By Matthew Stevens, excerpted with permission from Subtleties of Scientific Style

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To do an effective job requires you to immerse yourself in the story. You need to spread your attention across all levels of the document, from word meaning to sentence meaning to overall meaning, aiming to see all levels simultaneously rather than switching between them. You need to learn and understand the story being told, and view it as a whole composed of its parts. If the parts are discordant with the whole, you will then see this. This can take effort, and is harder with longer works and with more complex studies. You are looking for evidence that the conclusions presented are supported, the facts are real and consistent, the analytical tests performed are appropriate, the statistical tests are suitable and the authors have not contradicted themselves. When you have perfected the Gestalt technique, a moment comes in a job when you think, “Yes, I understand the study.” This is an important difference between substantive editing and copy editing.

A Systematic Approach To Editing—Reaching The Gestalt

Scientific editing requires intense concentration and attention to a myriad of details, from punctuation and spelling to inclusion of all details (of a reagent, for instance), to citation of references, to format, to meaning, to logic. Covering all details requires several passes of a text, in which the editor must focus first on one class of details, then switch to another. Have a look at a photo of a colorful scene. How many red objects can you pick out? Now look again and see how many blue objects you can see. You’ll notice that you saw many blue items on the second pass that simply didn’t register on the first pass. This is because your attention was focused on the red objects before, and excluded other colors. Editing is the same—when we focus on one class of details, we automatically exclude others. Therefore, complex editing tasks must be broken down.

Over 2+ decades, I have found the best approach through trial and error and by learning from other editors. It might work for you too. Note that it is based on the use of a word processor, although most of what I describe below can be done on paper as well.

On the first pass, check that everything is present—title, authors and addresses, specified sections, references, captions, figures, tables and so on. Point-by-point checking of the publisher’s instructions to authors will greatly aid this process.

On the second pass, check the spelling. Checking the spelling up front flags the inevitable rare or non-standard spellings that require decisions. Knowing these before you start editing will allow you to ensure consistency throughout the job. It is less effective if you try to make a decision every time you come across an uncommon word while you are focused on meaning. If your word processor can check spelling constantly (MS Word: “Check spelling as you type”), then leave this feature permanently on. It will save you from introducing unnoticed errors, and the irritating red squiggles will remind you to verify any spellings you have deferred. A final spelling check is thus unnecessary.

The third pass is the most intensive. Start with the abstract or summary. However poorly written it is, it will set the scene for the document and allow you to grasp the intention of the work being described. It is essential to have an idea of the work up front. For readers, any document (fact or fiction) is structured to reveal meaning with the reading. Editors must know that meaning up front in order to ensure that the document reveals it appropriately. Therefore you must understand, at least vaguely, the story before you encounter it, so as to ensure that all parts work together to convey the meaning. Spend as much time as it takes to understand and edit the abstract or summary. With the story firmly in your mind, then, you are equipped to judge whether each part of the following text substantiates the summary, and to understand how each part fits into the story.

During the third pass you concentrate on local meaning—meaning at the level of the sentence or paragraph. Are words used correctly? Can you substitute a word with a more precise or relevant meaning? Does the punctuation signal the correct meaning, or does it mislead (for example, “My brother, John” does not mean the same as “My brother John”). Can you express the meaning in fewer words or more simply (often the same thing)?

For now, take any figure, table or reference citations as read. You can ignore these supports unless you need clarification of an unclear passage. You will attend to these later.

When you reach the end, you should have a document that is easy to read. All the sentences are grammatically correct; all the spelling is correct; every text element is where it should be. It might be nonsense, but it is an elegant piece of prose. All impediments to reading for understanding have now been removed.

Now put it away if you can. Our brains process the day’s learning while we sleep, during our dreaming. Numerous studies have shown that people who have slept on new information are better able to recall it than people who have not slept on it. Obviously this is not always going to be possible, but try to structure your work so that you always come back after a first edit on the following day. If you don’t have time to wait till tomorrow, then try to punctuate the job with another task—another editing job, a walk, a chat over coffee. Coming back fresh, it never ceases to amaze me how many things I’ve stupidly missed on the first edit.

Before you put the job away for the night, though, make a fourth pass, checking all figure and table (or other) citations. Use the word processor’s Find function to search on “fig” and “table” (or “see”, “section”, “supplementary”, reference etc.). At the first occurrence, read the text that is relying on the citation to support it. Now go to the figure. Does it support what the text says? (A wide-screen monitor or a dual-screen set-up is invaluable for this. You can have 3 or 4 full-page documents open side-by-side and compare them quickly. It sure beats constantly switching between documents and losing one behind the other. Or you can print out the figures and tables.) It can be surprising how often the figure or table says something else, even contradictory. If you see an important point that the text does not mention, point this out to the authors in a comment—they will probably appreciate your drawing this to their attention.

Work your way figure by figure, then table by table. When you reach the end, you can be sure that when you come back tomorrow, every statement that relies on citations for support is correct (or flagged). This removes a distraction from the next stage, when you need focus on the meaning and don’t need your attention distracted by having to confirm a point in another document. Whereas initially you took these statements at face value, now you know that they are correct.

During the fifth pass you concentrate on meaning, both local and overall. Everything you’ve done up until this point has prepared the document for critical analysis. All impediments to understanding have been stripped away, and the real meaning is laid bare, ready for analysis and critique.

Start again with the abstract or summary to refresh your recollection of the story. If there are discrepancies between the summary and the text, you are more likely to spot them now, because your unconscious has had time to process what you read.

The vital role of this pass is to ensure that every aspect of the text works together to create a coherent picture. Critical thinking is essential. At every statement that you read, pause and reflect on it. Is it true? Does it fit with your world experience? Is it reasonable? Is it supported somewhere? Does it support other statements elsewhere in the text, or does it contradict them? Understand it. In the words of science fiction author Robert Heinlein, “grok” it. If it doesn’t gel, try again. If it’s still iffy, add a comment explaining your worry.

To do this properly, you need to have created a mind space in which you hold the whole story and can turn over and examine the various parts. This is the Gestalt. When you’re in it, you feel as though you’re humming along in a well-oiled machine. Everything is lucid. This is why coming back with a fresh mind is important. It is also vital to understand the story, both the individual parts and their interactions. Reductionism is essential to seeing the parts. But holism is just as essential to seeing the whole.

When you are assimilating the various facts of the document, it can help to create a mental image of them. If it’s a description of protein behaviour, create a mental image of proteins as they follow a schema that maps out the process. If it’s a description of drug treatments to mice, picture the mice in their laboratory cages with different coloured pills raining down on them. If it’s a description of how water samples were collected, picture yourself with the bucket and the sample bottles and see whether the method would work as described. If it’s a description of population statistics, picture the relevant country and populate it. Whenever the text returns to a point that depends on one of these facts, it’s easy to bring up the mental image again and test the new information against it. If mental imagery isn’t your forte, then draw the concepts on a scrap of paper. It doesn’t matter how unrealistic your mental or graphic representations are, the point of them is to encapsulate the key points as they relate to one another (mind mapping is excellent for this), so you can compare other facts to them.

Build up the meaning piece by piece. Understand the local meanings first (such as key concepts within a sentence) then link them into a larger concept. Gradually bring these all together until you have a full picture of a passage. If you don’t understand it at first, persevere. The authors understand it because they lived and breathed the study for several years, so don’t expect that you should understand it all immediately. It’s likely that you will have to work on the text, first to understand it, then to get it to express what the authors meant. You have correctly assimilated the information when you can take any part of a passage and see how it relates to any other part; or when you can negate one part and correctly predict the consequence if that were to happen (for instance, if you change an increase in the value of a parameter to a decrease and understand what the dependent variable would do without recourse to the figures).

Having satisfied yourself that a passage is correct, move onto the next. If you later need to revisit an earlier passage (for example, to compare with a later one or to help you understand a later concept), remind yourself that you have already verified that passage. Scan the passage for key words to refresh your memory, then use that as a support to help you understand the later passage.

This pass will be quicker than the first, you’ll be looking at meaning more globally, you already understand much of the story, and you should have come back fresh, so contradictions (and confirmations) will be easier to spot this time through. In particular, you will notice any earlier statements that contradict a later statement, because you have now read the later statement, unlike in the previous pass.

At some point you must do a sixth pass to check references. Verify that all citations are referenced and that all references are cited.

Finally, if you have inserted comments, do a seventh pass to check these. Here you will pick up any typos you made (potentially embarrassing for professionals who should know how to spell), but more importantly might be able to identify comments made redundant because you were able to clarify the meaning later.

About the author

Matthew Stevens lives in Australia, where he works as a freelance scientific editor. He is the author of the recently published Subtleties of Scientific Style, from which this article is extracted. The book fills the gaps left by other style guides and books on editing. Stevens distills over two decades of experience, explaining subtle but significant errors that authors can make and many tricks that can make a work more readable. Get the book (PDF or hard copy).