Event review: Eight-step editing 2

Written by Amy Haagsma; copy edited by Joanne King

Review of seminar Eight-Step Editing with Jim Taylor (offered by EAC-BC on February 21, 2015).

Jim Taylor has been a writer and editor since 1958. In 1971, he began teaching editing to business executives, using many of the concepts that would later become Eight-Step Editing. A casual mention of his process caught the attention of his EAC colleagues, and he was encouraged to develop it into a seminar. Jim confessed that, when first asked about the steps he used, he didn’t have a number in mind but surmised that it must be “about eight.”

In the spring of 1984, Jim officially rolled out Eight-Step Editing for EAC. Over the years, his seminar has achieved an almost-legendary status. Although Jim retired in 2007, he has graciously taught the seminar for EAC-BC a number of times since then.

Dwindling attention spans
Communicators today, Jim explained, face highly distracted audiences and must compete for ever-shorter attention spans. Reading is fit in among many other tasks, and readers are quick to move on to the next page, article, or book (as Jim describes it, the print equivalent of channel surfing). So prevalent are the distractions in our lives, that when you see someone reading a textbook on the bus, you can safely assume that they have an exam in the next hour.

However, this was not the case hundreds of years ago, when readers sat down for hours to read, often aloud, books such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In Chaucer’s day (c.1343–1400), the average sentence length was 80 words. By Shakespeare’s time (1564–1616), sentences had already shrunk to about 40 words. Today, the recommended average sentence length is 20 words or fewer.

The eight steps
This dramatic shift in reader attention means that writers must adapt their style accordingly. Jim developed Eight-Step Editing precisely with this in mind. Steps 1 through 4 are aimed at improving readability, steps 5 and 6 help increase the energy level of your sentences, and steps 7 and 8 serve to guide your readers and keep their attention.

  1. Shorten sentences. One of the easiest ways to improve readability is to break long sentences into two or more shorter sentences.
  2. Take out the trash. Wherever possible, remove unnecessary words and phrases that slow readers down, or replace them with simpler words.
  3. Overcome the negatives. Negatives inhibit comprehension because they force readers to work through two mental stages: first to imagine something, and then to imagine its opposite. Use the positive to ease readers’ understanding.
  4. Deflate pomposity. Improve clarity by breaking down words and phrases to get at what is actually being said.
  5. Eliminate the equations. Equating verbs (also known as linking verbs) lower the energy of a sentence because they do not convey any action. Find the action and replace the verb.
  6. Activate the passives. Passive voice adds complexity by reversing the expected flow of action. Use active voice to aid comprehension and add energy.
  7. Lead with strength. Find the most interesting and important information, and move it to the beginning (of the sentence, paragraph, chapter, etc.).
  8. Parade your paragraphs. Start a new paragraph for each new idea; ideally, the first sentence of each paragraph should tell the entire story.

These eight steps are designed to build on each other, and Jim advised us not to tackle all eight steps at once. Instead, pick one to work on, and then move on to the next. When you’re comfortable with all eight steps, you can combine some of them, working through a document in two or three passes.

My assessment
Eight-step editing is a straightforward and systematic way to improve your editing skills. For newer editors, it’s a great starting point to working with a document. For more experienced editors, the steps can serve as a checklist to make sure that nothing is overlooked. They can also provide a vocabulary to describe issues that may be identified more instinctively, categorized by Jim as “ILF” (“it looks funny”) or “ISF” (“it sounds funny”).

Additionally, eight-step editing fits with what I believe good editing to be. It is designed to engage readers and remove barriers to understanding, while leaving the author’s voice, style, and wording intact. (In fact, this was one of Jim’s primary goals when developing his process.)

If you missed the seminar (or if you just can’t get enough eight-step editing), check out Jim’s book, Quick Fixes for Business Writing, or order an eight-step editing poster.

Amy Haagsma is a communications professional and a graduate of SFU’s Editing Certificate program.

Joanne King is a freelance copy editor and an EAC-certified stylistic editor.

Image by Shutterstock.

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2 comments

  1. All of these guidelines have to be considered in context. Too many editors take guidelines like these as inflexible rules and do things like change every passive to active voice, even if the author has a good reason to use the passive (for example, because the agent is unimportant). Similarly, “use the positive” can harden into an editor’s decision to remove a sentence that contains a firm “don’t” even in cases where that is the most straightforward instruction.

    I don’t actually understand the the “Eliminate the equations” guideline. If you have some examples of this, that would be very helpful.

    • Thanks for your comment. Eight-step editing was initially developed for business writing and editing, although the principles can be applied to other types of writing as well. The steps aren’t intended to be absolute rules, simply best practices that can be used to improve a document’s readability.

      As you mentioned, there are definitely times when using a negative or the passive voice is the best option. However, even in fields where passive voice is the norm, readers often prefer active voice. Even if the agent is unimportant (or unknown), there are ways to make sentences active. For example, “Studies have shown…” and “The results indicate that…” are both active.

      The idea behind step five, “Eliminate the equations,” is to eliminate some (not necessarily all) linking verbs to add energy. For example, “The recent fluctuation in the value of the dollar is a reflection of…” can be rewritten as “The recent fluctuation in the value of the dollar reflects…”

      I hope this answers your question, and thank you for reading!

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