Levels of Edit: how are they defined/applied by technical editors ?

Subject: Levels of Edit: how are they defined/applied by technical editors ?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 14 Apr 2003 15:10:34 -0400

Kalle Medhurst is <<... interested in a career in technical editing and am
currently researching "the levels of edit" to determine how technical
editors organize/prioritize the editorial process (also in preparation for a
class project).>>

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<<The process produced by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory ("The Levels of
Edit" by Robert Van Buren and Mary Fran Buehler) seems to be the most
thorough and inclusive-- offering a definitive plan. Is this process
standard in the typical editing environment? (Is it actually used by
technical editors?) If not, how do you (editors) define/determine "levels of

The JPL approach has certainly exerted its influence on the editing world
and has served a useful role in clarifying what's expected of us. But in my
experience, most editors use a much less formal and much more flexible
approach: we discuss a client's needs, and base our approach on those needs.
Often, clients don't have the faintest idea of what work is necessary, and
it's our job to educate them. I've long since stopped counting the number of
times an author asked for a light edit ("just fix the grammar and typos")
for a manuscript that contained major errors of fact, logic, and
consistency. You can usually point these out and persuade the author to let
you edit more heavily to spare them embarassment.

More commonly, we face a situation in which we're forced by deadlines or
budgetary restrictions to do editorial triage on a document: Given that we
can't "do it all", we have to focus on getting the most important edits
done. I'm a strong advocate for the following order of priority, which some
editors might consider a bit heretical:
- First, fix errors of fact or logic or consistency (including both errors
of commission and errors of omission) that will confuse readers and possibly
lead to injuries or (less seriously) incorrect understanding of the text.
- Second, fix errors of syntax or style that make it difficult to understand
the author.
- Third and least important (that's the heretical part), fine-tune the
grammar and spelling.

Although it's certainly true that skilled readers will spot typos and
grammatical errors that don't affect comprehension dramatically, these
problems are far less serious than things that could get a reader in trouble
or that could cause considerable wasted time trying to figure out a meaning.
I'm not saying that the third category of errors is irrelevant--just that
they're the ones readers can survive if you don't have time to do a full

--Geoff Hart, geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada
580 boul. St-Jean
Pointe-Claire, Que., H9R 3J9 Canada

"Wisdom is one of the few things that look bigger the further away it
is."--Terry Pratchett

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