Triage Editing

Often there isn’t enough time to edit a document thoroughly. What do you do then? Triage!

The goal of editorial triage is to clarify the key points while eliminating the most significant obstacles to flow. Here’s how I accomplish this quickly…

CONTEXT: My suggested guidelines for length of paragraphs and sentences represent my own editorial preferences. The general process described here can apply to virtually any kind of editing. However, for length or structural requirements, follow your organization’s style guidelines (if any).

  1. Create short, intuitive headlines and subheads. Maximum 50 characters. Each headline or subhead should make sense if read out of context. It should not only indicate the topic, but also imply the main point (the “so what�) or that document, section, or subsection.

    To test this, view only your headlines and subheads as a table of contents. If that skeletal text provide a decent summary of the key points of your document, you’ve succeeded.

    Depending on page layout, present a new subhead every 500-700 words (at least once per page for printed documents). Use active verbs wherever possible. Sidebars need effective titles, too.

  2. Maintain a sense of flow. Review the organization of sections and subsections, keeping the goals of your document in mind. What effects do you want this document to have on the target audience? Make sure every section and subsection directly supports your overall goals.

    Don’t get too bogged down in background or details, especially early on. Eliminate unnecessary details that don’t directly support your main goals. Background or details work especially well in sidebars or bulleted lists.

  3. Kill the gray blobs. To the reader, overly long paragraphs look like impenetrable gray blobs. These blobs can mire readers in confusion, annoyance, and despair. Layout is a key consideration. In my experience, paragraphs start to look too long if they run more than five lines in narrower columns or four lines in wider columns.

    Scan through your document and note on each page (or about every 700 words) the one or two longest, ugliest paragraphs. Then, break or trim these monsters to meet the 50-word/paragraph limit. Don’t go back to line-edit the document from the beginning until you’ve killed at least one gray blob on every page.

Once this triage is completed, you can revisit the document for further editing if time permits. If you’re almost out of time, do your proofreading after triage. The document won’t be editorially perfect, but it will be far more readable.

4 thoughts on Triage Editing

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  1. What do you think about line length on the screen? Fixed width vs. liquid layouts? Judging from your blog, I assume you prefer a liquid layout, but what can we do to ensure line lengths don’t get too long on larger monitors?