An American Editor

February 27, 2013

Losing Money the Paper Way

A reader of An American Editor asked: “Can you comment on copy editing on paper vs. MS track changes? What do most clients expect and is there a difference in your opinion on the quality of the editing?” I had thought these were matters long resolved, but apparently not.

I began my freelance career in 1984, which was the dawn of the computer age as regards online editing. This was before Microsoft Windows and was in the days when WordPerfect ruled what world there was to rule in word processing. This was still the age of editing on paper.

By 1985, I was refusing to accept freelance editing work that was on paper. In fact, I advertised — including with graphs and charts — that I could save clients money by editing online rather than on paper and that I could improve consistency, reducing EAs (editor alterations), the correction of which the client would be charged by the compositor a handsome sum (each EA and AA [author alteration] bore a charge).

Within a year, I had convinced several clients that online editing was the way to go and I was one of the very few editors who had that capability or — more importantly — who was willing to edit online rather than on paper. And so my business boomed.

It was many years, however, before paper editing was truly abandoned by publishers. In fact, I recall taking an Editorial Freelancer’s Association class on editing with several of the people who worked for me (the hope was that I would learn something I didn’t already know about the editorial process) and being shocked when, in response to a question, the instructor said it wasn’t necessary to learn how to edit online because few authors provided digital files and few publishers were encouraging the move away from paper. The instructor claimed online editing was a fad that would pass. And so no time at all was spent on electronic editing.

Needless to say, the instructor and those who shared the instructor’s thinking were wrong and were rapidly being left behind as the technological revolution hit even staid publishing houses.

I tell you this history because there is a reason why authors and publishers migrated from a paper-based world to a digital world: technology really was everyone’s friend when it came to publishing.

I made the transition early because I quickly recognized that paper-based editing was a way to lose money, not make it. Recall the recent article Editing Tools: MultiFile F&R and Search, Count, Replace. In paper-based editing, how would you find, for example, every instance of the phrase “, and on days” in both the chapter you are working on and in the ten preceding chapters that you have already edited? Or how about ascertaining whether an acronym is repeated in a chapter, how many times it is repeated, and whether the spelled out version also exists, and how many times it exists?

With the computer it is easy, but on paper it is unlikely you will find every instance and to do so would require an excessive amount of time. If you have to do such searches frequently, in paper-based editing, you would rapidly exhaust your client’s budget and thus your prospects of earning a decent return for your efforts.

Of course, searching for items that need correcting is just one facet of editing that a computer can do better than paper-based editing. Let us not forget the “what-you-expect-is-what-you-see” phenomenon. I discussed this some time ago in The WYSIWYG Conundrum: The Solid Cloud. It is not unusual for an editor to see the correctly spelled word because it is expected when what is actually written is misspelled. In paper-based editing, too often the error remained and was picked up by the proofreader, which resulted in an EA. Online editing doesn’t cure the problem, but does help minimize it with spell checking.

(Another phenomenon of the EA/AA allocations in paper-based editing was that if there were too many, the publisher reserved the right to charge the editor or the author for the excess, thereby, in the editor’s case, reducing the editor’s earnings. The usual penalty for the editor was, however, simply to not be hired again and not told why.)

No matter how you cut it, paper-based editing is time-consuming, subject to more errors not being caught, and likely a money-losing proposition for the editor unless the client has an unlimited budget and is willing to spend it. Because paper-based editing is slower, schedules have to be longer, but in my experience few clients consider that need.

As between paper-based editing and online editing, I do not think there is much of a contest. I wouldn’t accept a paper-based editing project nor would I recommend someone else accept one. Yet, there is a caveat to this: If the paper-based project is, for example, a five-page journal article, then some of the benefits of online editing are not so overwhelmingly beneficial. Most of the benefits of online editing as compared to paper-based editing are evident with long documents such as books and reports. This is not to imply that there aren’t benefits for short documents as well, just that the benefit-to-nonbenefit ratio comes closer to 1:1 the shorter the document to be edited. In my case, I would not accept a paper-based project regardless of length.

As for what most clients expect, I think today that most expect an editor to edit online, not on paper. Considering that few authors submit a paper manuscript as opposed to a digital manuscript, client expectations would seem to me to follow; that is, digital file equals online editing. Publishers today generally will not accept a paper manuscript, except in very exceptional cases.

Tracking an editor’s changes in Microsoft Word seems to be the standard today. Publishers give authors the option to accept or reject changes, and tracking makes it easier to know what changes have been made. I know that in my business we always edit with tracking on.

The final question was addressed to the quality of the editing. This is a very complex question. No matter whether a project is paper-based or online, in the first instance, the quality of the editing depends on the skill of the editor — the more skilled the editor, the better the quality of the editing.

I think the real question is less addressed to quality than to consistency and accuracy, which are part of quality but also separate. I think that consistency and accuracy are much greater in online editing than in paper-based editing because there are so many tools available to help increase consistency and accuracy, tools that are not available for paper-based editing.

What are your thoughts regarding paper-based versus online editing?


  1. I couldn’t do paper-based editing… It would take FOREVER. First, to print out the document (some of the ones I get are hundreds of pages long), then to mark up the problems by hand, flicking back and forth through various sections of the document looking for inconsistencies, then to (read, interpret, and) make the changes in the source document. Note: Whether it’s the editor or author making those changes to the source document, it still takes an enormous amount of time.

    I stopped editing PDF versions some time back too — again, it just takes too long. And even longer for the author to make the changes in the source document after clicking on each of the collapsed editing icons in the PDF.

    Like you, I also make extensive use of track changes and comments in Word. I don’t track the little things such as adding a serial comma, fixing possessive plurals, etc., but I do turn on tracking for any changes I make that *may* alter meaning.

    Also, one of my jobs is to check and fix all the formatting to conform to the house styles — that’s a job that just can’t be done on paper.

    I think it would take me at least three times as long (if not more) to edit on paper. That’s just not an efficient use of my time, nor an efficient use of the client’s money. I edit more than 300 scientific reports each year, many of which are well over 100 pages. If I edited on paper, I’d perhaps only get about 100 done — if that.


    Comment by Rhonda — February 27, 2013 @ 4:46 am | Reply

  2. I began my editing career a couple of years after you, but as an in-house editor was working on paper copies for many years. As soon as I became a freelance, I went electronic. As you mention, it’s so much easier to ensure consistency on a computer, and spell checking comes in handy too. I use Track Changes as clients like to see what their editor is up to. I’ve taken to proofreading on my Kindle as I find the different appearance of the text on the ereader keeps it ‘fresh’ and my eyes a bit sharper during that last all-important read through.


    Comment by Edit-My-Book (@BookEditorSteph) — February 27, 2013 @ 4:56 am | Reply

  3. @Rhonda. I started with paper editing, and as this was before the Internet, the publisher would FedEx the book and you’d FedEx it back; you didn’t have to print it out.

    Electronic editing is definitely better for consistency. But when I began, I couldn’t read on the screen as easily as I could read on paper, and this slowed me down. I think that’s still true, even though fonts and screens have improved.

    I remember the early days when authors used Mac default fonts, which were sans typeface, and you couldn’t tell an ell from a one. A sentence starting with “Ill” meaning sick looked just like “III” meaning three. That slowed me down.

    Type designers worked hard to design type that is easy on the eyes, but online copy often ignores that and uses whatever the author thinks is “pretty.”

    I still find it easier to do substantive editing on paper, as you can have several pages or chapters in front of you at once and get an idea of organization. Electronic editing is faster and easier for the mechanical editing. In precomputer days, it often took me several hours to alphabetize and type up my style sheets. That’s now a breeze.

    Track Changes helps the author make sure you haven’t changed the meaning, but if the ms is full of trivial spelling and grammatical errors, I think seeing so many changes may alienate the author and make the author less receptive to more important changes. If the editor is good at querying any changes that could affect meaning and not the other ones, then it’s probably better not to use Track Changes.

    There is really no simple answer to these questions. Every ms is different and may require a different approach. McGraw-Hill wanted you to read every ms twice: first for mechanical stuff and then for meaning. I found this didn’t always work and just read them twice, doing different things first for different jobs. If a ms had tons of mechanical errors, then I’d deal with them on the first read as they suggested. But if there weren’t many spelling and punctuation errors but a lot of sentences needed recasting, then I’d rewrite on the first read and check the rewriting on the second read.


    Comment by Gretchen — February 27, 2013 @ 10:51 am | Reply

  4. I started freelancing in 1991, and all my work was on paper. Not having a publishing background, I didn’t know there was any alternative. But a few years later, clients began sending me Word files, and I learned by the sink-or-swim method how to edit electronically. Through the years, I found that professional development involved improving both editing and techie skills as well as investing in software. From correspondence with editors all over the country via discussion lists and private email, I found that those editors who could not or would not accept the changing nature of publishing and embrace the technology were not likely to thrive in an increasingly competitive market.

    Now I can’t imagine working any other way, and I’m sure I would not be able to earn the same income by editing on paper. I agree with Rich that the main advantage of e-editing in terms of quality is consistency and accuracy, which are part of quality but do not represent the totality of quality. I find that using various e-editing tools, such as macros, add-ins, and stand-alone apps that work with Word, I can take care of the consistency and accuracy relatively easily and then free my mind of those nagging details — e.g., does that term get a hyphen or not? — and concentrate on the more subjective part of editing, which depends more on the human mind than the computer.

    Another big advantage of e-editing is access to the Internet while working. One way that I’ve positioned myself to remain competitive is by doing quick lookups rather than simply querying. I can often do a lookup faster than phrasing a query asking for missing reference information or the correct spelling of a name or term in several places in a file. Of course, there’s a break-even point: I don’t do an Internet search on every item in question, and I give up rather quickly and revert to the usual query rather than spend too much time on a particulary search.


    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — February 27, 2013 @ 10:55 am | Reply

  5. I’ve been copy-editing since 2008. Early on, I attempted to do a course that taught copy-editing the paper-based way. At that point (2009) I had already done a lot of on-screen copy-editing through the publisher I worked for (in house) and was just looking to consolidate my skills.

    In comparison with on-screen editing, I found editing hard copy so soul-destroyingly slow and inefficient that I didn’t get beyond the first module of the course (I continued my learning through specialised courses in particular areas in which I wanted to improve). Now, the thought of attempting a hard-copy edit chills my blood – I can’t fathom why anyone would prefer it. Tricks such as macros and master documents allow editors to go anywhere and find anything in a manuscript almost instantly, which, as Teresa says, frees them up to concentrate on the human bit of editing.

    Another factor is that I work on fixed-rate budgets and I’m sure I’d cut my hourly rate in half (and turn in a worse job) if I had to work on paper. Of course, on-screen editing doesn’t guarantee better quality, but IMO it certainly makes it more likely.

    I’ve never been offered a paper-based edit, and if I were offered one I wouldn’t accept it.


    Comment by Hazel Harris — February 27, 2013 @ 12:16 pm | Reply

  6. And then there was the day when you used the “l” key for the 1 on a manual typewriter. These days much prefer Times New Roman or Helvetica, thanks. But then I find myself mildly annoyed these days when reading a paper newspaper and having to go scan through all the previous paragraphs by eye to find out who this Dr. Whoever the reporter just referenced in the last paragraph and presumably introduced early enough that I’ve quite forgotten both Doctor and organization. I much prefer the electronic approach with a decent program. And so does anybody who’s ever seen my handwriting. 🙂


    Comment by anansii — February 27, 2013 @ 1:31 pm | Reply

  7. @gretchen – The reason I’d have to print out the document is that I don’t edit published books. I edit internal scientific reports for a single company, all of which are written in Word by my various authors. The documents are written electronically and then delivered to me electronically (I work remote from the office). To work on paper, I’d have to print them out. It doesn’t matter who does the printing — paper-based editing requires someone somewhere to print out the doc, with the added costs of time, paper, ink, etc. With electronic docs, I can get started on the editing within seconds of one arriving in my Inbox.


    Comment by Rhonda — February 27, 2013 @ 5:19 pm | Reply

  8. Back in the 80s I transitioned to online editing, at least for some work, and developed my own system, underlining additions and using strike-through for deletions, all in black and white.This absence of colour significantly reduced author-editor hostility. I worked with some people who, when they saw red would automatically “see red”. They could escape this automatic response when the colour was absent. Since part of my job was as an editor for a post-graduate faculty (so, a limited number of people), and another was as a journal desk/managing editor with a far-flung collection of authors, this was a huge bonus. I wish Word would allow colour changes in track changes.


    Comment by Linda — February 28, 2013 @ 5:12 am | Reply

    • “I wish Word would allow colour changes in track changes.”
      But it does, at least the antedeluvian version I have. Go to Tools/Options/Track Changes.


      Comment by Gretchen — February 28, 2013 @ 10:07 am | Reply

      • You can set track changes to specific colors by author on your computer, but your choices may not hold on the recipient’s computer, because the track changes settings are set by each user, not locked into the document, as, say, margins are. This is a drawback of Word that I don’t think has been changed yet — I’m using Word 2010; if anyone is using W2013 and knows it’s been fixed, please post!


        Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — February 28, 2013 @ 10:20 am | Reply

        • Be wary of Word/Office 2013. Microsoft has changed the licensing. If you go for the cloud version, you pay a yearly fee for up to 5 personal computers; if you go for the local install version, the license is good for one COMPUTER and for a one-time installation. That means that if you buy a new computer or update the hardware on your current computer, you cannot reinstall Word/Office; instead, you need to buy another license.

          I have scrapped my plans to upgrade to Win8 and to Office 2013. I do not want to be forced to the cloud and find the license changes onerous.


          Comment by americaneditor — February 28, 2013 @ 12:04 pm | Reply

      • Yes, I could have them change their own computer, but then I would have to explain that they *have* this reaction. This would change these working relationships in uncomfortable ways.


        Comment by Linda — February 28, 2013 @ 10:39 am | Reply

  9. I have not been editing for all that long (since 2009), but much prefer online editing and 99% of what I do, is online.

    However, after editing a manuscript online, I usually print it off to do my final check on paper (I have sometimes missed things online that I find on paper). The errors are corrected online and then the document is submitted online. I guess it acts as a final check for me.


    Comment by Julia Bodie — February 28, 2013 @ 6:55 am | Reply

  10. I’ve been doing freelance work both as a copy editor and a proofreader since 2010 – and for copy editing I’ve only ever used track changes in Word. A big plus is being able to hide revisions, letting me keep track of narrative flow in a heavily edited section. On the other hand, I find proofreading on a PC incredibly tiresome and need to concentrate a lot harder to avoid skimming over thing – probably something to do with proofing being more granular in its reading style, with a lot less actual ‘work’ done on the text itself than editing. As much as I’d love to not have to print out and lug around a full MS I’ve yet to find a decent alternative. Some sort of iPad-sized tablet but with an e-ink screen and stylus support for markups would be perfect.


    Comment by Alan Vaarwerk (@AlanVaarwerk) — March 1, 2013 @ 1:06 am | Reply

  11. It is so true that electronic editing can go faster than editing on paper, but there are still times when I’ll print something out and check it on paper, just in case. Usually shorter pieces, though.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — March 1, 2013 @ 5:54 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: