Recently I started work with a new team, mostly as an editor.
One person said to me: “This is a new experience for me. I’ve never worked with an editor before. I don’t really know what to expect.”
So, to help people in that position, I thought I’d write up some notes. As far as I’ve been able to figure out so far in my career, this is what it’s like working with an editor.
Your editor will probably make lots of small changes without you noticing
When an editor sees a typo, or a misspelling, or a grammar error, they’ll usually just fix it on the spot. There’s no need to highlight it and leave a comment saying “This is wrong,” – it’s far quicker and simpler to just correct it. If I’m editing in Microsoft Word, I’ll proactively switch off Track Changes for fixes like this, because they’re simply not worth tracking, and adding more tracking slows things down for everyone.
This is how small fixes can happen without the writer noticing. They didn’t notice the original mistake, so they probably won’t notice it being corrected either. It’s not a big deal; everyone makes little errors like this all the time. Even your editor.
And that’s why I said above: “When your editor sees…” - because of course, there will be small errors that your editor doesn’t see.
This happens all the time.
Small typos and mistakes can slip past many pairs of eyes, through many rounds of editing, and still end up in the finished product. It happens.
So that’s another thing worth knowing about working with an editor: they will change many things and spot many things worth changing, but they won’t necessarily spot everything, every time.
Your editor will contribute new ideas
It’s not unusual for an editor to add new stuff. More than just a changed word or two: sometimes editors will insert whole new paragraphs, maybe several of them.
I’ve done this more than once, where reading through a draft text prompts me to think: “We need some words to introduce x, or provide the background for y.”
I could ask the author to do that, and sometimes I will. Other times, it’s just quicker and simpler to write something myself, and leave it for the author to judge: Shall we add a section like this? I’ll say. Feels like it might be useful.
Your editor will ask you lots of questions
Good editors ask loads of questions - usually because they’re trying to find as much clarity as possible about what you’ve written.
Usually, your editor doesn’t know as much about your subject as you do, but that’s the whole point. Most of your readers won’t either. Your editor is a proxy for your readers, and your editor asks you all the questions your readers would ask.
So often, your editor will be stuck on something small - just a paragraph, or a sentence, or just a few words - and will pin you down for an hour on the phone, asking you all sorts of questions. Some of those questions will sound bizarre and pointless, going down weird tangents and rabbit holes that don’t seem to make sense to you as the writer.
That’s usually because your editor has seen a connection (or lack of connection) that wasn’t obvious to you. Your editor is trying to understand the relationship there. They’re probably thinking that if they understand it one way, they would re-write the sentence like this. But if they’ve misunderstood it, even a single word could change the meaning in unfortunate ways.
This is why your editor asks you so many questions. They’re trying to anticipate the connections that readers will make in their minds, and preempt how those readers will react.
Your editor will explain why things need changing
Editors don’t just highlight what they think needs changing, but they explain why. They say things like:
This paragraph is too long, which makes it hard to read. That’s why we should split it into two or three shorter sentences.
This section needs another look because it sort of contradicts what you said in the previous chapter.
The words you’ve got here make sense, but the point you’re trying to make isn’t clear. I think it needs another sentence to make it more explicit.
As a writer, it’s really helpful to understand the why of each edit. It’s easier to re-write if you know precisely what the problem is. And often, it’s less bruising to the ego. It’s not that you’re a bad writer, but just that one particular thing could be expressed more simply, or more clearly, than your first effort.
Your editor will know when it's your turn to do more work
Editors can fix many things, but sometimes the best fix is to get the writer to re-write something.
There will be some texts and some circumstances where your editor decides that no amount of editing is going to improve the text enough.
So after explaining what needs changing and why, your editor will hand control back to you, and ask for a re-write.
This isn’t the editor giving up. It’s not because your text is so awful that it’s beyond help. Usually, it’s because the editor has been through it and decided that a re-write is the best next step.
Also, this isn’t the editor asking you to do their job for them. Rather, your editor is thinking ahead, to what happens after your re-write. Even as the best next step, the re-write is just another step: there will be more editing to do after that.
Your editor thinks about you, as well as your words
A good editor will prompt you to consider things that go beyond the text. They’ll think through implications and consequences.
If you’ve written about this, it’s likely that readers will assume that. Is that a fair assumption? Is that what you want them to think? Is that how you, as a writer, want to be perceived? Editors look at your words and consider how well those words represent you to the world.
Writing builds reputation. Your editor is thinking about your reputation, or the reputation of the organisation you’re writing on behalf of. As well as thinking about your words. That means thinking about how you sound, how you come across.
So it’s part of an editor’s job to say things like:
This makes you sound a bit self-congratulatory. Let’s tone it down a bit.
This sounds like moaning. Could we say the same thing, but more positively?
You come across quite arrogant here. Can you make this bit more constructive?
Writing it this way suggests you’re politically inclined in this way; do you mind if your political views are obvious to your readers? Does adding a political element detract from the point you were trying to make - or is it part of the point?
(Like I said: editors ask lots of questions.)
If your editor gives you feedback like this, it’s not because your editor thinks you’re self-congratulating, or moaning, or being arrogant. It’s because your editor is thinking about how those words make you come across as a human.
This is an editor doing their job. They’re telling you what your words look and sound like - what you look and sound like - to someone new.
Your editor wants to make you look good. They want readers to read your words and walk away thinking more than just “That was well-written,” but also “That author makes a lot of sense, I respect that author’s point of view.”
Good editors care about you as an author, and about your readers. They want you to be seen as a good writer; they want readers to have a good experience, to feel like spending money on your writing was a good investment. This is why good editors will push you and nag you to think harder, to re-consider, and to re-write more.
Your editor doesn't know all the answers, and won't pretend to
Sometimes, people who haven’t worked with an editor before might worry about the implied power in the relationship; editors are often seen to have more power than writers.
Good writer-editor relationships aren’t like that. Editing is better when it’s a collaboration: a joint effort to make the finished text better.
Which means editors aren’t “in control” or “in charge”. Sometimes, your editor might say some decisions are yours to make, not theirs. Sometimes, your editor will shrug and say “I dunno,” and then the two of you need to talk more, perhaps even pull in another brain and another fresh pair of eyes, to come to a decision.
Editors are there to adjust the dials
There are rules in language - rules of spelling and grammar and to a certain extent, style - and your editor will know these rules, and ensure you don’t break them.
Except: when they let you break them.
Editing, like so many things in life, isn’t always black-and-white, this-or-that, yes-or-no. Just like a music producer twiddling the dials to make the bleeps sound a little bit more like this or a little bit less like that, editing is sometimes something that works because the editor knows their stuff, and has edited many things over their career.
There might be times when your editor leaves in a long, rambling sentence. Or doesn’t change a snippet of passive voice into active voice. Or does something inconsistent, like using Oxford commas at the start of a piece, and removing them later.
Some of editing is art: adjusting the dials, bending or breaking some of the rules, letting the words sing in certain ways because it just feels right.
Editors need editors too
Even the most experienced editors will need editors of their own. I needed one for this piece. (Hi Amy!)
Just because someone has edited your words, that doesn’t mean they’re the world’s best writer, or that their written work won’t need help. It will.
Just last week, I shared a draft with a client where I had used the word “working” three times in the same sentence. I hadn’t noticed. And I’ve been writing for a living for almost 30 years.
Everyone needs an editor, and needs the help that editors can provide. Even editors.
Editors are there to give you the feedback you’d hate to hear from other people
This is why working with an editor can feel uncomfortable, at least the first time you do it. Editors will give you the difficult feedback: they’ll tell you when your logic breaks down, when your argument doesn’t stand up, when you repeat yourself and when your sentences just don’t scan. This is what editors are for.
Relish this feedback, welcome it. It’s much, much better to hear it from an editor, than from a reader who you’re trying to impress, or convince, or persuade.
Made by Giles Turnbull, © Copyright 2022 Use the human voice. Thanks to Amy McNichol for editing, and to Gregory Cadars for the John Doe HTML template. Last updated: 19 August 2022. Send your questions and suggestions to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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