How to write a document: a terrible guide no one should follow

Something I’ve done a lot of over the years is editing and proof-reading documents. My documents, other people’s documents, long ones, short ones, scientific ones… you name it! I LOVE editing. Give me a typo to spot in a long paragraph and it’s like a puzzle – I can’t rest until I’ve found it.

Everyone makes typos. It’s absolutely normal. Lots of authors get their apostrophes mixed up or lost. That’s fine! But some people go the extra mile to make sure that we editors are on the ball and that we don’t lose our skills – and we really REALLY appreciate that extra challenge. Honestly, ANYTHING you can do to throw us off track and make us really hone our craft will make us smile and thank you nicely. So with that in mind, here’s a list of my absolute favourite things that you can do when writing a document to really help/torture the person who is editing it for you.

Length

First up, most articles have a rough length limit, be that as a word count, or number of pages. Hopefully you’ll have received some guidelines on this before you start writing, either directly from the editor or available online for journal or magazine pieces.

It’s key to know roughly how long is expected before you start, so you can promptly ignore it. The best thing to do is to go waaaaay over the word limit. “You wanted 1,000 words? I’ve given you 5,000. You’re welcome.”

This shows your editor just how dedicated you are to the subject. Another smart tip is to use the old “Oh it was a MAXIMUM word limit? Sorry, when I did my [insert most recent qualification here] it was always ±10%, that’s how I work.”

It’s particularly helpful to be really precious about the majority of it and insist that it is all vital to the article, and absolutely refuse to back down. This is really good at helping us develop our People Skills. Only once you’ve reached the point where the editor or journal refuses to publish it must you reconsider and get closer to, but nowhere near close enough, to the original word count, and repeat the whole sorry cycle again.

Structure

The structure of a document really depends on the type of article you’re writing. Hopefully you know why you’re writing it and who it’s for, and therefore have a rough idea of structure. However, here are a couple of handy tips that you can throw into just about any sort of document to really impress an editor.

One sentence paragraphs.

Even though the sentences you’ve written can really quite easily be melded into normal paragraph-sized chunks.

You need the reader to know that each sentence has been thought about very carefully.

Thus, each sentence must standalone to emphasise this.

Quotes are another fun one. Editors like “really long quotes within the text because everybody loves to read the full length quote just in case there’s something amazing in there, you the author absolutely must not think about the quote yourself and paraphrase it to make it easier for the reader, oh no they must do the thinking themselves. It’s especially good if it covers several lines and is longer than all your other paragraphs.”

Punctuation

You know sometimes when writing a document it’s good to add some long wordy sentences which have absolutely no punctuation at all. Particularly if without punctuation the meaning or phrasing of the sentence is completely unclear. Your editor needs to learn how to guess what an author means so they’ll appreciate this chance to haphazardly throw some commas into a sentence and hope for the best.

Talking of, commas, adding some sentences, with, many commas, that break up, a sentence into, many, many, parts, as if you’d fallen asleep, on the comma key, really does help, to keep your editor, on the ball.

And now that you’ve finally figured out how to use semicolons properly; I’d recommend scattering them around in many sentences; just to demonstrate that you know how to use them. They’re great; your editor will thank you.

Does a space class as punctuation?   Well, to improve readability and to emphasise just how long you spent thinking about the next sentence, just like the one-sentence paragraphs, you could always throw in some multiple spaces after a full stop.         Or some really short ones.Really, it keeps editors on their toes, and breaks up your document nicely.  The important thing is not to be consistent – readers just get bored if they know exactly when the next sentence is going to show up.   Honestly, your editor will be super impressed at how well you’ve thought about the reader for this little trick.

Spelling

Picking up on misspelt words is one of the basic skills of an editor or proofreader. So it’s in your hands to make sure that you really catch your editor out and throw them a curveball (or several) so they never get lazy.

UK and US spelling is something that is easy enough for an editor to correct – provided that the entire document is in UK or US. The thing to do, then, is to emphasize that you know what you’re doing by occasionally adding in a word in the other type to the rest of the article, especially if you repeat a word several times – this is particularly fun in scientific documents when describing the results you’ve analyzed.

Next, the old their they’re there spellings – any editor worth they’re salt should be able to identify these. To make sure there a good editor, best you add some wrong’uns in to make sure they’re skills are still intact.

Similarly with you’re and your – sometimes your paying an editor to check over you’re document, so you want to make sure your getting you’re monies worth.

At the end of the day, its there career and reputation at steak – if their going to get more work, they need to prove that its’ worth you’re or they’re companies’ investment to get the job done to the highest standard. Its simply showing your gratitude to include these tips within you’re document.

 

So there you have it. Some smart, secret tips that will really help to improve your relationship with your editor next time you write a document. Trust me, they’ll thank you.

/s

Michelle Reeve

Michelle is the host of Clutter, and a recovering spider scientist. She now does a whole bunch of science communication things, and still regularly wrangles arachnids.

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