Editing for content is one of the first and most important steps when reviewing a document. At this stage in the editing process, bad punctuation and grammar may exist, but they are not the focal point. For writers and editors, it can be difficult to ignore punctuation and grammar, but it is more important to read and understand content than to become fixated on catching mechanical errors. The purpose of reading and editing for content is to produce a relevant, complete, coherent, and useful document for the end user. While we may itch to correct randomly capitalized nouns or the improper use of semicolons, the big picture needs to come first.
When editing for content, we analyze a document to ensure that each sentence or component follows the previous one logically and seamlessly. Editing for content may include determining whether the content is appropriate for the needs and interest of the end-users, checking the readability, and verifying that the content fits the main purpose of the document. Editors may move a few sentences around or relocate entire sections. After the document has been edited for content, the grammar and punctuation can be edited. If portions of a document are eliminated because of redundancies or inconsistencies, edits to these sections become unnecessary. Editors can save time and effort by paying attention to content before they tackle the punctuation and grammar.
Although editors easily grasp the importance of content, some writers and subject matter experts (SMEs) define editing much more narrowly and do not usually expect probing questions. If there are questions about a document’s content relating to the flow or the sequence of events or tasks, the writer adds a comment asking for clarity. Occasionally, however, the SMEs provide feedback that focuses on punctuation and grammar and don’t respond to the comments about the content.
Some SMEs prefer to have any grammar and punctuation errors fixed before they look at possible changes to the sequence or flow of the document because the errors can be distracting. In this case, the writer can make the corrections and ask the content question again, this time phrasing it another way as a comment in the text or separately in an email.
Editing for content is a prime example of putting first things first. Take a deep breath, and leave the punctuation and grammar changes alone—for now.