Mistakes were made

I work as a freelance editor, and most of my work is for print publications. When I get a project that involves web editing, I often ponder the ways the two media change my approach and the editorial tasks. In the course of my work, I’ve made some mistakes and I’ve seen others make mistakes too. So, here’s my take on some misapprehensions in web editing, why they happen, and what I’ve learned.

You don’t copyedit websites. You web edit them.

How copyediting differs from web editing can be divided into (at least) two categories. One is the wordsmithing. The line-by-line and word-by-word decisions the editor makes have different aims and effects. And the other is that the tasks that fall under an editor’s purview are different. In my view, the checklist of tasks the editor needs to do is longer for web editing.


If you’re a copyeditor, you may be inclined to think of websites as text that needs copyediting. You may know how to efficiently correct grammar and spelling, enforce a given style, query lapses in logic, etc. These skills can help both web and print editing. So far so good.

Copyeditors also excel at making verbosity concise, tidying inconsistencies into a more controlled vocabulary, and eliminating the passive voice. But, these can backfire on the web. How? They can undermine search engine optimization (SEO) efforts and make it harder for readers to scan the text and get the gist.

What I learned: Virtues in print copyediting can be mistakes in web editing.

Editorial tasks

Web editing includes all the items on the copyediting “to-do list,” but it also covers other areas including metadata, link text, and alt tags. A few other items stand out as needing particular, web-aware attention: page titles, headings, and “page layout” (looking at what’s above the fold, how dense the text is, how well the page works as a stand-alone piece, and so on).

If you’re editing a website and skipping over the above elements, I believe those are missed opportunities and outright mistakes. The issue of what’s editorial and what’s tech is blurred online. Copyeditors are accustomed to keeping the reader’s needs in mind, but the online environment brings up two twists:

  • There are two types of readers—humans and web crawlers.
  • The human readers scan: they hunt for information more than they “read.”

If there are no bots reading your website, there probably aren’t any people reading it either. If human readers show up, feed them what they came for. And make it quick.

What I learned: Keeping human readers in mind is only half the job.

Why are print copyediting and web editing so different?

While mulling over this question, I went back to a couple of favorite sources to see whether a principle could be derived. I was struck by the way the chief concerns/first duty were described in them, and how different they are:

In The Copyeditor’s Handbook (highly recommended for print copyediting), Amy Einsohn lists the chief concerns of the copyeditor as the “4 Cs”:

  • clarity
  • coherency
  • consistency
  • correctness

In a 2006 newsletter, Jakob Nielsen wrote: The first duty of writing for the web is writing to be found.This first principle of web writing (and therefore editing) is critical—it trumps the 4 Cs! And it completely changed the way I approach web editing. It redefined for me the purpose and tasks of editing online; it skews—or even upends—some of the fundamental tenets of good print copyediting.

I’d love to hear about your mistakes (er, “lessons learned”), and I’m sure other web editors want to hear them too. Tell us in the comments—and feel free to make it anonymous!



8 thoughts on “Mistakes were made

  1. Great post, Ann. It’s seo all the way to the bank and web editors have to be the navigators of these murky waters. Writing and editing for the web as you rightly pinted out involves another skill set alltogether from traditional editing in these days of search engine domination.

    • I’m so happy you put it all together in one post–well done, Ann! Is there any information online more current than Jakob Nielsen’s newsletter?

      • @Rena Crispin — Thanks for your comments. I think the best overall resource is actually a book, Letting Go of the Words by Ginny Redish. But I also wouldn’t discount Nielsen’s work. The newsletters are still coming out weekly. And because the topic is human-computer interaction (usability), most of the principles don’t go out of date. The computer side changes rapidly, but the human side doesn’t change much because human behavior doesn’t change much.

    • @Gazalla Murky is a great way to put it! I think one of the trickiest parts is figuring out which advice to use and to what degree. For an Ecommerce site, SEO is both critical and very competitive, but you still don’t want keyword-larded copy. For a nonprofit online magazine, where readers come to read long essays on a topic they already know a lot about, SEO may be less critical than good navigation and quality writing and editing within the essays. And then there’s every other possible scenario out there too–a lot of gray area, a lot of murky water.

  2. Ann, I really enjoyed this post. Your transition is an interesting one. I think that, when it comes to editing for SEO, it works in your favour that you have the solid knowledge of contextual editing that a traditional print-editing background gives you. You won’t end up with a web page featuring dozens of SEO terms strung together without any thought given to readability (we’ve all seen them!).

    Do you have views on how you prefer to work when you’re web editing? Tips for programs you like vs those you don’t? Thanks again for a great post.

    • @KatyMcDevitt I usually use a series of page-tables in MS Word to edit web content (one table per web page). That way I can use Track Changes for the wordsmithing part of the work, can easily keep track of character/word counts for different elements of the page (page title, body, headings), and make sure I haven’t overlooked editing any of those elements. I work freelance, so it’s important to be able to show clients what the changes are in a way anyone on their team can use. I might mark up a PDF made out of the web page if what I need to show is easier to show with visuals (issues with design, layout, or content within images).

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