Breaking into Corporate Editing
by Moira Allen
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For many companies "information" is their most important product.
Forget the myth of the paperless office; most offices are flooded
with research reports, studies, white papers, marketing surveys,
analyses, annual reports, reviews -- enough paper to consume a
Ironically, despite the push to present information, many
corporations have cut back on the staff needed to present it
effectively. Editorial departments are often the first to feel
the effects of "corporate downsizing" -- and many corporations
have found that it is far cheaper to hire freelancers on a
part-time contract basis than to maintain a full-time, salaried
editorial staff. That's where you come in. With your blue pencil
and an eagle-eye for typos, you can keep the information flowing
(and even help make it readable). But first, it's important to
know how the corporate "editorial process" works.
In most companies, a document (such as a report) goes through
several stages before it is published. First, a draft is
circulated for management or peer review, after which the author
may make changes or revisions. In some cases, that's the most
editing a manuscript receives; after incorporating management
suggestions, the author may simply hand the piece to the nearest
secretary to correct and print.
In an ideal world, however,
the manuscript will then pass through several editorial stages,
A "content editor" addresses issues of content and style. To
ensure that a document accomplishes the purpose for which it is
written, a content editor usually reviews the material with the
following questions in mind:
- Is the material accurate
(to the best of the editor's knowledge)?
- Is the material clear and easy to understand? (If the editor
has difficulty understanding the document, a reader may have
difficulty as well.)
- Is the material covered in sufficient depth? Does it
adequately address the questions a reader would ask? Do some
items need more explanation? Do some need less?
- Is the material presented in a logical, orderly fashion? Or
do some items need to be rearranged or reprioritized?
- Are names and technical terms spelled correctly and
consistently? Are the proper abbreviations and acronyms used (and
used consistently)? Are technical terms and acronyms explained?
(Often, a company may have its own style manual for acronyms,
abbreviations, and technical terms.)
- Does the document conform to the company's style manual, if
- Is the writing clear and effective? (The content editor may
deal with grammatical issues such as awkward or run-on sentences,
rambling prose, unclear phrases, etc.) Depending on company
policy, the editor may rework sections, or provide suggestions
for the author.
In some cases, you may be expected to have some background in the
subject area of the document, so that you can determine whether
material is presented effectively or accurately. In other cases,
such knowledge won't be required (though it's always helpful!).
Content editors may work closely with authors -- and many authors
take exception to the notion that their work might need revision.
Others are more than happy to dump a mess of incomplete sentences
and half-finished ideas in your lap and say "Here, fix it!"
Consequently, diplomatic skills may be as important as editorial
After the revisions suggested by the content editor have been
made (or ignored), a document usually moves on to the
copy-editing stage. A copy editor usually focuses upon:
- Spelling and punctuation (including hyphenation accuracy)
- General grammar issues, such as sentence structure, noun/verb
agreement, parallel construction, etc.
- Correct word use
(e.g., which vs. that, imply vs. infer, etc.)
spelling (e.g., noting whether an author hyphenates a word in
some cases but not in others, or uses different abbreviations or
acronyms for the same term).
- Consistent use of numerical
terms, numbers, dates, etc. (e.g., making sure that the author
doesn't say "11 PM" in one sentence and "12:00 a.m." in the
Whenever editorial changes and revisions are made to a
document, a host of new errors may be introduced. One of the
tasks of a copy editor is often to check the "original" against
the "revised" document, to make sure that nothing has been
inadvertently changed, omitted, or added. Similarly, a copy
editor may review charts, graphs, and references for accuracy and
While it can be frustrating to copy edit a document that
obviously needs a solid "content" editing, most companies don't
encourage copy editors to make substantive changes or suggestions
about content or style. There are exceptions, but check before
offering editorial comments.
A copy editor usually isn't expected to have a knowledge of the
subject matter. What is needed instead is a firm grasp of grammar
-- and the ability to explain (and defend) grammatical changes to
the author. So brush off your grammar books, and be prepared to
explain concepts such as "dependent clauses" and "sentence
Proofreading is usually the last editorial stage. Unfortunately,
it is also often the only editing many documents receive.
Proofreaders are generally expected to check only for errors in
spelling, punctuation, and format. Sometimes you may be permitted
to correct blatant grammatical errors -- but don't count on it!
Proofreaders also check charts and graphs -- and since these are
often re-keyboarded by someone other than the author, the
proofreader may be asked to verify every number against the
A proofreader may also be asked to check a revised
manuscript against the original, marked-up copy. Sometimes a
proofreader will also be asked to compare two documents
word-for-word (whether revised or not). Usually this task is
unnecessary, being a holdover from the days when a typesetter
would re-keyboard an entire text rather than simply reprinting a
file -- but some companies haven't caught up with their own
Proofreaders need no special subject knowledge, but an absolutely
perfect command of spelling and punctuation, and a keen eye. You
may also be asked to check spellings of technical terms. (If the
terms are unfamiliar, try to obtain a relevant dictionary;
fortunately, many scientific and technical dictionaries are now
available online.) You will also be expected to be familiar with,
and use, standard proofreading marks.
The Corporate Mentality
Editing for corporations is not the same as editing a book or
magazine manuscript. In business, "quality" writing may not be
nearly as important as conveying a particular idea, message,
statistic, or product to a selected audience. Often, corporate
editing means making tradeoffs in priorities, such as:
- Quality vs. Deadlines:
Being "well-written" often isn't nearly as important as being on
time. Documents must be delivered to the client on schedule, or
accompany a product shipment, or be on hand for the next board
meeting -- and nothing, including editing, can be allowed to
delay that process. Unfortunately, documents are often written at
the last minute, which means they may be handed to an editor at
the 11th hour. At this point, a content editor may not have the
luxury of rearranging ideas or paragraphs, a copy editor may not
be able to correct stylistic flaws, and a proofreader may not be
able to change significant grammatical errors. If you're a
perfectionist, beware: Sometimes the only influence you may have
over a document is to make it readable.
- Author Power vs. Editor Power: Who has the final say
over how a document is written? In some companies, power rests
exclusively with the publications division (or a public relations
department), which may have the authority to cut, edit, revise --
or even block a publication that doesn't meet its standards. In
others, the power rests with the author, who can insist that a
document remain untouched -- even if it is riddled with
grammatical errors. The ideal working relationship lies somewhere
in between -- but few companies are ideal!
- Soothing Egos vs. Getting it Right: Corporate officers
often fail to understand that titles, degrees, and high salaries
are no guarantee of writing skill. In addition, no one
(especially someone in possession of those titles, etc.) wants to
be told that they can't write. The last thing you want to tell a
hiring agent, therefore, is that you're there to "fix" the work
of a company's top professionals. Instead, you should present
your role as a "value added" benefit: You are there to make the
already brilliant work of a company's researchers, analysts, and
experts shine even more brightly thanks to your polishing (and
your willingness to handle the "menial" tasks of copyediting that
those brilliant researchers shouldn't have to worry about). Rates
for corporate editing vary widely, depending on the size and
geographic location of the company. Rates may also depend on
whether you are offering your services as a content editor, copy
editor, or proofreader. When pricing your services, therefore,
keep the local rates and type of company in mind. Typically, pay
begins at $18 to $25 an hour -- and some companies don't hesitate
to budget thousands of dollars for a large proofreading job.
Keep in mind as well that financial officers have interesting
ways of looking at hourly rates. For example, if you are a fast,
efficient worker who charges $50 an hour for five hours, you may
be considered "more expensive" than an editor who charges $40 an
hour for ten hours. One alternative is to charge by the job
instead of the hour, or by a more "tangible" measure, such as
Facts don't speak for themselves. They need someone to speak for
them -- and, quite often, someone to edit the words of that
speaker. Once you convince companies that you can make them shine
by making their prose shine, you'll be on your way to developing
a loyal customer base -- and an excellent source of freelance
Find Out More...
- Editing as a Profession, by Aline Lechaye
- Everybody's Business: Writing for the Corporate World - Barbara Neal Varma
- An Introduction to Commercial Writing - Dawn Copeman
- So You Think You Want to Be a Freelance Proofreader... by Jan K., The Proofer
- Writing Corporate Newsletters - Moira Allen
Copyright © 2001 Moira Allen
This article originally appeared on Writer on Line.
This article may be reprinted provided that the author's byline, bio, and copyright notice are retained in their entirety. For complete details on reprinting articles by Moira Allen, please click HERE.|
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.
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