3 tips for editing figures and tables

keyboard-covered-in-rainbow-lightA few years ago, members of the Dragonfly editing team attended an audio conference hosted by Copyediting.com. The session covered the painstaking craft of figure and table editing. This was a helpful talk (and speaker Laura Poole a skilled coach). These were my take-aways:
 
 
 

Good editing doesn’t happen in just one pass.

Poole recommends creating a checklist of items to review in a table or figure, such as line placement, spacing, callouts, alignment, appropriateness of titles and captions, and adherence to a chosen style. At minimum, you’ll need to do this in three steps:

  1. Check that figures and tables appear in numerical order, that no numbers are skipped, and that each element has a corresponding callout within a document’s body text.
  2. Scan quickly for errors. This is where you’ll often discover misaligned columns or missing zeros. Make notes on anything odd.
  3. Now, carefully edit figures and tables. Stick to your checklist to ensure nothing gets overlooked.

Slow and steady is the way to go.

Figures and tables can be a tempting part of a document to breeze past. But like anything else, they deserve your full attention. There’s more to the task than checking for spelling errors and misplaced decimal points.
Depending on your level of editorial authority, you may suggest that one table be broken out into two, another recast as body text, or another be removed altogether. These decisions demand more than a moment’s glance; they require careful consideration of meaning.

Figures and tables should clarify, not confuse.

One important question to ask of figures and tables is whether they’d make sense standing alone. Does the element have a descriptive title? Are axes and units clearly labeled? Does information presented support nearby body text? If answers to these questions are unsatisfactory, something should change.
Poole also gave suggestions for building an editing checklist, pointed out traps to avoid, and even shared her preferred editing soundtrack.
To find out about upcoming Copyediting courses, visit Copyediting.com.
This post was originally published in 2013 and has been updated. Mary Dixon was a writer and editor with Dragonfly Editorial.

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