Effective Onscreen Editing: New tools for an old profession (3rd edn)

Geoff Hart (3rd edn, Diaskeuasis Publishing, 2016), 534pp, £25.65 (pbk), 827pp, US$28 (PDF ebook, including ePub ebook)
ISBN 978 19 27972 04 5 (pbk), ISBN 978 19 27972 05 2 (PDF), ISBN 978 19 27972 06 9 (ePub)

Reviewed by Anne Waddingham

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Ten years ago, when the first edition of Geoff’s seminal work was published, people’s attitudes to onscreen editing were mostly negative. I spent much time on my training courses persuading publishers and freelances to take the plunge – both parties being deeply suspicious, convinced that that way lay madness.

The launch of Geoff’s book coincided with a sea change in the acceptance of the ‘new’ technology – part of a tsunami of significant events that changed opinions about ‘publishing from disk’ as it was then called. Not least of these was typesetters’ and designers’ about-face in their willingness to accept electronic files.

What caused this? A few years earlier, in 2003, Adobe bundled its desktop publishing (DTP) programme InDesign with Photoshop, Illustrator and Acrobat in its Creative Suite for the first time – and it really took off. Before then, QuarkXPress dominated the market – but Quark was distinctly unfriendly towards the idea of importing word processor files, preferring to exist in its own little universe.


InDesign was much more flexible (and cheaper and easier to use), and typesetters increasingly sought authors’ files from publishers. There were still many, many problems associated with importing those files into the DTP software, however. These were chiefly caused by the way authors had prepared the files, particularly the formatting but also layout and special characters.

Publishers were now pushing the problem back to their editors. For a while they continued to mark up hard copy. Someone then had to laboriously incorporate these changes into the files. It was cheaper to get the editor rather than the typesetter to do this (the author was cheaper still, but the result was usually disastrous). However, although the text was being cleaned up, the other problems weren’t. And it was taking up to twice as long to edit because few editors knew how to use the software properly. Enter Effective Onscreen Editing. Geoff’s goal was, and still is, to teach the key editing principles and how to apply those principles more effectively on screen.

As such, it’s not a comprehensive ‘how to’ manual on Word. However, a significant development for this welcome third edition is the inclusion of online access to instructions (with annotated screenshots) for the techniques discussed in the text. In Geoff’s typically thorough way, the instructions can even be downloaded for offline working.

What’s covered?

The book is organised in four sections. Section I covers the ‘soft’ issues: the benefits of onscreen editing, collaborative working and optimal communication – even negotiating your rate – and more. The meat is in Section II, ‘Mastering the tools’, which takes up half the book. This covers personalisation (understanding the hardware and software settings – not as scary as it sounds), navigation and selection, revision tracking (chiefly Word’s Track Changes), inserting/deleting text and commenting, find and replace, style sheets for consistency, spelling and grammar checking, macros (including creating macros and some basic VBA editing), automatic text insertion, editing in special situations (web pages, DTP files, databases, spreadsheets, graphics) and online resources and research tips.

Section III returns to the ‘soft’ issues of overcoming the fear of change in abandoning the safe and familiar territory of hard copy. The last chapter in this section presents a four-step process for instigating an electronic workflow.

The appendices and resources in Section IV include back-up and security, preventing adverse health issues, troubleshooting some common Word problems, and a list of some useful keyboard shortcuts. There are also a glossary, a bibliography and an index.

Onscreen editing today

My main question while reviewing this latest edition was: is it still relevant to today’s editors? In my opinion, yes, but with a few caveats. I would certainly recommend this book if you don’t have a previous edition.

Geoff has updated the ‘Mastering the tools’ section for later versions of Word for PC and Mac but not the latest, although they are promised. Currently, the online instructions are for Windows 7, Word 2010 and 2013 (PCs) and Word 2011 for Mac, although Geoff says that these will eventually include later versions. PC users with newer software shouldn’t have too much trouble adapting the instructions, but Word 2011 for Mac was a strange beast. Microsoft has since brought Word for Mac back into line with the PC version; so, I suggest that Mac users with the latest version might find the Word 2013 instructions easier to follow than the 2011 ones. Geoff’s suggestion is to run Windows on your Mac (using Boot Camp or virtualisation software).

Discussions and suggestions

There are additional software shortcuts in this edition, a sample style sheet, links to software tools and much more. There is a new discussion of online collaborative development editing in real time, which considers the pros and cons and software options, such as Google Docs. The discussion of proofreading PDF files has been revised, although personally I’d have liked more on mark-up, less on historical production processes and less detail about InDesign’s flaws. However, the chapter offers some invaluable tips for improving accuracy and is well worth reading.

The chapters that deal with human input are still very interesting and contain a lot of valuable advice, distilled from Geoff’s many years of experience. ‘Coping with the human factor’, for example, includes useful material on estimating and tracking productivity. Although the information in these chapters has not dated, I feel the focus has. When I bought the first edition, I found ‘Overcoming resistance’ and ‘Advantages of on-screen editing’ to be most valuable when I was trying to persuade clients to give up hard-copy editing. However, I feel the battle is won, and Geoff himself acknowledges that onscreen editing is well-nigh ubiquitous. Similarly, ‘Implementing the theory’, which focuses on trialling onscreen editing for the first time, could, with a bit of reworking, be presented as advice on best practice. It could certainly be taken in that light in this edition, in any case.


The book is packed with sensible suggestions for making your editing life easier. Additionally, Geoff is to be admired for venturing fearlessly into territory that other editing guides and manuals avoid, addressing concerns about working exclusively on screen.

He doesn’t duck the issues but argues the case for and against clearly and succinctly, while giving practical advice to help the reader work in the most effective way. I can’t think of another book that is as thorough in this regard. Particularly useful are the examinations of what might go wrong and how to avoid those eventualities, or work-arounds to fix them.

On my onscreen editing courses, I always said that I learnt something new about Word almost every week. This new edition of Effective Onscreen Editing has reinforced this, having taught this old dog some new tricks and reminding me of several I’d forgotten!

Note: the fourth edition is now available, and the author is again giving SfEP members a special discount. More information on discounts available to SfEP members.

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