Green & Onscreen

Benefits of the Onscreen Editing Method

By Heidi Glick

I am enrolled in an advanced editing course at Utah State University, and it has been interesting to collaborate with other technical communicators from diverse backgrounds. I have found that many technical communicators still edit using hard copy.

With the recent concern and focus on the environment—as demonstrated by increased interest in climate change and in smaller shifts, for example, toward greener items such as reusable grocery bags—it seems like most technical communicators would be open to using electronic editing.

While it is beneficial to employ greener methods, companies have to weigh the pros and cons of new business ideas. For this reason, I wanted to explore the advantages and disadvantages of onscreen editing, pointing out green benefits where possible. My article will hopefully add to the ideas presented in Geoffrey Hart’s 2003 STC conference presentation, titled “Overcoming Objections to Onscreen Editing,” which focuses on the advantages and disadvantages of onscreen editing and the technical aspects and organizational objections to this method. I take his case further by examining the environmental advantages and monetary benefits. When I use the term “onscreen editing,” I am drawing from my use of Microsoft Word’s Track Changes and Comments features; however, most of the same advantages and disadvantages apply to other software as well—except for perhaps increased access to grammatical resources.

I began my editing career marking corrections on hard copy. It was not until I was employed as a technical editor/writer for a government contractor to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that I began editing electronically. Here are some of the advantages and disadvantages of onscreen editing.

Advantages of Onscreen Editing

  • Decreased consumption of energy and resources
  • Decreased time expenditure
  • Increased access to grammatical resources
  • Improved recordkeeping
  • Improved communication with document production staff
  • Decreased monetary expenditure
Decreased Consumption of Energy and Resources

In order to edit green, edit as much as possible onscreen. Logically speaking, editors would mark their revisions in the same format as the end product. If the final product will be hard copy, you can edit all drafts onscreen except the final. Otherwise, if you practice your onscreen editing skills, you should be able to edit electronically as proficiently as you would edit hard copy. And, if the final product will be an electronic version, it makes even more sense to edit entirely onscreen.

Decreased Time Expenditure

It takes less time to search an electronic copy for a comment or revision than to flip through pages of hard copy to locate all instances of a particular annotation, name, phrase, antonym, synonym, and so forth. While spell check does not resolve all issues, it can help you to quickly fix spelling mistakes within a document. Also, in many instances, it is faster to send electronic revisions back to an author or document production staff than it is to hand-deliver a marked-up hard copy or to fax changes to coworkers. Depending on how much formatting you are required to revise, you can use Word to expedite formatting changes as well; for example, electronic reference checks are faster than hard copy. Additionally, you can compare different versions of the same document in Word to identify new text more quickly than you could in hard copy.

Increased Access to Grammatical Resources

While no one should rely solely on spell check and grammar check, these tools—if used correctly—can assist editors. Programs such as Word also include a customizable online thesaurus, online dictionary, and language settings. You can customize your dictionary in Word to include industry-specific terms that spell check might normally mark as misspelled, and you can similarly customize your grammar check settings.

At the end of an electronic edit, you can review your changes to see if you introduced any errors. In addition, you can run a final spell check to:

  1. ensure that you have discovered all obvious (i.e., errors that are obvious to spell check) spelling mistakes.
  2. minimize the possibility that you have introduced new errors into a document.

You also can use grammar check at the end of an electronic edit to:

  1. check for things you may have missed while reading, such as correct spacing between sentences, serial commas, and so forth.
  2. minimize the possibility that you introduced new errors into a document.

I’ve noticed redundancy in the vocabulary used in the documents I edit and frequently need to look up synonyms. I used to look them up on the Internet until I found out I could do so within Word; the same is true of the online dictionary. Occasionally, you will encounter words with which you are unfamiliar. When this happens, you can look up their meaning to ensure they are being used properly.

Finally, the language settings in Word can be helpful when you edit documents that use British English. If you read a document that specifies the use of British English, you can set the language accordingly so that when you run a spell check, Word will let you know if a word has been misspelled according to British English standards. This is useful when a document is formatted for British English readers yet contains contributions from American authors.

Improved Recordkeeping

Onscreen editing creates a more permanent record of changes. When I edited hard copy, I had boxes of rough drafts in my office, which I kept in case someone had a question about a previous revision. However, if the office building burned down, I would have been out of luck. Fortunately, most offices keep offsite backups of electronic files. If there ever is a question as to what revisions are made, an electronic copy is more easily preserved.

Improved Communication with Document Production Staff

I love editors’ and proofreaders’ marks, but there is room for error with this method of marking hard copy. Document production staff and authors have to learn the marks in order for the system to be effective, and they must be able to accurately interpret an editor’s handwriting. With onscreen editing, those involved in a document’s production can see an example of a change made by the editor, as well as a comment to make similar changes throughout the document.

Decreased Monetary Expenditure

Onscreen editing is not only green, but it saves money as well. As mentioned earlier, onscreen editing saves times and involves less paper. While a computer and software are needed, most who edit hard copy already have access to a computer with Word and, therefore, already have the resources necessary to edit onscreen. Because Word offers free online resources, including tutorials on how to use Track Changes, there is no need to spend extra money on training seminars for employees. It is also easy for experienced electronic editors to develop simple tutorials for their colleagues. For example, as part of a class assignment, I am creating a tutorial to help my classmates learn more about Word’s Track Changes features as well as some shortcut tips related to onscreen editing.

Disadvantages of Onscreen Editing

  • Increased difficulty in cross-checking information
  • Increased difficulty in spotting certain errors
  • Increased chance of introducing new errors
  • Increased learning curve
Increased Difficulty in Cross-checking Information

For those who are used to hard copy, it’s easy to check figure and table references in a paragraph on one page against a figure or a table on a separate page in a side-by-side fashion. It is more difficult to do this onscreen, but it can be done. Before I had two monitors, I used to print off complex tables and figures only so that I could check them against the text while I read. Alternatively, you can open two windows on one monitor and arrange them side by side. If you do have two monitors, you can open the editing copy on one screen and a second copy on the other. I used to check off facts on hard copy; now I electronically highlight the second copy.

Increased Difficulty in Spotting Certain Errors

It can be more difficult to spot certain errors while editing electronically, but a good editor can be trained to do so. For example, you can learn from others’ mistakes by reading a book or an article on onscreen editing or by discussing common errors associated with onscreen editing with other technical communication professionals.

Increased Chance of Introducing New Errors

If you are careless or rushed, you can actually introduce errors into an electronic copy of a document. For example, a search-and-replace procedure performed in Word can introduce global errors if there is a typo. Or, for example, an error can arise when you mistakenly make a global change to something that should not be altered, such as a corporation name or a reference title. Also, you can introduce misspellings and spacing errors of your own into a document while you add or remove text. Where I work, we have a proofreader who proofs all electronic edits for these very issues. If you do not have such a luxury, you can choose Final view in Word’s Track Changes mode and proof your own revisions. It should take you less time to do this than it would to have to explain your hard-copy annotations to someone else.

Increased Learning Curve

It takes time to learn how to use the Track Changes and Comments features; also, it can seem daunting for beginners. To edit electronically, you must familiarize yourself with how to use onscreen editing tools; there is certainly a learning curve. And while it can be tough being an old dog learning new tricks, enhancing our skills bolsters our résumés. For example, I used to teach, and digital media certainly changed the way I taught. I went from the chalkboard to a SMART Technologies SMART Board. Editors who refuse to adapt to change will eventually be left behind—as will companies who refuse to keep up with advances in technology. Moreover, the global community is moving toward an increased focus on the environment. It can only benefit a company to take a more proactive stance on green strategies.

If It’s Not Easy Being Green, Why Should I Bother to Edit Onscreen?

We are all part of a global society. More and more, I read about the effects of pollution on the environment. I do not live in isolation; the choices I make affect those around me. The amount of packaging I purchase and discard affects the local landfill. The chemicals I use affect the surrounding air, soil, and water. My choice to edit hard copy affects others as well, and so I make a conscious effort to help the environment. If you ask me why you should edit onscreen, my simple response is that it’s the right thing to do. It has taken me time to reach this point; the switch to onscreen editing required me to step outside my comfort zone and learn new skills. But, if I can make the switch to onscreen editing, then anyone can.


For previously mentioned reasons, I recommend obtaining a second monitor, if possible. In addition, you could try to obtain a larger monitor (perhaps an LCD monitor with energy-saving features) for viewing two windows at once.

Finally, I recommend spending time reading about others who edit onscreen or talking with other editors who edit electronically. Opportunities to network and collaborate abound in professional organizations such as the STC, in online groups found on Yahoo and Google, and through social networking platforms such as LinkedIn. If you already edit onscreen, be willing to (patiently) help and mentor those who are making the transition. The mentoring relationship will not only help others, it will help you to reaffirm your existing knowledge and potentially identify areas for skill expansion.

Heidi Glick

(glick.heidi@gmail.com) is currently a technical editor/writer at ECFlex Inc., a government contractor to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. She obtained her BA in biological science from Cedarville University and her technical writing certificate from California State University, Dominguez Hills. She is pursuing her MS in English from Utah State University.

References. Hart, Geoff. “Overcoming Objections to Onscreen Editing.” Paper presented at STC’s 50th Annual Conference Proceedings, Dallas, Texas, 18–21 May 2003.