Six Steps of a Quality Editorial Process

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Nearly everyone involved in publishing would agree that having a standard editorial process in place can help ensure quality in publications. But what does “standard” mean? Does quality control differ by industry or shop?

Or do commonalities—identical steps or close variations on a standard process—exist across publishing worlds? The Eye asked four professionals from three different industries what process they use to increase the odds that content will be meaningful and mistakes will be avoided:

Alison Knopf, editor of Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Weekly, a weekly newsletter published by John Wiley & Sons. Alexis Nesbitt, a freelance designer for advertising agencies in the Knoxville, TN, area. Stephen Wagley, executive editor for reference books at Oxford University Press. Margaret Walker, a freelance editor, also for advertising agencies in the Knoxville, TN, area.

Despite the wide differences in the publications they handle—newsletters, books, and marketing materials—all four experts described a similar editorial process. Here is the basic sequence of steps they take.

1. Decide what should be written

It sounds obvious, but the first step in any publishing process is to determine the type and scope of the content. At a newsletter like ADAW, with a small staff, the editor herself may decide what goes in each issue—and may also report and write the stories.

For a reference book like the ones from Oxford, the content decisions are made by the book’s editor-in-chief (“Usually a major academic,” Wagley says) with help from an editorial board and an Oxford developmental editor.

At an ad agency, even more hands may stir the pot. Nesbitt says, “After we learn from a client that they need a new campaign, we’ll have a brainstorming session with the creative director, a designer, and a writer—sometimes with all our designers and writers—to decide on the concept that will drive the campaign. We also might come up with actual pieces of the copy—headlines, slogans, or taglines, for example.” Once an account executive gets client approval for the concept, the writer can get started.

A newsletter reporter might write copy over the course of five or six hours; a book contributor might take five or six months. In any case, writers must hit their deadlines. A late submission means that the rest of the production processes will have to be compressed—hurrying the quality assurance process or skipping some steps of it altogether.

“It’s important not to fall into the trap of reporting up until the last minute, so you don’t have time to write,” Knopf says. “Sometimes you might need to be a little less ambitious about the story you’re doing so you can make the deadline.”

2. Substantively review content

Someone “in charge” must review the content and do one of three things: approve it, approve it with revisions, or reject it. For a book publisher, a developmental editor or a subject matter expert who sits on the book’s editorial board does this review; for ADAW, the executive editor does it.

At an ad agency, both an account executive and creative director do a review. The AE checks to see that copy follows the general guidelines set out for that client; the creative director makes sure the piece is on point with the overall message and creative direction of the campaign.

“The creative director might take it upon himself to snazz up the language,” says Nesbitt, “or tell the author ‘This sounds cheesy, rewrite it,’ or ‘This is too much; you’re overselling.’ He’s essentially providing quality control in terms of the writing.”

3. Copyedit content before layout

Once content has been approved, but before it goes into layout, nearly all publishers (well, all sensible ones) have the material copyedited. The copyeditor generally works in Microsoft Word using the Track Changes function, with a specific three-part mission: to correct errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation; ensure consistency with a given editorial style; and enhance readability by revising or querying awkward or confusing language.

In some cases, the copyeditor may also be responsible for fact-checking. At Oxford, Wagley says, “One thing we have learned over the years is that you cannot depend on authors to get things right—even their own book titles, even if they’re an expert in the field. So we check dates, we check names, we check bibliographies. Our copyeditors are so important in this regard, because they may be the person acting for Oxford University Press who gives an article the most attention it’s going to receive.”

Despite the importance of the copyediting step, Walker says that she often has to fight to get enough time to perform a copyedit: “Everyone wants the copy to be perfect, but they don’t want to spend the time to get it that way.” Particularly at an ad agency, she says, any time spent on editing may be seen as stealing precious, budgeted hours away from designers.

4. Get final copy approval and/or approval of changes

After substantive editing and copyediting, a piece goes back to the writer for approval of the changes and perhaps for resolving queries. Wagley says, “In the case of our reference books, we’re publishing scholarship. So we need to make sure that we haven’t inadvertently changed something and made it wrong.”

Ad agency clients need to review the final copy because this is usually the first time in the process that they will have seen it. If the client has already approved the overall creative direction for the piece, Nesbitt says, “They’ll often approve the copy immediately.” Or “the client may feel that the direction—even if initially approved—is now wrong for them. Or they may have neglected to give clear direction and the content is compromised. At that point, it’s bounced back for a rewrite.”

Many but not all newsletter and magazine editors show reporters a PDF of their articles in layout for final fact-checking; the tight turnaround of a weekly like Knopf’s may not have time for more than a final layout readthrough by the editor-in-chief, or someone else who hasn’t seen all the copy iterations.

Once the copy is approved—either immediately or after further revisions—the text should require minimal changes as it moves forward into a finished design.

5. Proofread copy in layout

After a designer has formatted the copy—whether by placing it in a simple two-column format or turning it into an elaborate brochure with display text treatments, pull quotes, and graphics—the material must be proofread. That means checking the formatting against specifications and correcting any errors or style discrepancies overlooked by the copyeditor (or introduced in design).

In some cases, proofreading consists of a “cold read,” with no comparison against the source. “Oxford used to do [comparison proofing] 10 or 15 years ago,” says Wagley, “back when compositors actually composed. But they no longer do that; they no longer typeset or even keyboard the manuscript. So our proofreading is essentially another copyedit—correcting any typos still in the manuscript and checking for correct fonts in headings and other elements.”

In other shops, comparison proofing is still the order of the day. Walker says she always checks, at minimum, the beginning and ending of each paragraph to make sure that no text was dropped during layout. She often does a complete word-for-word proofing of the source material against the layout, or more: “On a problem piece, I’ll even go back and double-check that every single change was done correctly—even look at the original creative brief to make sure that any elements listed there have been included.”

Knopf says, “The most important thing is never to proofread on screen. You have to print out [the layout]. Because something happens visually when you see things on the screen repeatedly—you start to miss stuff. You see things in a new way [on paper], especially if you’re proofing something you wrote yourself.”

Moreover, it goes without saying that every change sent to the designer must be proofread; that is, after a change is made, someone other than the person who made it must go back and check that it was accurately done—and that no other errors were introduced.

Walker describes a project that went south because the designer decided at the last minute to increase the font size on a section of brochure copy. Problem was, he didn’t have a proofreader check behind him. “When he increased the font,” Walker says, “it bumped the last five words of the copy off the page. The mistake wasn’t caught until after the brochure had been printed.”

6. Check printers’ proofs with care

This is the last chance to look at the piece in its entirety and catch any anomalies before it is printed.

In the final stages of publishing a book, Wagley says, “We may only have a day or two to check page proofs. So we’re not looking at the words anymore. We’re asking, are the running heads correct? Are the folios correct? Do the pages align? Is the art in the right place? Does it have the right caption?”

In the same vein, Nesbitt explains that when she checks printers’ proofs, “as a designer, I’m looking for any weird visual anomalies. Is there a photograph that looked fine on the screen but now looks blurry? Is there a place where a color has translated weirdly or is way too dark?”

Nesbitt cautions that reviewers may want to pay some attention to words. She describes a situation in which she accidentally sent the previous version of a newsletter to a printer—the spring instead of the summer issue. “When the production manager got the proofs, she just glanced at the colors and bleeds and OK’d the file without putting it through the proofreader because we were on a tight deadline. So the newsletter had the wrong month on it, the wrong season, but it wasn’t caught. We printed 5,000 copies, all of which were thrown away at our expense.”

The bottom line

Not every publication follows an identical production process. But the guiding force behind every process must be full attention to quality control by all those involved, from start to finish. This theme was repeated again and again by these pros. As Nesbitt says, “You have to be thinking about quality all the time. It sounds like a cliché, but everyone has to take ownership of it, not just the proofreader—including the boring stuff, like checking corrections. It’s not the romantic part of putting out a publication, but it has to be done.”

Wagley concurs that producing high-quality publications “takes a lot of attention. You can always forget something, miss something. We have very good people here and, still, anything can go wrong. Getting it right takes a lot of attention.”

In the end, Knopf says, you can have all the production checklists and editorial processes you want, but if you’re publishing material that your readers don’t care about, it’s not going to matter. “[Quality] is not just about writing and copy editing and layout,” she says. “It’s about great content that comes from great sources.” That may be the hardest standard of all to meet.

But if we provide our readers with great information, they’ll forgive occasional errors—especially if we acknowledge serious mistakes of fact or analysis that could confuse people or cause trouble. The Eye is often asked how many mistakes it’s okay to make in a document. That’s unanswerable, of course. How many cars is it okay to manufacture with faulty airbags? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Our advice: Aim for perfection and settle for consistently very clean copy.

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