People call me to write and/or edit just about everything from brief biographies to full-length, published books, and I can honestly say, I love it all. There’s just something incredibly satisfying about transforming a piece of writing that’s good (or even not so good) into something that can reach farther and make a larger impact on the reader.
Editing is an art, not a science. If you gave ten editors the same piece, you would most likely get ten very different pieces back. I’m sure each file back would return with all simple typos and grammar corrected, but you would also probably find that one editor may have suggested some word substitutions in places. Other editors may have added stronger transitions between paragraphs. Another may have offered the idea of a reorganization for greater emphasis on an idea or point which other editors thought was thoroughly explained. The writing may even return from the editor nearly unrecognizable, which could be a good thing, or time for a deep conversation, depending on the project!
Every editor has their own special way of applying their craft, and despite existing editing guidelines, we are human. So, we often can’t help but apply our own personal touch to make your writing the best it can be. If it’s your turn to be an editor (either for yourself or someone else), know that if you have a personal plan for your editing, it will help you focus how and when to change things.
Today I’m sharing my own personal “ten commandments” for editors. Mine may be a little different than others you have seen, and they do not apply necessarily to one kind of publication because of the variety of writing I do. However, as you edit your own work (or someone else’s), I hope some of these guidelines will work for you, just as they do for me and the authors I serve.
- Thou shalt understand the objective of the project. Editors need to understand what the piece is trying to communicate and why. Who will be reading? Where will it appear? Can you assume that the readers already have knowledge about the subject? If so, what? How much? How does the author want the reader to feel, act, etc. after reading the piece? Editors need to consult the piece’s creative brief, or simply ask the author. Understanding the “why” behind the writing can help you make editing decisions.
- Honor thy author’s voice and content. The best voice for the piece you are editing is that of the author. Good editors have a sense of the author’s voice and will edit accordingly. When an editor changes a word, it should be for clarity or to stay within the author’s voice.
- Thou shalt use a stylebook. Chicago Manual of Style, APA and AP are examples of stylebooks that will help you answer questions such as, “Should I spell out the number or write it in numerals?” “Do I capitalize this job title?” By using a stylebook, you will ensure your editing is consistent across the project. Sometimes, organizations have their own stylebooks, or loose guidelines on how they want things referenced and written out. Whether you use an existing book or work with something the organization put together, stylebooks can help immensely with clarity and consistency.
- Thou shalt clarify acronyms and jargon. It is common for authors to use the language of those they interact with, sometimes including an alphabet soup of acronyms. Be sure that the audience will easily understand these bits, and if not, make changes to clarify them.
- Thou shalt have a reason for every edit. One way to make your editing bulletproof is to have an answer for every change. Even the most easy going author can get territorial and possessive about their writing. It is fair for them to expect an explanation for edits, just as it is fair for you to make them for your own reasons.
- Thou shalt be tactful when explaining changes. Writing is a form of “putting yourself out there.” It’s real and vulnerable. Before you launch into what the author did wrong, acknowledge the hard work they have done and encourage their work towards perfection. Be respectful as you explain changes so your author feels that they can realistically scale the mountain set before them.
- Thou shalt check and cite facts. This is an important one. If statistics are used, they should be cited. If claims are made, ask the author where they got their information if it is not evident. Be careful not to present impressions or hearsay as facts.
- Thou shalt proof. And proof. Read your piece multiple times, and preferably, engage multiple pairs of eyes. As humans, our brains are capable of corecting mistkes as we read therefore mising things tht we should catch. Right?
- Thou shalt help authors understand legal obligations. If an author has named names, revealed secrets, or spilled classified information, it is your job as an author to question the author about it and when necessary, encourage them to get an attorney involved.
- Thou shalt have a deadline. In fact, thou shalt have a production schedule (formal or informal) when pieces are supposed to be drafted, completed, and published. I’ve found that reviewing changes can sit on client desks if they are not given a deadline.
So there you have it…ten important things to keep in mind as you edit. How many of these “commandments” do you keep? And if you have any need for professional editing, I can help. Contact me to discuss the project.