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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Stay open to suggestions. The writer’s suggested rewrite might be better than mine. And that’s fine by me.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.