Book Review: Effective On Screen Editing: New Tools for an Old Profession

Effective onscreen editing: new tools for an old profession, 2nd edition, by Geoffrey J.S. Hart, March 2010, Diaskeuasis Publishing, Pointe-Claire, Quebec, 735 pages, PDF, $20.00, www.geoff-hart.com

Like most technical writers, I write exclusively on a computer. I used to print out my documents, edit them on paper, and transcribe the corrections, but I’ve given up that practice in favor of editing on screen. Now I reserve printouts for a final proof; despite the improvements in monitor technology over the years, they still aren’t crisp enough to make sure I catch mistakes like using a semicolon where I meant a colon.

One of the things that helped me make the transition from paper-based to (mostly) on-screen editing was reading Geoff Hart’s Intercom columns on electronic editing. They were full of tips on how to make the best use of Word’s built in features and tips on streamlining my work flow. These columns, revised and updated, form the core of Geoff’s book, Effective onscreen editing: New tools for an old profession.

Although the book is available in a paper edition, the version I reviewed is a 735-page PDF file, in landscape orientation, formatted with two columns for easy reading onscreen (a format that works reasonably well on the Amazon Kindle). Unfortunately the PDF lacks bookmarks, which greatly limits its usability. The table of contents and the extensive index, however, are  hyperlinked. Each chapter contains a link to a list of relevant resources on Geoff Hart’s web site; although not as convenient as direct links in the text, it does mean that your less likely to be confronted with broken links in the future.

The stated purpose of this book is to teach its readers “how to apply the skills you’ve learned as an on-paper editor in onscreen editing (i.e., editing using a word processor)”. Tool-specific instructions are included, but limited to users of Word 2003 and 2007 for Windows and Word 2008 for the Macintosh.

After a brief discussion of the benefits of onscreen editing, there is a general description of the editing process, much of which is aimed at freelance writers and editors. Most of this chapter doesn’t deal with onscreen editing at all, and I found its placement in the book odd; it felt more like it should have been an appendix.

The second section of the book, Mastering Your Tools, consists of 12 chapters that cover topics from the basics like navigation and inserting and deleting text to more complex issues like style sheets and automating your work. There are also chapters that are less tool-specific, discussing issues like file conversion and using the Internet.

The final section of the book, Identifying and Overcoming Barriers, deals with more general issues that affect most writers and editors: safeguarding your work, proofreading, and overcoming resistance to onscreen editing. Chapter 18: “Putting theory to work: a four-step implementation process”, is one of the most useful in the book.

Concluding the book is a series of appendices that cover backups, protecting yourself from repetitive stress injury, and more on Microsoft Word.

I found this a difficult book to review, probably because I’m not a member of Geoff’s target audience. I’ve worked my entire career as a technical writer in the software development field, in salaried positions, and I’m an expert-level user of Word. But I’ve talked to enough writers in other fields to know that many authors and editors are still working at a very basic level of competency with computers and software, and the editing process in many mainstream publishing houses is surprisingly manual. Writers who want a more advanced set of instructions on how to use Microsoft Word than this book provides should consider Jack Lyons’ Microsoft Word for Publishing Professionals.

Both editors and writers who work with editors will also find much useful about advice the editing process. For example, in the chapter on inserting and deleting text, he points out that it’s best to work at the word level, especially if you’re working with revision tracking on, because it makes it much easier to identify changes. Simple advice, but something that many writers I’ve worked with don’t realize. Another good piece of advice — always save spell checking until you’re finished writing or editing a document. Even the best editors sometimes insert a typo while they’re working on a document.

The chapter on editing in special situations has good advice on how to handle documents that are in formats other than Word; for example, web pages, databases, and spreadsheets, all of which require special care and a different process than standard document files. Another section of this chapter explains how to cope with font and character set incompatibilities, which will be helpful to anyone who has to deal with files coming from a different operating system than Windows. I would have liked to have seen some discussion of editing in Microsoft PowerPoint and conversion between PowerPoint and Word, and possibly some tips on writing and editing comments in source code files (and how to persuade developers to let you touch their code).

The chapter on proofreading will be useful to almost any writer or editor, no matter what tools they are using. Geoff offers tips on how to use your word processor’s built-in tools to reduce some of the drudgery and working with PDF files, which are becoming a common substitute for traditional proofs. He also discusses how to find problems that might be unique to online documents, like errors in the document’s or web pages navigation system.

The last couple of chapters concentrate largely on the human issues involved in developing a process for onscreen editing. Some of the issues Geoff discusses, and proposes solutions for, are ones that commonly affect technical writers when dealing with non-writers or other groups in organizations. The four-step implementation process he describes in the book’s final chapter is a good one, and can be applied to other situations; for example, implementing a content management system.

There’s a lot of good information in this book and it will likely be helpful to both writers and editors, especially if they use Microsoft Word and are trying to improve their efficiency (and these days, who isn’t). However, finding what you want is more difficult than it should be because of the lack of bookmarks (in the PDF) and the scale of the book. For future editions, perhaps the Geoff should consider splitting the book into one that focuses entirely on Microsoft Word and another that’s focused on the editorial process.

Keith Soltys

After a series of sales and office jobs, Keith Soltys discovered technical writing in 1987 and never looked back. He currently works at the Toronto Stock Exchange.

Read more articles from Keith Soltys