Research Techniques for Editors
  • 5-minute read
  • 30th August 2023

Research Techniques for Editors

The likelihood is that, as an editor, you’ll need to quickly become familiar with subjects that you’ve either never studied or covered in the dim and distant past (a vague recollection of high-school physics can go a long way!).

Often, Proofed will be asked whether we have an expert in a certain topic, and while we often do, the most important thing is that we can provide an editing expert.

Launch the microlearning module below to learn more about editorial research skills and to test your knowledge using our interactive quiz.



Alternatively, read on for a text-only version of the microlearning.

Researching Unfamiliar Terms and Topics

There are two main types of unfamiliar terms from an editorial perspective:

  • Words you’ve never heard of.
  • Words you have heard of, but the writer is using them in a way that seems strange to you.

The second type is more dangerous, as it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish them from thesaurus overuse or non-fluent English.

Consider the following sentence:

In physics, radio waves propagate through the atmosphere, enabling wireless communication over long distances.

If you’re not familiar with the field, you might think that the use of “propagate” is unusual or inappropriate, as it is most widely known as a term used in botany (“apple trees propagate by grafting”) or in general parlance (“the rumor propagated quickly”). However, in physics, the term “propagate” refers to the process of transmitting or transferring energy, waves, or particles through a medium or space.

You can use Google (or Google Scholar) to check the usage of unfamiliar terms. When you do so, you may find you need to include more than just the term in question to get a useful and accurate result.

Try this ...

  1. Put the word propagate into Google and scan down the list of results on the first page. Does the physics definition appear anywhere in the search results?
  2. Now try propagate light, and see how much more accurate that is. You now know that yes, it is a term used in physics.
  3. But what if you want to check it’s used correctly, grammatically speaking? Try putting a bit of a sentence into inverted commas, and see what comes up. For example, try “the propagation of particles” and “the propagating of particles”. You’ll note that the results become a lot more technical, and you should also be able to see which is the correct version of propagat- to use in this context.

Using AI Chatbots for Research

Artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots, such as ChatGPT, can also be used in a similar fashion, with the caveat that they may produce inaccurate information. Undoubtedly, AI chatbots will get more and more accurate over time, but as at May 2023, you should double-check any information they return using a Google search of reputable sources.

Try asking ChatGPT:

  • What is the meaning of “guaranty” in an insurance context?
  • What does it mean to ditch a helicopter?
  • Does “substantial” have a different meaning in a scientific paper?
  • How would you use the word “work” when talking about energy transfer?

Note: Be very careful (for privacy and confidentiality reasons) about what you put into AI chatbots. Snippets of sentences and individual sentences that are common knowledge are fine, but do not drop in large chunks of text or any confidential or sensitive information.

Dialect and Grammar

It’s sometimes difficult to remember minor dialect variations such as where a period goes in relation to a quotation mark or which type of dash you should use. Similarly, questions about obscure points of grammar can sometimes be difficult to find answers for.

Proofed has some good resources that collect all these together:

Otherwise, there are various reputable style guides that can be found online, for example:

By “international English,” we mean English that accommodates or disregards dialectical differences. As the Economist and the Guardian are based in the UK, they will slightly favor UK usage, but there may be some crossovers.

A Few More Useful Tools

In addition to search tools, dictionaries, and style guides, there are various free online resources that can be really useful to you as an editor. Below is a (definitely) non-exhaustive list of some of the author’s favorites.

  • Put titles into title case according to a variety of referencing guides. No more internal debates about whether “it” should be capitalized or not.
  • Chicago Manual of Style Q&A: CMoS’s stance on various nitpicking points of grammar and style.
  • Online Writing Lab: Purdue University’s collection of all sorts of information about academic writing, referencing, grammar, and punctuation. US English.
  • Passive Voice Detector: Easily spot—and eradicate, if necessary—the pesky passive voice (“now with the aid of zombies!”).


This has been a very brief introduction into using research skills to improve your editing of both general and specialist documents.

By checking reputable sources using the multitude of tools freely available online, you can enhance the overall clarity, coherence, and credibility of your editing.

Remember to communicate with your customer and explain the reasoning behind any editorial decisions you make. If there is no definitive answer to an editorial issue, then you should choose what appears to be the most likely approach, taking into account any evident preferences in the customer’s chosen style guide(s).

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