I recently did a few editing passes on a 640+ page environmental report that was to be submitted to a federal regulatory authority. I wasn’t able to fully edit the report, but I was able to tame the formatting issues in Word (including making sure all tables had a similar look), check for inconsistencies in common terms and phrases, fix the cross-references to other sections/figures/tables/appendices, check the abbreviations/acronyms list reflected the abbreviations used in the document, ensure nonbreaking spaces were used between values and units of measure, etc. There was no corporate template or style guide to use (the company is very young), though someone had put a very basic template together—cover page, headers/footers and the like—but hadn’t set up styles, therefore the formatting of bullets, numbers, body text etc. was all over the place. Multiple authors had worked on this report, and each had done something a little different with their formatting, and varied in the terms they used and whether they capitalised or hyphenated them or not.
After I returned the document to my contact, she asked if there were some ‘lessons learned’ that she could share with her boss and others involved in the document. Here’s a summary of the email I wrote to her:
- Template: Get a corporate report template in place, with as many necessary styles in it and sample tables set up ready to be copy/pasted and modified. Learn how to use it and WHY you should use it.
- Style guide/sheet: In the absence of a full style guide, set up a corporate style sheet that lists the preferred ways of spelling/using terms (e.g. the correct spellings/hyphenations for place names, words that can trip you up – e.g. wellhead/well-head/well head, tophole/top-hole/top hole). Make your authors use it, and that you forward it to whoever edits your docs so that they can follow the decisions already made.
- Discourage writers from using the buttons on the Word toolbar for bullets and numbers (there be dragons!) – use the relevant List Bullet and List Number styles
- Learn how to apply styles to new text, and how to paste text from another doc and format it correctly (NEVER copy across section breaks, for example – more dragons lie there!)
- Learn how to apply table formatting/styles – for example, in the [company] doc there’s a special button on the Table Tools > Design tab for applying the green table, but I wonder how many know how to use it and instead spend ages setting up the borders, shading etc. manually.
- Clickable cross-references (x-refs):
- In the absence of a program like EndNote, learn how to do x-ref numbered citations so you don’t end up with [CorporateAuthor] 2019a, 2019b, 2019c etc. This sort of citation is a nightmare to update
- Learn how to assign x-refs (clickable links are recommended for anything that’s going to be PDF’d and read on screen).
- References: Make sure authors are CONSISTENT in doing references, specifically when to apply italics, what punctuation to use, how to indicate when a URL was valid etc. (a style guide would help here). I didn’t check any for accuracy, but verifying references online is a BIG job to do after the fact—far easier for the author to grab ALL the citation details when they are writing the doc.
- Terms: Make sure authors are pedantic about adding initialisms/acronyms/abbrevs, units of measure etc. to the relevant terms lists—it’s easier to check if something is there or not than to create the list from scratch after writing the doc. I use software macros that can pull out some of this, but not all.
- Unlearn/break bad habits that work for university but not for business/corporate writing. Think like a business person with limited time and NOT like a uni researcher! The habit of writing to a word or page count has been ingrained since about Year 5 and reinforced all the way through to doctorates and, later, journal and other publications. Business reports need to be succinct, use plain language, and get to the point in as few words as possible, without losing meaning. Some examples of bad habits:
- overuse of caps for every piece of equipment, job titles, etc. (see https://cybertext.wordpress.com/2019/07/23/should-you-use-capitals-for-job-titles/ and https://cybertext.wordpress.com/2012/01/26/to-cap-or-not-to-cap-that-is-the-question/, though I’d likely revise some of those now)
- only ONE space after a period (learn how to do a find/replace to fix them all if they can’t break the two-space habit)
- stop creating nouns from verbs verbs (aka ‘nominalisation’). A dead giveaway is ‘the’ followed by a -sion/-tion word followed by ‘of’ (e.g. a description of ==> describe; provides a summary of ==> summarises; the provision of ==> provide/providing; the completion of ==> complete/completing)
- Learn new habits: e.g. keyboard shortcuts for things like nonbreaking spaces (Ctrl+Shift+<spacebar>), turn on/off track changes (Ctrl+Shift+e), add a comment (Ctrl+Shift+m), change case (Shift+F3).
I also mentioned and linked to presentations I’ve given to government departments, editors groups, and conferences on plain language writing and on working more efficiently with Microsoft Word (http://cybertext.com.au/presentations.html).