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Sure, You Can Write. But, Can You Edit?

December 8, 2017 Damon Maida

So, you’re a great writer. You really know how to turn a phrase and your writing is pithy and poignant, without being pedantic. You’ve proved yourself the best of the best, and others look to you for advice and feedback on their own projects. You should be proud. But – with all that writing prowess – do you have what it takes to be an editor?

You may think that being a good writer automatically makes you a good editor, but that’s not necessarily true. Being a talented writer certainly helps with the editing process (as you have a natural eye – and ear – for what looks and sounds right on the page), but it’s not the key ingredient. Editing requires you to step back from your own style and instead consider the words and voice of another author.

You may think that being a good writer automatically makes you a good editor, but that’s not necessarily true.

Unfortunately, many are not up to the challenge, and articles and manuscripts are returned to fledgling and professional writers alike with a sea of red marks, deletions and comments – without any consideration for the writer. But, there’s hope. Editing is a skill that can be learned, but it will take some time to perfect the process. Take the following four steps to begin to read copy in a different way and become a better editor:

Read the article once before making any changes

It can be easy to get one paragraph into an 800-word article and begin making changes immediately. Unfortunately, this can result in having to revise edits you’ve already made, once you’ve reached the end. It’s more efficient to step back a bit and take a high-level view of the content first before getting into the details. Read (or at least skim) the full article once to get a sense of the author’s style and the overall direction of the piece. Then, go back to the beginning and begin making adjustments.

Consider the author’s voice (especially if it differs from yours)

We all speak differently, and if we write how we talk, there are bound to be differences from one author to another – and that’s a good thing! However, sometimes the ways in which a writer uses certain words or phrases might not ring as “correct” to an editor. Consider that something isn’t wrong simply because it was not written the way you would have written it. There are, of course, instances where there is a lack of clarity or style can be improved, and in those cases, changes and/or suggestions should be made. In addition, if the writer has completely missed the point of the piece and/or the work not consistent with other materials the author has written, it’s appropriate to bring those to his attention. But, in most cases, unless there is a grammatical error or something is quantifiably wrong, resist your first urge to make a change.

Make the quick fixes

There’s no point in saying, “You might want to consider removing this word, as it doesn’t fit in the sentence,” if you can just as easily remove the word. There are certainly instances where an editor can employ a teaching moment, but many mistakes can be corrected without comment. Chances are, with one more read, the writer might have caught the mistake anyway, so avoid creating extra work for the writer (or yourself) unless absolutely necessary.

Use the Socratic method (sparingly)

Once you’ve made the quick fixes, there may be elements of the piece that require further attention from the author (e.g. if you don’t understand what they’re saying or to fix it would mean fully re-writing a whole section). In such instances, take a step back and ask appropriate questions that might lead the writer to a better place. This will allow your writer to learn a larger lesson, so the next submission is in better shape. As with other edits, ask yourself if the issue is something that needs to be fixed. If it’s a style difference, you can still propose a potential change, but perhaps don’t demand it.

Follow up with your writer

One way to become better at anything is to seek feedback from others on the process. After you’ve provided edits to a writer, approach them and ask, “Were those edits helpful? Did you understand the changes I made? Is there anything that would have made the process easier and clearer, and do you have any other questions?” For a writer, accepting changes without considering why they were made or having an opportunity to discuss them can result in repeated errors. As an editor, do yourself a favor by actively engaging your writer in the process to keep the goal (the writer’s best work) top of mind.

So, now you’re ready to be an editor, right? Maybe not. It takes a lot of practice reading different author’s takes on various topics to hone your editing craft. So, go easy on yourself – you’ll get there. Editing is as individual a skill as the writing itself. Follow these five steps and you’ll be off to a solid start. And, if you’re editing this article, I hope you’re reading this sentence before you make your first change.

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