If you’re here to learn how to be a better editor, there’s something I need to break to you: primarily and inevitably, it’ll involve a lot of practice. That kind of goes without saying, but it’s always helpful to combine that practice with some helpful advice from fellow practitioners. So while you’re working on the practice side of things, here are 6 things that personally help me be a better editor: putting tasks into context, not making assumptions, distinguishing between different types of editing, clarifying suggestions, helping writers feel safe, and doing little bits of writing yourself. It’s more straightforward than it sounds.
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Table of Contents
1. Have contextual awareness
Just as writers don’t write in a void, you’re not editing in a void. Whether you’re editing a blog post or a novel, that work will go on to join the ranks of more examples in its format, which is why not everyone can helpfully edit everything.
As a fan of murder mysteries, I can probably be a useful editor for a whodunit, but I’ll be the first to admit that when it comes to fantasy novels, I can’t tell my mages apart from my warlocks. Without the specific knowledge of the genre, its tropes, and, sigh, market trends, my contextual awareness falls woefully short. Similarly, a fiction editor with no experience in SEO or blog writing would not be the best person to assess the chances of a post taking a featured snippet (in other words, the much-coveted spotlight) on Google, or whether it’s the right length by blog post standards.
Unless you are simply tasked with a copy edit, and no developmental editing is required of you (i.e. an assessment of structure and big picture elements), you’ll need some contextual knowledge of where that piece of writing is going to end up and what a successful text of its kind looks like.
Once it’s clear to you how necessary contextual awareness is, you can start to be selective about the editing jobs you take on, and avoid projects that fall outside your areas of expertise, with copy-editing being the obvious exception. (“Areas of expertise,” by the way, are primarily built by doing lots of relevant reading, so it’s entirely up to you to grow and develop your interests and editing skills.)
2. Question everything
When you’re reading casually, you’re free to take the words on the page for granted. As an editor, though, you need to tear off that baseline of assumptions and question every single word (and sentence and paragraph) of the text. Before you start to wonder whether something is in the right place, you need to ask yourself why it’s there in the first place, and whether it’s communicated clearly and successfully.
To give you an example: I was once tasked with proofreading an activity book for children right before it was sent for printing. There were no typos, but I remember attempting to actually complete the activities and spotting an error: in a matching objects exercise, children were asked to match puppies to beds of their preferred color, but the purple bed one of the puppies required just didn’t exist.
This is the kind of error you might miss if you’re reading passively, keeping your eyes open only to grammar and syntax and taking the logic of the exercise for granted. Here, the language was correct, but only by considering what the words were supposed to do could you see that something was off.
When you edit, you need to be awake to the text: its meaning, its length, its style, and its structure. When you see that you have the potential to change everything, changes become possible for elements that previously seemed ingrained and immutable (structure being one of these). This is when you really begin to see the potential of a piece of writing.
3. Distinguish between essential and personal edits
As a professional content writer, I’m regularly editing my colleagues’ work and having my work edited in turn, after self-editing to the best of my abilities. When I’m editing my own work, I get to be quite decisive with the changes I make without needing to explain them to anyone. But when I’m editing the work of other people (be it a colleague’s blog post or a friend’s short story), I’ve come to realize the majority of my changes fall under two usually very distinct categories: essential and personal.
Essential are simpler edits: a typo here, an unclear meaning there, and the repeated use of a particular word kind of everywhere. These are the more “objective” copy edits that immediately stand out to trained eyes. Personal edits are more subjective and involve suggestions like alternative adjectives, potential ways to restructure a sentence, finding a sentence too short or too long when objectively it’s neither of the two. Simply put, personal edits fall somewhere on the line between preference and a sense of what works and what doesn’t, pointing out “I don’t like a particular phrase,” and so on. As an in-between kind of edit, I sometimes flag a problematic area and suggest a solution, while clarifying that the writer can freely take my solution or leave it, as long as they deal with the issue in some way.
Why am I saying this? Well, presumably you want to know how to be a better editor, so I would suggest clearly signposting the two kinds of edits for the author. On the receiving end of feedback, it’s really helpful to know which changes an editor thought were “non-negotiable” and which ones you’re free to take with a grain of salt. Both can be worked out in a subsequent discussion, but knowing how serious each issue is helps writers weigh up proposed edits.
4. Accompany ambiguous edits with a note
It’s really easy (and probably fun in a ‘Meryl Streep from The Devil Wears Prada’ sort of way) to just storm through a piece of writing in Track Changes and imperiously leave a red whirlwind of crossed-out words and rewritten passages behind, but you might want to ask yourself how useful some of it is. Ultimately the writer is free to discard some of those edits (it’s their writing, after all), so you should aim to always accompany ambiguous edits with a note that explains your thinking.
If you make direct edits and don’t clarify the motivation behind a radical change, the writer will be forced to follow up about every ambiguous point. If this happens, you’ll hopefully still remember the thinking that prompted your changes, but your collaboration can run a lot more smoothly if you just add a note along with your changes the first time around.
The worst “note” you can possibly leave
If I can caution you against one particular type of ambiguous edit, it’s the dreaded teacher-style question mark: highlighting a particular passage and scribbling a question mark in the margin. Clearly, the writer thought they were making sense, so a taciturn question mark isn’t going to be constructive feedback. Instead, indicate what you’re referring to in a comment. Are you objecting to the writer’s word choice? Does something come across as too dramatic? Does it contradict something previously stated? Do you think the idea it introduces needs to be put into context, or contrasted with what preceded it? None of these questions will be answered by a mute question mark, so try to be as specific as you can.
5. Adjust your feedback style to each person
The first time a friend of mine edited a story I wrote, he highlighted entire sentences and wrote “cut” in the margin. If he’d been editing a stranger’s work, he’d never have just written “cut,” choosing a politer suggestion instead: something as simple as “not sure this is needed” or even the somewhat more abrupt “unnecessary?” would have done the job.
I’m not advocating for constant hedging (i.e. toning down your opinion by means of various frustrating linguistic maneuvers) — too much of that is distracting and needlessly polite if you’re already in the position of a trusted editor offering solicited feedback. But it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that an emerging, potentially insecure writer will react to a note saying “cut” differently to a well-established author who’s had their work edited countless times.
Be sensitive to the personality and career stage of each writer. Yes, you are not their therapist, and there’s little you can do to alleviate pre-existing self-esteem issues or anxiety, but you can make sure you don’t add to these problems. All a good editor needs to do is show some tact and sensitivity: fostering a sense of safety between you and the writer shows you’ve really learned how to be a better editor.
6. Try becoming a better writer
Not every editor has to be a writer, so this is entirely optional, but it’s nevertheless true that becoming a better writer makes you a better editor. From Toni Morrison to Max Porter and Margaret Atwood, there’s a long tradition of great writers combining the two.
It doesn’t matter what you write about, as long as you have a sense of what it’s like to translate an idea into writing and then receive external feedback as part of the editing process. Apart from strengthening your writing skills, you’ll see that once you know what it feels like to “kill darlings” and delete much-loved passages, gentle edits and constructive feedback will become an instinct. Chances are, you’ll be much better at rewriting confusing sentences, too.
Like I said in the beginning, you can’t really hack your way to being a great editor by skipping the many hours of practice necessary. As is the case with many skills, it’s not a binary where you’re either “good” or “bad” at something — it’s just a path you can do your best to travel. I hope these editing tips help spur you on while you hike your way up.