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Effective Onscreen Editing

by Geoff Hart

Part two of a four-part series. Read Effective Onscreen Editing, Part 1 first.

Workflow Issues: Backups, Paper Trails and Automating Your Work

Murphy's law applies as strongly to online editing as it does to other areas of 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 at each important stage 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. The warning to back up your files is particularly important if you're new to online editing, since you won't yet have learned all the ways you can crash your software and how to recover from those crashes, but even old pros occasionally get careless or unlucky.

Precautionary Tales

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 pass on these infections, but as the recent damage wrought by Melissa and the ILOVEYOU virus shows, 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. Even worse, macro viruses are relatively easy to create, so new viruses appear regularly, and it can take some time before antivirus vendors develop solutions. Until they do, the tips in Protecting Yourself From Microsoft Word on page 3 can go a long way in safeguarding your data and your sanity.

Even Onscreen Edits Need a Paper Trail

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 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, retaining the old copies until the manuscript is published, then archiving the files somewhere. But how do you handle computer files?

The general solution for computer files is much the same as it is 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 1, 1999, version as july01-1999.doc; and so on. (Pick names that are meaningful to you and your colleagues.) If necessary or appropriate, create two versions for each date: one with the review comments, and the other after you've accepted or rejected those comments. 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 documentor version-control software can make the process much easier. Whichever approach you choose, you should develop a method as simple to use and as rigorous as the paperbased method it replaces if your client or employer requires you to maintain a paper trail.

Who Shall Edit the Editors?

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 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 as 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 monitor changes and to enforce a consistent, predictable workflow that ensures the corrections are made. Although automating a workflow can help you attain a quality product, it can't take the place of human intervention.

If you have a 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 revisiontracking feature to mark any additions they make. Though this can work well, it's not foolproof, because 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 differently, although 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 they have no authority to implement or reject any of the changes themselves. The editor subsequently reads these annotations and transfers the resulting changes to 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 spell checkers, grammar checkers, and the search and replace function can greatly facilitate your work. Each is important enough that I'll discuss them in their own sections later in this series of articles; here, I'll elaborate on my recommendation in the previous issue that you customize your word processing 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 the most productive (because you don't have to remove your fingers from the keyboard), but that may not suit your working style. Recording simple macros can let you achieve some surprisingly good results, but if you enjoy programming, you can develop more sophisticated macro routines by learning the software's programming language.

Most experienced onscreen editors develop
macros based on their needs. The macros you develop will depend largely on your work habits and the nature of the work you're doing. Typical macros include procedures to:
  • Increase the size of all text (e.g., to 14 points) to make it easier to read.
  • Reverse the order of two words or letters.
  • Globally search for and replace double spaces with single spaces and groups of five or more spaces with tabs.
  • Insert standard text for a comment or query (e.g., "This reference is missing from your references section; please insert it there or delete the citation.")
  • Toggle between various modes in the software (e.g., switch between revision tracking
and normal typing)
The next time you edit a manuscript, pay attention to the corrections you perform frequently and those you perform infrequently but 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 editing behavior can produce enormous paybacks in terms of saving time later on.

Style Is Everything

Another important time-saver is creating an online style sheet that you can keep open in another window for quick reference. (Style sheets are lists of decisions, such as the spelling and capitalization of certain words and how certain key words or terms have been defined and used.) 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 paper's limitations as a means of organizing and retrieving information. In contrast, you can easily alphabetize or sort an online style sheet as required, and you can search through it using the software's 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 benefits greatly from having the style sheet available without having to retype it or decipher your handwriting.

(C) 2000 Geoff Hart

Part three of this four-part series will appear in the next issue of the newsletter.

Page last modified on Thursday, August 31, 2000 08:00:00pm EDT
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