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Effective Onscreen Editing, Part 3

Geoff Hart

Part two of a four-part series. Read Effective Onscreen Editing, Part 2 first.

"You Put A Spell on Me": Spelling and Grammar Checkers

One nice thing about word processors is that they make it much easier to find and fix the inevitable errors that arise from authors who can't spell and editors like me who get fumblefingered under deadline pressure.
It often helps to start your edit with a quick use of the spell checker, because you can fix global problems (e.g., replacing British spellings with American equivalents for an American audience) that would otherwise interrupt the flow of your editing if you had to correct each instance manually. You also avoid annoying authors by requiring them to review dozens of simple corrections that don't really require their approval. But use this tool with considerable skepticism, because spell checkers remain fairly primitive in their capabilities. For example, they can't detect the following problems:
  • Swapped words, such as "anaesthetic" (numbing) for "unaesthetic" (unpleasant) and inadvertent use of homonyms and other soundalikes
  • Added letters that create a legitimate but incorrect word, such as changing "the" to "then"
  • Changed letters that produce an entirely new, correctly spelled word that simply doesn't fit in the sentence, such as (ironically enough) "type" for "typo" If you work in a field with specific jargon, you can improve the effectiveness of your spell checker by adding words to the software's custom dictionary or by purchasing specialized vocabularies to supplement the software's original set of dictionaries. If you choose to add words to your custom dictionary, double-check your spelling of the new words using a printed dictionary. Many authors (and the occasional editor) inadvertently add misspelled words to their custom dictionaries, thereby ensuring that the spell checker always cheerfully accepts that typo in the future. The specialized subject-matter dictionaries (e.g., foreign languages, medical or legal terminology) available for many word processors greatly improve spell checking for editors who work in those fields.

Your software's developer can generally provide a list of the dictionaries they supply, as well as a list of third-party developers who produce specialized dictionaries. Spell checking a document before you begin editing substantively can save time, but it doesn't eliminate the need to repeat the spell check once you've completed your editing.

It's all too easy to add your own typos when you're in a hurry. Before you do any spell checking, confirm whether the author has excluded blocks of text from being checked; authors often do this if (for example) they've included foreign-language text or a large expanse of jargon that wouldn't appear in the regular dictionary and they haven't installed the appropriate dictionary to check the spelling of these sections. (Using the standard dictionary would result in every word being flagged, and that's sufficiently time-consuming that some authors can't be bothered to check the spelling.) Fortunately, the word processor's search function can often find protected text for you so you can manually check the spelling; in Word 97, for example, open the Find dialog box, click the button labeled "More" to reveal the formatting options, click the Format button, select "Language," then choose "(no proofing)". The best word processors even let you define what dictionary they should use for each block of text, which is a godsend if you're producing a bilingual publication with both languages in the same file.

Grammar Checkmate

In contrast, modern grammar checkers provide surprisingly little benefit even for unskilled writers, and they often suggest incorrect changes. Occasional discussions on this subject on the copyediting-l and techwr-l lists have thus far failed to identify any grammar software that can take the place of a good editor, and this will likely remain the case for many years. (Information on joining these lists is provided in the sidebar to this article.) Even so, don't write off grammar checkers completely.

Most let you customize which rules they use when they perform their checks and — more importantly — which rules they ignore. This flexibility lets you select only rules for types of problems that you're weak at detecting; for example, if your blind spot involves sentences written in the passive voice, leaving only that rule selected will help you find problem phrases you might otherwise miss so you can decide whether to fix them.

Search and Destroy... or Replace

Access to the built-in search and replace function is one of the primary advantages of doing online editing. This feature''s productivity arises from the fact that when you find a single error or inconsistency, you can immediately search the entire document to find and correct all other instances of the problem, confident that you won't miss any. With a little creativity, you can find lots of other ways to use the search and replace function to improve consistency. For example, in scientific or academic editing, editors must confirm that all the bibliography, with the correct author names and dates. (They may also have to do the reverse and ensure that every reference in the bibliography has been cited somewhere in the text.)

To do this, use the search tool to specify the pattern you're searching for, such as "19" if all references resemble "Hart (1999)"; in other reference systems, you may have to search for different patterns, such as "[" if the references in the text resemble "[17]." If you're using the author/year system, don't forget to include a search for references beginning with 20YY now.


The copyediting and technical writing mailing lists, which involve professional discussions of their respective subjects conducted entirely via e-mail, provide a superb editing resource. Unlike printed resources, both lists let you discuss difficult issues with experts in the field, free of charge, to get a feel for consensus on a variety of editing problems and to learn about the state of the art from other editors. To subscribe to either list:
  • Copyediting-l: discussions of editing in all its various forms. To subscribe, send the message "subscribe copyediting-l Your name" (with no quotes, and with your actual name instead of "Your name") to Listserv at listserv.indiana.edu
  • Techwr-l: discussions of the tools and travails of the technical writer, with occasional discussions of editing technical material such as software documentation and online help. To subscribe, send the message "subscribe techwr-l Your name" (with no quotes, and with your actual name instead of "Your name") to Lyris at lists.raycomm.com

To do these checks, move to the top of the document, find the first reference, then immediately check that it's present in the bibliography. Put a checkmark beside a reference once you've found it in the text so you can scroll through the bibliography once you're done and thereby identify which references haven't been cited. Use the "find next" function to find the next reference, and continue in this manner until you reach the end of the file. Keeping the references open in one window and the main text open in another greatly facilitates this technique, but it works best if you have a large monitor. (Software such as Word 97 lets you open two windows into the same document, one window containing the body text and the other containing the references. If your software doesn't permit this, open the references in a second, entirely separate window, and switch between windows.)

Returning to the Scene of Your Crime

When you do find a problem that you decide to fix throughout a document, and proceed to fix it, how can you return to where you paused to fix the problem? Insert a bookmark! Most software has an actual bookmark function, but it's just as easy to insert your own bookmarks by typing [] or some other combination of characters that doesn't appear in the text. When you've finished your consistency check, simply find that bookmark again with the search function, delete it, and pick up where you left off.

Search and replace is particularly helpful if you want to use a certain word in one type of situation (but not another) and you need to be consistent in this usage. Once you find questionable word usage, you can stop what you're doing and search the file to find every occurrence of that word. If it's a simple problem, you can automatically replace the word everywhere in the file; if it isn't, you can instead search through the file one instance at a time and decide each time whether to make the change. If the words in question also appear in the last sentence you edited before making all those changes, the Search function will eventually return you to those key words, possibly eliminating the need for a formal bookmark.

Searching is a Two-Edged Sword

If you choose to replace a word everywhere, do so carefully. An inauspicious choice for the "search" part of the "search and replace" equation can result in replacing far more words than you'd anticipated, particularly if the document includes a bibliography. (Although you can sometimes exclude the bibliography from
the spell check, doing so is easy to forget.) The problem with a carelessly chosen search term arises from "stemming," in which you specify a search word that forms the root of one or more other words. In that case, both the search word and all other words that contain that stem will be changed. For example, a colleague once replaced all instances of "day" with "night" to correct a problem involving time; unfortunately, she forgot to type a space in front of "day" when she typed it in the Find field of the Search box, and she thus changed all days of the week too (e.g., Friday became Frinight). If you opt for "replace all," pay close attention to the number of changes the software reports once the search is complete. If the number is larger than you expected, you may have chosen the wrong word, and most word processors will let you undo the change (via the Edit menu) if you do so immediately, before you begin any other editing. To avoid this kind of problem, you can search for the text to be replaced before you actually commit to doing the global search and replace, or you can search for and replace one word at a time so you can confirm each case individually.

Fortunately, search and replace errors are usually obvious during subsequent editing or spell checking, so whenever you use a global search and replace, be sure to leave time for a final pass through the manuscript. As you become more expert in using the software,
you can learn to contrain the search to
find only exact matches (e.g., only the whole word, only the identical pattern of capitalization, only italicized forms of the word) and thereby further reduce the risk of error. The search function offers far more power than
simply finding words. You can often find specific named styles, hidden characters (e.g., page breaks), and even formatting of individual words (e.g., italics). So not only could you
find the name of your product, but you could also find all instances where you've forgotten to italicize the name. Combined with features such as "wildcards" and "regular expressions,"
which let you describe patterns of
characters rather than just specific words, you can even do sophisticated "find anything that resembles this word" searches. For example, a
search for "edit*" would typically find "editor," "edited," and "editing," whereas a search for "edi?" would find "edit" and "Edie." Moreover, you could also search for the word "edit" only in headings by constraining the search function to only find text that has had
the "Heading 1" or "Heading 2" styles applied to it. (Details on how this works vary among programs; consult your user manual for details.)

If you've managed to make it through the series of articles this far, congratulations! You've already learned a lot of tricks that (with some customization) will make you much more productive as an editor. In the final part of this series, I'll discuss how to add substantive comments and questions to a manuscript, and how to make your revisions easy for authors to implement, thereby improving the overall efficiency of the editing process. The last of this four part series will continue in the next issue of the newsletter


I'd like to thank Andrea Balinson, Shoshanna Green, Jane Lyle and Linda Renshaw for their comments on an earlier version of this manuscript.


The "Technical Editor's Eyrie" Web site (http://www.wrevenge.com.au/index.htm ) is a useful resource run by Jean Weber. You can also get her book "Electronic Editing: Editing in the Computer Age" (http://www.wrevenge.com.au/bookshop/e-edit.htm ) by downloading a .pdf version or ordering a printed copy. The book goes into the subject of online editing in far more detail than I can cover here.

(C) 2000 Geoff Hart

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

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