Go Low(er) Tech and Fight Robo-Editing

I like big editing jobs. I like moving the words around and standing back to see what they look like. I like taking a green pen to a thick, freshly printed stack of pages. Word by word, line by line, page by page, and chapter by chapter, that stack of pages takes on its proper shape, and it is beautiful to watch.

In this computer-driven time, it would be easy to let the machine do most of the work, if I didn’t love doing it myself quite so much. I can see how other editors might be tempted to rely on the various bells and whistles found in most word processing software. That temptation, like most temptations, has its place. Even I have given in to the seduction of Search and Destroy – I mean, Search and Replace – to deal with consistent misspellings. Complete surrender to automation, however, can lead to an unfortunate editing misstep, which I call robo-editing.

Robo-editing relies on two problematic approaches to editing. First, it uses troubling editing “rules,” usually the ones that depend on the word “never.” The rules of the editing road generally don’t rest on absolutes like that. Robo-editing also utilizes Replace All. There are very few situations in which the use of Replace All is appropriate.

An example might make things clearer.

Some schools of editing teach writers never to use the phrase “a little.” A robo-editor plugs the phrase “a little” into the Search and Replace (leaving the Replace part blank) and then clicks Replace All. This will eliminate any and all uses of the phrase “a little,” and that’s a bad idea.

The difference between seductive coaxing and a command is the phrase “a little.” A child putting on a brave face for a police officer might cloak his fear by admitting that he is “a little” scared. Someone trying to minimize a big problem will call it “a little” one.

Robo-editing doesn’t care. The Replace All function doesn’t appreciate all these nuances. Robo-editors only know that some person said never to use “a little,” and now that phrase has been expunged from the manuscript.

Robo-editing sends a message. It says, “I didn’t make the effort to go through your document line by line. I can’t be bothered to read your work and assess it for voice, context, and cadence. I won’t even follow Search and Replace to each instance of your target phrase and make individual decisions based on my judgment.” If you’re comfortable sending that message, by all means, go right ahead and robo-edit. At some point in the life of the manuscript, a human editor will notice the robo-editing and draw his or her own conclusions, none of which is likely to be pleasant. That’s if you’re lucky. If you’re not lucky, a reader will notice. The reader’s conclusions will definitely be unpleasant.

So what should you do, as a writer, if you want to make sure you get all occurrences of your personal problematic phrases? You’ve got a couple of options.

You can still use the computer to do it. If you’re using Scrivener, the Search function will count and highlight every instance of your target words or phrases, and you can pop through and handle each one individually. If you’re using something else, you can still use the Search and Replace – just don’t use Replace All. Don’t even use Replace. Stick to Find. Find Next will get you through the manuscript, one instance at a time. If I have to use the Search function, this is how I try to do it.

You could also go old school and read your manuscript out loud. This is a good practice anyway. Reading out loud identifies unnatural dialogue, awkward construction, and any number of other problems. As you’re reading, mark your trouble phrases as you go. It takes time, but excellence will do that.

Stand up for humanity! Don’t let the machine do your job for you.

**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style twice monthly. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.

7 thoughts on “Go Low(er) Tech and Fight Robo-Editing

  • So true about Search and Replace All! Imagine replacing the name Max with George. Robo-edit doesn’t know the difference between the name and just a string of characters as part of a word, like maximum, so you could end up with a word like Georgeimum! The human mind is thinking name “Max,” not part of the word “maximum,” so it doesn’t even think of that possibility. (Or at least my human brain doesn’t.)

    • Yeah, it’s almost as if the machine understands rules perfectly but is unable to read. If that’s the case, it stands to reason that the machines are also drafting assembly instructions for electronics and furniture. 🙂

  • Hi, Lexi! And Up with Humanity! It is easy to let the system handle those pesky little mistakes for you, but as you and Leah pointed out, it’s seldom as simple as it seems. Lexi’s point to read aloud is so true. It’s amazing what the ear will pick up on that the eye will not. Editing, good editing is time-consuming and worth it’s weight in gold. Here’s to you, holding up the Gold Standard for us all!

    • Up with Humanity is right! A line has to be drawn somewhere, even if it means more work for us editors with a pulse.

      I’m all about the Gold Standard … and full employment for human freelancers. 🙂

  • Excellent advice. I once changed a character’s name from Jack to Ben and used ‘search and destroy’ (love that name) to hunt down and eliminate Jack.
    For some reason though Word decided to not only change all instances of the name Jack but also words containing the letters ‘jack’.
    Which meant ‘hijacking’ suddenly read as ‘hibening’! Simple fact is, computer programmes can be very clever but their rules are absolute.

    • Hey, Huw! Yes, the computer doesn’t usually appreciate those fine nuances when it comes to editing. It’s kind of cute to watch it try sometimes, as long as you’re not the one who has to “un-fix” the corrections.

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