Editing for Speed, Skill, and Sanity

340 pages in one week – welcome to the year-end rush! December 31 is nearly upon us and everybody needs to get that last document out the door. So it looks like I’ll be saving on contact lenses as I keep my glasses on my head, on my desk, hey – where did my glasses go?

Oh well! I needed a break anyway. And one of my fabulous readers thought I should share my own strategy for editing big documents, which I thought was a brilliant suggestion. So as soon as I get a moment to breathe, I’ll do just that.

For today, let me offer a few random tips for how to manage your time, your documents, and your sanity during the process.

First, if you’re editing your own work, find a way to gain some distance from it. Time is obviously the best way to do so, and it’s a luxury we don’t often have. So if you’re stuck with a tight deadline, try one of these other strategies (that I gleefully stole from Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit.)

Change your font face, point, or color

String your document on a clothesline around your office  (you’ll improve your circulation while you edit)

Lay it out on a conference table or pin it up on a whiteboard

Work in the lobby of your office building or a local coffee shop

Have a colleague read it out loud while you take notes

Any of these can make the document strange, and that will help you see it from a new perspective and spot deficits you couldn’t have seen before.

Second, know how your time flows. We all have peak productivity hours when we concentrate really well, and those tend to last for no longer than 90 minutes.  At times of the day when we’re more fatigued, 45 minutes is a more reasonable goal. Schedule high concentration mental activities like revising for content, organization, and logical thought processes during your peak hours. Use your 45-minute bursts for the mind-numbing mundane tasks, like cross-referencing all the charts and tables.

And give yourself mental and physical breaks in between tasks to clearly separate them.

I know it’s tempting to keep going, especially when you’re in the zone. But consider this – a 15 minute extension on your early morning concentration can drain the life out of you, so when you come back for another 90-minute session in the afternoon, you find yourself exhausted. And what did you really gain?

Wouldn’t it be better to quit while you’re ahead, reserve that energy, and  return with a full head of steam for the whole 90 minutes?

The only way this works is if you have a clear system of document management in place so you know where you left off, where to return, what you’ve done, what you need to do, and which file is the most recent copy of what. Leave nothing to chance. Save your work, back up your saved copy, email your saved copy to yourself, and print the most recent version. (Sorry planet, you were screwed a long time ago).

Use a spreadsheet to document your process at the onset, and update it as you go. Invent your own set of tick marks to keep track of what you’ve changed, and maintain a hard copy, hand written checklist of working files with all supplemental materials including dates last updated and by whom. This is especially important on a team project, when team members should be required to “check out” documents as they update them.

Even if Sharepoint or some other cloud computing site is set up to do this for you, do it yourself, because you will get confused. (Remember, we’re at final stages here. I’m not talking about brainstorming. I’m talking about the week before publication.)

Finally, as with all things in life, remember to take care of yourself. Any time you’ve constricted yourself into a sitting fetal position at your desk, you’re not doing your best work. If you can’t see the computer screen, you’re not going to see the oncoming car in the wrong lane on the way home. And if your diet consists solely of vending machine goodies, your brain isn’t processing the argument on the page.

Sit up straight. Breathe. Stretch your legs. Blink. Drink water. And be good to yourself. Your readers will love you for loving yourself.


  1. Even if you can’t find a colleague to read it to you, read it out loud to yourself. I’m submitting a novella to an anthology today, and have been editing for days. I stopped to read a paragraph to my kids last night and found two mistakes in it, and this is after several others looked it over! I read it aloud (took til midnight and now I’m exhausted!) and I was shocked at how many little errors my reading brain had overlooked but my tongue caught. I will never call a document final until I’ve read it aloud.

    Thanks for another great post, Michelle!

    • corpwritingpro says

      @AnnaMarie AnnaMarie – what a familiar story! I was so embarrassed after I published my dissertation to discover a typo right on the table of contents page 🙁 Good for you – taking the time. Your editors will be so grateful. And congratulations on the achievement!

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