Common rules of editing

As part of my day job, I edit everything from novel manuscripts to news stories to healthcare content to nonprofit papers. Yes, I do like the variety. But there are some common rules that I rely on, no matter what type of work I’m editing. Here are a few:

  1. It’s not my byline. My name won’t be appearing on top of the article, on the cover page of the book, etc. This isn’t my work, I don’t own it. Ultimately, my job is to best serve the writer. My ego has no place in the process.
  2. Use the writer’s voice. Everyone, if they’ve been writing long enough, has a “stable” of words and phrases they use regularly. They tend to use commas in a certain way, or love to throw in the occasional em dash. Their sentences are long and flowing, short and powerful, or somewhere in between. If I tweak or rewrite something, I make sure to use words the writer would use, or structure the sentence the way they would. I keep it in the writer’s voice.
  3. Add compliments. Creative people are a neurotic, insecure bunch and everyone has imposter syndrome. (Including me.) The tendency when editing is to focus only on what needs fixing, but that can come off as too negative. If a joke works, a line of description is especially lyrical, or there’s really good information shared in a clear way, I make sure to note that. People deserve to feel good about their work.
  4. Stay open to suggestions. The writer’s suggested rewrite might be better than mine. And that’s fine by me.
  5. Be prepared to explain myself. At various publications, I’ve worked with writers who shrugged at whatever changes I wanted to make, saying “I trust you.” I’ve also worked with writers who challenged everything I marked on their articles. Sometimes my explanation satisfied them; sometimes they asked for a different change instead. But if I couldn’t justify the changes I wanted to make, did I have any right to make them? The writers were trying to have some say in the final version of their work. (See rule #1.)
  6. Look everything up. I work with the Associated Press Stylebook, the Chicago Manual of Style, and whatever individual house styles different publications use. That’s a lot of different style guides, some of which contradict each other. (Do I use serial commas this time? Are there spaces around the em dashes or not?) It’s not possible to keep all of that in my head, so I don’t try. Editors and copy editors are more likely to get into trouble when they think, “I know this,” and don’t check to make sure they’re right.
  7. I don’t represent all readers everywhere. I might not be the target market for the work. That doesn’t mean the work should be written to appeal to me personally. That means I need to keep in mind who the target readers are, and edit accordingly. And if that means I need to look up something I don’t know, well, looking things up is my job.

It all comes down to the Golden Rule of editing: Treat the writer the way you would want to be treated as a writer. And that rule has worked well for me.

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