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Needed: a revision of the lowest level of editing.


The concept of levels of editing has become widely adopted since the description of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) version by Van Buren and Buehler in 1976. Levels systems are usually used in organizations in which the technical editor works directly with the author and has to balance the editing depth needed by a document against the demands to meet a deadline or a budget target. Levels of editing systems provide a framework within which editors can choose appropriate editorial tasks for a particular document; most levels systems are set up so that problems of increasing depth and complexity are addressed as more time or money becomes available.

The lowest level of editing in a given system comprises tasks that can be accomplished quickly: normally a proofreading for typos and a check of document integrity (verifying pagination, matching the table of contents against the body of the document). An emphasis on speed is the essence of the lowest level in any system. The next step (or perhaps two) higher in a levels system will address aspects of copyediting, ensuring that the document meets the pertinent format and style requirements. Specifying heading placement and capitalization, type specifications, margins and indentations, reference style, and many other details would be included here. At still higher levels come tasks that fall under substantive (or technical) editing, including work on the organization of the document and editing for technical consistency and completeness.

This ordering of the various editing tasks is a logical progression when the editor is faced with problems of cost or time. Yet, the tasks specified for the lowest level of editing usually address details that, overall, make the editor look as good as possible given the constraints; the author's main concerns, technical content and accuracy, are put off - benignly, but nonetheless put off - unless more money or more time for the work is forthcoming.

The levels of editing, in short, are upside down. At the lowest level, technical editors are addressing editorial concerns in preference to technical content issues. The major justification for this choice of priorities is speed, and the major virtue of this choice is that the things the editor addresses first are those things that editorial peers (or more importantly, bosses) are likely to notice if they glance through the final product. Yet, for reasons explained in the following sections, this choice of tasks is increasingly untenable.


Most levels of editing systems have been set up to help solve editorial problems. These systems primarily attempt to provide a framework through which editors can accept an assignment, estimate the tasks that can be accomplished under a short deadline or a tight budget, document for the author and project manager what can be done given the constraints, and produce the project within these limits. They provide, indeed, a way to help protect the editor from an author who expects a 3-day miracle on 300 pages and then complains about the resulting document. The success of the levels concept in these terms is undeniable.

Secondarily, levels systems help the editorial staff demystify for the technical staff what an editor does. A set of lists of the tasks performed at the various levels makes it plain to any author what will be done by the editor on a given project. Furthermore, levels systems provide a uniformity to the efforts across the editorial staff, making their work more recognizable (and therefore more comfortable) to the author, and also help editorial management to schedule work.

"So," you might ask, "what's the problem? The author is getting a known result instead of an unknown, and the result is tailored to the situation, which helps guarantee that the author gets all the help the editor can give within the constraints."


Let me respond to that question with another. Which of the following two statements do you believe is true?

An author prefers a typographically perfect manuscript containing a contradiction between the data and the stated conclusion of the study.


An author prefers a manuscript free of technical errors or contradictions at the cost of some stylistic inconsistencies and a few typos.

If these statements seem too hypothetical, let me provide an example. I once edited an abstract that contained the following sentence about an experiment in which bacteria (the inoculum) were added to a solution containing the sugar D-xylose:

Increasing the [volume of] inoculum reduced the fermentation time: 2% D-xylose was fermented in 48 h, compared to 72 h using less inoculum.

This sentence has no serious grammar or syntax problems, but neither does it provide the information the authors meant it to: the second clause simply rephrases the statement of the first clause. If they had been forced to choose, would those biochemists have preferred the following sentence in the published report?

Increasing teh [volume of] inoculum reduced the fermentation time: 2% D-xylose was feremented in 48 h, compared to 72 hours when using half the inoculum.

Virtually all technical authors, I'm confident, would prefer to have the technical content right, even if the necessary cost were those two typos in the second version.

In the current version of The Levels of Edit, Van Buren and Buehler (1980) briefly but clearly outline the benefits of their levels system to "author, editor, and manager alike." Articles on other systems also claim benefits to both authors and editors (Hobel and Urbach 1988; Parrott and Poore 1989). At the lowest levels of editing, however, the author's benefits are usually limited to (1) knowing what will and will not be done to the manuscript, (2) knowing how much the work will cost, and (3) having the final manuscript be somewhat "cleaner" in terms of typos, basic grammar, and formatting.

Yet, it's clear to most technical editors after a year or two of experience that few scientists or engineers share an editor's passion for ultimate correctness in terms of standard English and ultimate consistency in terms of format or style. They are more concerned, by both personal bent and professional interest, with the accuracy of their facts, data, and technical concepts and with the accuracy of the conclusions they draw from these. If the effect on the author's and the firm's reputations is considered, the impressiveness of a large number of editorial corrections may be superficial; an editing effort under a tight deadline is likely to be most valuable in terms of finding one or two problems in technical content before the document is sent out to the customer, the journal, the potential sponsor, or upper management.


The seemingly obvious point that authors are most concerned with content is reinforced by Dressel and Prasad (1989). In an article on technical editing quality, they state, "A basic standard for all documents is that they be technically accurate and complete. . ." This statement seems eminently reasonable for technical documents, and, if it is, then a levels system must address some aspects of technical content, and not solely editorial correctness, at every level of editing. At least one system is set up so that technical content and accuracy are addressed as primary concerns (Boston, 1986, pp. 74-75 [ARINC approach]), but this does not appear to be true under most systems (Boston, 1986, pp. 73-74 [Association of Editorial Businesses approach], pp. 75-76 [NCHS approach]; Hobel and Urbach 1988; Minerals Management Service 1991; Parrott and Poore 1989).

The primacy of technical content certainly makes sense in terms of the organization's and the author's interests, but it also makes sense from the editor's viewpoint. Every document is important to its author, and every author is important to an editor as a client. Therefore, every document should be edited first with attention to as many of the author's interests as possible; then, if there is time, with attention to the details that an editor is traditionally meticulous about.

I can almost hear the cries of protest: "We aren't given the time to do heavy editing on every document! "Every document doesn't deserve the same level of editing!"

My reply to the first statement is that it is true that editors can't do comprehensive substantive editing on a short fuse: it's impossible. Substantive editing is, even more than a meticulous process, an intellectual process, requiring an in-depth reading of the manuscript with all the technical knowledge the editor can bring to bear. Every experienced editor knows short-cuts to use when the deadline is really pressing, but finally, that deadline will win out. No editor can complete a thorough substantive editing in as short a time as a proofreading. But, an editing pass for substantive issues in a manuscript need not be exhaustive to address points that are of primary importance to the author.

The second statement is also true. For example, a technical report for which the editor will be the last line of defense against errors demands more thorough treatment than a journal submission, where the text will be peer-reviewed and copyedited by others before publication. But even though all documents aren't equally important, the content of every technical document is always more important than the packaging. Given two manuscripts, one of ephemeral importance and one that will be referred to for decades, the first task on both is to ensure, as far as possible, that the information is accurate and complete; then, if there is time, go after the editorial niceties.


Beyond concern for the author's interests, there are pragmatic editorial reasons for reevaluating the tasks conducted under the lowest level of edit. The ever more frantic pace of our world impinges on the technical editor as it does on everyone else: to the editor, it means more demands, shorter deadlines, and less money to work with. These conditions are partly responsible for the demand for lowest-level editing for an ever-increasing proportion of the documents coming through the editorial system; at times, it appears that the lowest level of edit has become the norm.

The first practical factor here is that few levels systems explicitly define what types of documents are to be edited at a given level.(1) Minimum standards for the level of edit applied to given types of documents are often part of the implementation guidelines of a levels system, but these guidelines are inevitably stretched and eventually broken, by necessity or by directive. Once important documents begin receiving only the lowest level of editing, it's time to look at the tasks involved at the lowest level in terms of whether they are appropriate choices.

A second factor is that today's cost of technical editing appears to some authors to be very expensive. Pressure to decrease the cost of editing is becoming evident in a variety of ways, not the least of which is the increasing demand for lower levels of editorial review. Trying to keep editorial costs down is not new, of course: an article published 20 years ago (Harman 1975) called into question how much copy editing could be afforded then on technical documents. More recently, an article on the high cost of editing at university presses and their cutbacks in what "normal" editing comprises (Lamb 1993) seems to provide a redefinition of the term quality to mean whatever an editor has time to do in a given situation. Parrott and Poore (1989) make a similar comment about "changing our professional standards about publication quality: a high-quality report may now be one that is produced quickly and economically . . ." Finally, a recent commentary in the Editorial Eye (Stoughton 1994) suggests that editing is being redefined to a more basic set of tasks that, presumably, will cost less.

A key question about redefinitions such as these is whether the word quality - as applied to documents - will continue to be represented by any recognizable editorial standard. Certainly the fast turnaround of manuscripts that is increasingly demanded is often reasonable given the world in which we operate. Yet, the editorial response cannot simply be to address only the simplest tasks that most easily fit the time-frame and ignore everything else. Although it is certainly true that an editor can perform a high-quality job of editing at the lowest level (meaning that all the tasks to be done at that level are done well), this performance does not produce a high-quality document. Documents of importance can not be adequately "edited" by checking headings against tables of contents and by scanning for typos. This seems obvious considering the relative merits of correct typing and format versus correct technical content in science and engineering documents. Although editorial management might prefer to be able to state that the editor corrected 27 typos, 37 grammar/syntax problems, and 36 stylistic inconsistencies, both the firm and the author are likely to be better served if the editor only corrects 27 typos and 7 format errors but points out that different sections of the report are using different "base case" values for comparison.

A third factor is that, if editors are to keep scientists and researchers as clients, they must provide a value that those authors can easily perceive and appreciate. Providing that value will make the cost of editorial work much easier to defend; failing to provide that value carries the risk that the authors will find other alternatives. Grammar-checking and writing-style software packages will certainly continue to improve, and they will eventually become a reasonable tool for an author to use in revising a manuscript. If all editors are doing for an ever-increasing number of their clients is checking end-of-line hyphenations, heading capitalization style, and pagination, few authors will be willing to pay an hourly rate that is already perceived as expensive when a one-time payment for a computer program will "make do" for their needs.


My proposal for a revised lowest level of editing encompasses three areas that demand priority in a rapid-turnaround situation. These three areas represent the interests of the three major participants in producing any document: the organization, the editor, and the author.

The first area of priority is essentially the "policy edit" described in the original JPL levels system: i.e., does the document meet organizational requirements for publication? The stake of the organization in publishing any document cannot be ignored, and this must be one of the first things an editor is concerned with, usually in terms of copyright, libel, and endorsement or advocacy statements.

Too often, technical authors mislead themselves on copyright issues, for instance, by thinking that the reproduction of a single figure from a published article can't be any kind of copyright problem. An editor familiar with the local graphics department's work can often spot a figure from an outside source and raise the necessary question with the author. Authors also tend to forget that permission is often required to reproduce information taken from many of the on-line database files. An editor's query after noticing the inclusion of abstracts with the bibliographic citations of outside literature can save the firm from future legal difficulties. To take care of organizational interests like these, the editor must skim the manuscript, looking for words, phrases, or illustrations that suggest a potential problem of copyright, libel, or endorsement.

The second area of priority in this low-level edit develops directly from the need to skim the manuscript for policy concerns. If the editor has to skim for policy, he may as well mark the spelling errors, dropped lines or missing ends of sentences, and typographic garbles that will be found in the pass. Typos of this sort are easily noticed and marked, are normally quick fixes by the typist, and, from the reader's viewpoint, are a useful improvement to any document. Furthermore, catching these errors always makes the editor look good.

The third area - and emphatically not the least important - is that the author's interests must be addressed; it will be her name on the published article. Protecting the author's interests should involve the editor in at least three tasks:

* Read (not skim!) the abstract, the introduction, and the conclusion to ensure that they are not contradictory. Edit any prose in these sections that is ambiguous or incomprehensible and query the author if necessary.

* Read the text around the callouts to figures or tables and ensure that the text statements agree with the values in the tables or with what is shown in the figures; call the author's attention to any discrepancies.

* Read any paragraph of text that appears to summarize or state results and ensure that these statements do not contradict the abstract or conclusion sections; again, call the author's attention to any discrepancies.

Although this brief delving into the technical content of the document cannot catch all (or even most) technical errors or inconsistencies, it does address those that would be the most obvious to the reader and the most embarrassing to the author. It will not provide the in-depth look that a good peer review will, but it will often uncover problems missed by both the author (because she is tired of the manuscript) and a peer reviewer (who is paying attention to the deeper content).

Note the three things that are being done at this lowest level of edit. First, the editor is making essential editorial changes to the parts of the manuscript most likely to be read: the abstract, the introduction, and the conclusions. Second, the editor is ensuring consistency of technical data between text and illustrative matter; that consistency will go much further in helping maintain the reader's confidence in the author and what she has to say than consistency in heading style. Third, the editor is matching the "bottom line" statements of the document for agreement among the abstract or summary, the conclusion section, and the body of text.

Note also that three traditionally important things are not being done. First, the editor is not matching the table of contents against the text. If a manuscript contains two pages numbered 14 or no page numbered 14, most readers will be able to handle that problem, if they notice it. If manuscript's page 14 is actually missing, the lack of continuity as the editor skims the text will be evident and the omission can be corrected. Second, the editor is not making simple grammatical changes. Readers can live with a subject/verb disagreement; most will ignore it as a typo. However, readers can't live with a sentence of text that contradicts something they remember reading in the abstract. Finally, the editor is not ensuring consistency of stylistic points, such as caps on every major word in a heading. Under a tight deadline, this is an ideal example of the proverbial "foolish consistency," especially if technical problems that the editor could catch remain in the document.

Although the tasks in this revised level of editing are quite different from those traditionally called for, the time needed to perform them is not significantly greater than the time needed to proofread the entire text of a manuscript and compare wordings and capitalization patterns in every heading, table title, and figure caption for internal consistency and for consistency with the table of contents. More importantly, the task list for this three-part low-level edit is likely to be regarded by scientists and engineers as more valuable than a low-level edit with an editorial focus.


This revised low-level editing will not produce a high-quality document. No document that contains more than a few typos, grammatical errors, or stylistic inconsistencies will be satisfactory to author, editor, or reader. But, under a tight set of constraints, the technical document produced by using this form of low-level edit will be at a higher level of technical quality than will the product of the usual editing for format and typos, and technical quality - not editorial quality - is the most important aspect of technical documents.

Levels of editing systems are valuable tools. The time has come to make them as valuable to the science and engineering authors as they have been to editors, by addressing authors' concerns of content and accuracy in some way at even the lowest level of edit.

1 One exception is the U.S. Department of the Interior's Minerals Management Service levels system (Minerals Management Service 1991). This system establishes a typical lowest level comprising a check of document integrity and correction of obvious typos, but it specifies that major reports or documents of national interest do not qualify for editing at this lowest level.


Boston, B.O. 1986. Stet! Alexandria, VA: Editorial Experts, Inc.

Dressel, S., and S. Prasad. 1989. "Error classes and editorial accountability." In Proceedings of the 36th International Technical Communication Conference. Chicago, IL: Society for Technical Communication. pp. WE59-WE62.

Harman, E. T. 1975. "Copy editing: Can we afford it?" IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication PC-18, no. 3: 133-134.

Hobel, M. A., and K. L. Urbach. 1988. "Establishing a system for technical editing." In Proceedings of the 35th International Technical Communication Conference. Philadelphia, PA: Society for Technical Communication. pp. WE37-WE39.

Lamb, B. B. 1993. "Do university publishers still do 'serious editing'?" Editorial Eye, 16, no. 5: 1-4. Reprinted from Scholarly Publishing, October 1992.

Minerals Management Service. 1991. Levels of edit: Offshore scientific and technical publications. Herndon, VA: U.S. Department of the Interior, Minerals Management Service.

Parrott, L., and A. Poore. 1989. "Levels of edit: Lending form to function." In Proceedings of the 36th International Technical Communication Conference. Chicago, IL: Society for Technical Communication. pp. WE42-WE43.

Stoughton, M. 1994. "More on editing long documents online." Editorial Eye 17, no. 4: 7.

Van Buren, R., and M. F. Buehler. 1980. The levels of edit. 2nd ed., p. 2. Arlington, VA: Society for Technical Communication.

Special Note

This article is an expanded version of a paper presented at IPCC 94, the annual meeting of the IEEE Professional Communication Society, in September 1994 at Banff, Alberta, Canada.
COPYRIGHT 1995 Society for Technical Communication
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Nadziejka, David E.
Publication:Technical Communication
Date:May 1, 1995
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