Lately, I've been challenged with some very tight editing deadlines—usually 24 hours. The budgets haven't been generous either, so there's not a lot of wiggle room as to how much time I can spend on the edit.

When you come across a project like this, I have a three-step rapid editing process that will help you edit more thoroughly in a compressed amount of time.

Writers can follow this same rapid editing process to check their work. It's about as fast as you can go for a decent edit, in my opinion.

One of the key things to remember is that, despite your inclinations, a tight-budget, tight-deadline project cannot be perfectly edited. You can come darn close, but it's simply impossible to fix everything when you don't have enough time.

Step 1. Manage expectations.

First, you need to manage expectations—your own and your client's. Editing takes time; good editing takes more time. If the budget can't support perfection, communicate that to your client—and emphasize it to yourself, because pretty much every editor I know has perfectionist tendencies, me included.

Set priorities for the editing: What should be fixed? Here is a list I've used for years as my minimum for editing projects (from The Copyeditor's Handbook by Amy Einsohn, affiliate link):

  • Correct spelling errors, serious grammatical errors (such as faulty subject-verb agreement), egregious punctuation errors.
  • Query factual inconsistencies.
  • Make sure all abbreviations and acronyms are defined.
  • List pages containing material for which permission to reprint is required (when it's obvious—sometimes it's not).
  • Carefully read the title page, copyright page, and contents page (when applicable).
  • Check numbering of footnotes, tables, figures (when applicable).

Another key part of managing expectations is understanding the editing style the client expects. I have some clients who use AP style, others who use Chicago, and yet others who have a house style that blends elements of both or who don't have a style at all and ask that I be the arbiter. Preferred editing style is something you should have set out in advance, of course, but sometimes it's forgotten in the excitement of talking about the project, so make sure you have that conversation now.

At this point, you also need to address author review. Once you deliver your edits, if the client reviews and has changes, that adds more time—and you can only accept a review with further edits if the budget or deadline allows for them. This is an important point of discussion.

Some things to think on:

  1. If you aren't familiar with the editing style needed, rethink accepting the project. You don't want to be learning on the job with a new editing style for a project that either isn't allowing you enough time, isn't paying you enough money, or isn't providing you an opportunity for more valuable future work.
  2. If your client is not accepting of the editing limitations and is unable to move on the budget or the deadline to accommodate the level of work they expect, ask yourself if it's worth it to take on the project.

Step 2. Do two editing passes, just like this.

If you've been doing professional editing, you understand about "passes." You may do certain things depending on whether it's your first pass, second pass, or third pass through the text.

I normally do three passes: a slow first pass to fix obvious mechanical errors, a faster second pass to address issues that require reading the entire manuscript or section, and a third pass, either of the printed text (I edit on computer) or of the text after typesetting or in a digital or online draft. There's something about seeing the same text in a new interface that helps errors to jump out. Inevitably, the author makes changes after review, which requires a fourth pass—called cleanup—but it's normally not arduous unless they add sections, rewrite entire passages, or argue in favor of what may be poor decisions.

But in rapid editing, four passes is not possible. So try this instead.

First pass. Correct mechanical errors (such as spelling, grammar, punctuation), address obvious style issues (commas, numbers, dates, hyphenation, capitalization, especially for headlines), query facts as appropriate, and check the numbering of endnotes, tables, figures, chapters, table of contents, etc.

Second pass. Subvocalize or read out loud. Do not read "in your head" without moving your lips. It won't work as well. You need to be able to feel how the text sounds so you can catch the things your first pass missed—and there will be things, I assure you. Awkward sentences, repetition of words and phrases, and the occasional missed misspelling will become obvious when you subvocalize or read aloud.

Step 3. Deliver your edits.

Those of you who are experienced editors will likely be uncertain about delivery at this stage without something more, but this is rapid editing, and delivery is your last step unless author review is in play. Make sure you include comments or notes about queries, etc., but keep them brief and to the point.

You don't need to include the editorial style guide you developed over the course of the project because you likely didn't create one. Nope. You relied entirely on the AP Stylebook or Chicago Manual of Style or whichever style was mandated and a good dictionary (we use Merriam-Webster's). Do make sure you include the style you followed and the dictionary you used, just to make sure that's understood, especially if it's a first-time client.

At this point, your client has the option to review and offer changes, but only if it was previously decided that further changes are allowed under the budget or deadline restrictions. If allowed, do what you can and discuss the rest, and get that final approval.

I've been able to turn around 2,700-word AP style editing projects (no author review) in less than 30 minutes using rapid editing. I encourage you to try it when you're under pressure to deliver edits quickly.

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