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Proper Use of Comment Boxes

@ ProofreadingPal
August 29, 2016
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For a good editor, correcting grammar is just the beginning. There’s helping with the content of a document as well: noting issues and possibilities with logic, tone, evidence, research, character development, responding to prompts, pacing, imagery, clichés—everything an editor can discuss beyond just marking up text.

And that’s where comment boxes (and other such software features) come in. In fact, so much can be done with good comment boxes that we also need to talk about what editors shouldn’t use them for. So here’s an old-fashioned list of dos and don’ts.

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Don’t: Teach

This is a tough one for a lot of editors, particularly because they often come from teaching backgrounds. The main jobs of teachers are taboo for editors:

  • Editors do not grade or otherwise evaluate quality.
  • Editors do not offer suggestions for improvement in the next writing attempt.
  • Editors do not waste clients’ time with long explanations of grammar rules or insights into rhetoric.

Do: Explain Textual Edits

When, and only when, there is a possibility that the client may be confused by a textual edit, a brief comment can identify the issue. This might include:

  • “Edited to correct bad parallelism.”
  • “Edited for wordiness.”
  • “I am suggesting you delete this sentence because it repeats the previous sentence.”

Notice there is no explanation of just what “bad parallelism” or “wordiness” is. The client can always Google it. More important, if the client knows what bad parallelism is and simply didn’t catch the error in that instance, such an explanation may seem more than a little condescending.

Don’t: Scold

Along the same lines, an editor never takes a client to task for mistakes or omissions, especially regarding content. In fact, if while editing you experience frustration or annoyance, walk away from the document and cool down. The piece you’re editing calls for the overthrow of women’s rights, jail time for the LGBTQ community, and a ban on wearing blue jeans? Too bad for you. Keep your opinions out of your comments. The client is paying only for editorial expertise.

Do: Point Out Errors

If there is a clear factual error or objective gap in logic, an editor should note it, though only diplomatically. Rather than something like, “You’re wrong,” or, “This doesn’t make sense,” a good editor can note that “This isn’t clearly supported by your research,” or, “It’s not clear how the points made here lead to this conclusion. The reader may appreciate more explanation here.”

Don’t: Cheerlead

On the flip side, it’s not an editor’s job to provide enthusiastic encouragement either. Editors are not friends or mentors.

Do: Note Something Done Well (If Helpful)

It’s not true that editors should never be positive. If something really stands out as well done, particularly if elsewhere the client does it less well, a comment like, “The second example does a good job demonstrating your point,” may be of use. This is particularly true for academic documents because such clients should be in “learning” mode.

Don’t: Co-Author

Talk about an editor trap! Editors fix errors and point out content that can be improved, but editors never actually provide content or overwrite the client’s personal writing style with their own. Even with ESL/EFL documents, where a great deal of rewording may be needed, editors should work hard to match the client’s tone and avoid adding or altering content.

Do: Suggest Types of Improvement

If a suggestion regarding content improvement is warranted, an editor can say things like, “More than one example here might better illustrate your point” (though an editor does not offer up an actual example, even if it seems “obvious”).

Likewise, with style, if the client’s wording is truly confusing, then the editor should offer a fix in terms of clearing up that confusion. But it’s not the editor’s place to give the writing more “pizzazz.”

The exception here is that it’s fine to offer suggestions regarding diction, the same assistance one might get from using a thesaurus. If the client uses an inaccurate word or over-uses words like “understand” or “explain,” comment boxes can provide helpful alternatives, such as “apprehend” or “describe.”

Don’t: Get Personal

I can sum this up in two words: no emoticons.propercommentboxes1

What? OK, maybe I need more a few more words.

But think about the purpose of emoticons. They’re popular because e-mails and little text messages like, “Yeah, that’s a great idea,” can be meant sincerely or sarcastically.

Brief phrases in face-to-face conversation are given context through body language, especially facial expressions. Blank words on the page may strike the reader as insulting just because said reader is in a bad mood.

Thus, little smiley-faces and winky-faces are tempting, but they are far too humorous, informal, and personal for editor-client communication.

Do: Be Clear and Professional

Don’t worry about being friendly or being eloquent. Present information as clearly as possible, as briefly as possible (without getting terse or glib), and as objectively as possible. There’s no need for a smiley-face if there’s no ambiguity in the first place.

Don’t: Make Errors

Few things can irritate a client (and rightly so) than grammatical errors in comment boxes. Yes, it’s difficult to edit your own work. That’s why even editors hire editors. But comment boxes must be immaculate, or the client may lose all faith in the editor’s ability.

Do: Match Style

To avoid confusing the client, be sure to use the style of the main document (Chicago, MLA, APA, AP, etc.) in the comment boxes. It’s not the client’s job to know that grammar is affected by style guides. If you’re using Chicago and thus have “US” without periods in the text, spell it “US” in the comments.

However …

The client is king. All these dos and don’ts just fly right out the window if the client asks for something in particular, such as adding that pizzazz or helping with logical flow. Just bear in mind that the client is now asking for more than the usual editing package. Compensation should be adjusted accordingly.

Julia H.

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