needed.


Last updated 20 September 2001

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