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Anita Jenkins

Quick and Dirty

Copyright: pockygallery / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: pockygallery / 123RF Stock Photo

When I was following the editors’ chat group, I often found myself silently screaming, “Who cares?” Or perhaps not so silently. The conversation frequently dealt with moving the words around in a sentence to make it “perfect” or correcting a fine point of grammar or checking what Chicago says about the em dash. Most of the time that chat group seemed to be telling me I should be disbarred from the editing profession.

But wait. Not every manuscript is the King James Bible or a great novel that will sit on shelves for decades, even centuries. Some documents — in fact, many — are business and government discussion papers or reports by committees. These texts serve important purposes. They support policy development — Francophone students’ rights to an education in their mother tongue in Alberta, for example. Or they provide necessary background information for an investigation and review process, like regulating safety in the workplace or assessing the value of unique properties such as grain elevators or golf courses.

However, the shelf life of these documents can be distinctly limited. They may have to be published by a firm date to allow the public (or clients, or board members) to respond by another firm date, or so that attendees at a scheduled meeting have the information they need to make decisions and recommend further actions.

The editor of these types of materials has an extremely important job to do. If the readers don’t understand what is being said or have to take more than the half hour they have available to plow through the text, the process is at risk of failing. And failing badly.

All the same, though, these documents are headed for the archives pretty quickly, and are seldom if ever looked at again. They serve their purpose, and things move ahead. Another report then appears to support and inform the next phase of the work.

If you’re an editor who works in this sort of conveyor-belt environment, your role is to get the paper in fairly good shape (Does it communicate clearly and briefly what people need to know?) and delivered on time. If you’re holding things up by debating about how many commas to insert, you are not helping.

Hence, my self-description when doing these jobs was “quick and dirty.” I sometimes also referred to myself as the Fire Department. People called me when they realized the task was going to fail because the report or discussion paper was unclear, hard to read or not short enough.

I’m glad there are lots of detail people out there. They do important work — work that I prefer not to do. Bibliographies R Not Us.

Perhaps I am an adrenalin freak. Get it done, get it out there. Make sure it communicates. Move on to the next order of business.

Are you quick and dirty too? At least some of the time? I feel rather lonely sometimes.


Previous post from Anita Jenkins: Facts and Fiction: English, Cows and the TLS.

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20 Comments on “Quick and Dirty”

  • Glenna M. Jenkins


    Great post, Anita,
    Editors should focus on the purpose of their task, the readership, and the deadline.
    Busy people, who only have time to scan a document and pick up its high points, don’t
    have time to quibble about commas and em dashes. However, dangling modifiers are another thing.
    Maybe the ‘quick and dirty’ edit should include the byline ‘dangling modifiers r us.’

    • Anita Jenkins


      Dear Readers, please note that Glenna and I are not related 🙂 But maybe she likes the post because we have the same last name?

  • Marnie Schaetti


    I’m definitely not quick and dirty, Anita. I don’t necessarily hold things up, but I do put in more hours than are probably necessary on documents such as those you describe. The reason I’m commenting here, however, is to thank you for this very timely post. I sit on a funding review committee, and am in the process of reading a stack of proposals in advance of the meeting at which we’ll decide who gets what funding. Some of the proposals are cringe-inducingly unclear, others could use a bit of editing. Whether you intended this or not, what you’ve written confirms my sense that needing a few improving edits is not an issue, whereas cringe-inducement definitely is.

  • Claudine


    I produce a bi-weekly newsletter. I receive submitted text and find material on my own to include. Because I fit this around my other work, I often find I do a “quick and dirty” edit. I rarely get called on any problems with the text but if I do (or if I find something in the text after I release it), I make changes in the archived copies that may be used for future reference. If the change is by request, I send the person a new version. Everyone is happy with this.

  • Cathy McPhalen


    You are definitely not alone, Anita! Quick and a little bit grubby is exactly the world of research grant applications. Dirty may be going a bit far, but the documents are good as long as they’re clear and consistent. As Marnie notes in an earlier comment, readers such as funding application reviewers need clarity and easy reading above all. This means that we’re doing a different level of edit (stylistic, often structural) than we would on more durable material. Consistency of abbreviations, terminology, heading styles, etc. is also important because inconsistency makes the reader’s job (understanding and taking action on the content) harder.

    Thanks for laying out the distinction so graphically here. Thinking about the purpose of a document in this way tells us what’s most important to cover in the edit and what can be triaged when time is short and deadlines are hard.

  • Wilf Popoff


    This was the method of newspapers because we knew they were read hurriedly over breakfast or on the commute before heading to the recycling bin. Conveying vital information in simple sentences to readers with limited levels of comprehension was the goal.

    Wit was welcome but reporters were told to save the great literature for the novel everyone was planning.

  • Stephanie


    I’m also a “quick and dirty” editor. I’m part of an in-house writing and editing team at a large company, and too often, I find we’re trying to be a publishing house when we don’t need to be. Debating minuscule grammatical details that no one will notice wastes time and irritates clients.

    In my work, most of what we write and edit are messages for employees from members of our leadership team. In my opinion, there are only three questions to ask before handing something back to the client: Does it clearly communicate the key message? Does it sound genuine? Are there glaring errors? That’s my editing approach. It meets deadlines and doesn’t ruffle feathers. I see colleagues wasting time debating the use of the curly apostrophe vs. the straight apostrophe and editing verbatim quotes into grammatically perfect robot text. And I see their clients cringe at how long it takes and how many tracked changes they receive.

    For so long, I’ve beaten myself up and thought if I don’t care enough, it must be because I’m a bad editor. But for in-house communicators like me, it’s critical to balance deadlines and client and audience expectations with the rules of good grammar. Sometimes that means a “light touch.” Thank you for this, Anita!

  • Jessica Coles


    I am definitely in the “quick and dirty” camp. I edit engineering reports and business proposals that fall solidly in the category of documents with a hard deadline and short shelf-life. People trust me to get the documents good enough for submission with one round of edits, and the author doesn’t necessarily have time to check my changes. I rarely get as much time as I ask for (20 minutes a page for a copyedit? Are you serious?). I’m comfortable knowing I’ve improved the document in any way, and so are my clients.

    That said, it always feels luxurious when I’m given enough time to really dig into a document. I don’t like to obsess about the details of punctuation, but I love scrubbing all the crusty junk out of a grubby sentence.

  • Frances Peck


    What?? You mean all those government and corporate reports I’ve edited are not sitting on people’s coffee tables and night stands, being lovingly thumbed through and savoured, their best bits read aloud for the sheer pleasure of the rhythm?

    I am shattered, Anita. But I love your post anyway.

    • Rosemary Shipton


      Ah, but remember, Frances, when that great literary gem comes your way, you’ll be in prime form to take it on and dazzle the famed author!

    • Anita Jenkins


      Yes, the big gap between the ideal and the reality. Again.

  • Rosemary Shipton


    We often say that editing is essentially a series of decisions. Before you begin, though, you have to understand what your client is trying to do and who the reader will be. Once you know those two answers, everything else falls into place – including the level of editing to apply.

  • Cy Strom


    Times when I can bring enough concentration and energy to the task I’m capable of quick and dirty. I admire anyone who can do it regularly …

  • Margaret Shaw


    Well said, Anita! A sage reflection on the fact that we editors need to be flexible and pragmatic in addition to being knowledgeable.

  • Gael Spivak


    Well said, Anita. I work in an environment of constantly shifting priorities and deadlines. I often have less than 30 minutes to work on a document (and have to fit it in with all the other rush things I am doing).

    I have two choices in those situations: take the opportunity to make the item more clear, or not do anything at all (some influence or no influence).

    And if I slow approvals down for things that my policy colleagues see as trivial, they aren’t going to come to me for editing again (unless forced to but that’s never a good working relationship).

  • Hear, hear! Editing needs to match the job, not the job to the editor’s desires (but, oh, the jobs that do!).

  • Lisa


    I do both sorts of editing. Some projects come in with a vague ‘if we could have it back sometime next week’; others come with a deadline of half an hour. I like the mix; it keeps me on my toes to do as much as I can to make piece as good as I can in a short time, but it is also satisfying to get something as good as it can be.

  • There is also the consideration that policy documents are often produced by committees, and that particular awkward phrasing may well be the product of a heated debate or a formal motion, and no matter how appalling, tampering with it could be interpreted as political interference, or change the meaning just enough to annoy one faction or the other(s). One can usually get away with changing bad grammar (changing “less” for “fewer” or vice versa, because the committee members were sufficiently focused on the content they missed that common grammatical mistake) but “rewording the sentence for clarity” takes one into dangerous territory, unless the editing is done at the stage where it can go back to the originating committee..

  • And because at least a few of those documents Anita is referring to were actually written by me, lo these many years ago, I’d like to suggest another benefit of the “quick and dirty” edit. When I got documents back from Anita, I go, “well darn, that’s supposed to be “less” not “fewer”? And I would learn that and hopefully not make that mistake again. If the editing got into the more esoteric elements I might have just dismissed it all as crazy editor stuff. In my graduate assessment courses I teach classroom teachers to focus on the one or two worst problems in the student papers they are grading, rather than trying to point out every single error the student has made, because that is not only more work for the marker, but completely overwhelming and demoralizing for the student who gets back a sea of red ink. Kids can work on one or two errors at a time and get better, so focusing on one or two of their worst problems leads to rapid improvement; but no kid can fix everything at once. Turns out, same principle applies to managers! I remember learning a lot from Anita’s edits (and even more from talking to her when I had questions) because hers were attainable standards for me.

  • Great article and conversation, Anita and everyone.

    You know how they say (heterosexual) women dress for other women, not men? I often wonder if editors edit for other editors, not readers. Have to admit I’ve been more thorough than necessary at times because of concern other editors will scoff at my work. (I know, I know, no one cares about my work, heh.)

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