A wonderful bundle of guidance for enduring editorial excellence

Grab a career’s worth of advice from a slew of accomplished writers, editors and storytellers.

Bits of editorial wisdom

Recently, I posed this question to members of the editing community on Twitter (AKA #edibuddies): “What are some things (beyond basic grammar, usage, or practice) you’ve learned along the way that newer editors may not know?”

As always, they selflessly shared their invaluable knowledge and expertise, and I’ve compiled their responses here. If you want to find editors to connect with, you’ll find links to their Twitter pages. If you’re looking for other editing-related hashtags, check out #AmEditing and #StetWalk.

The following tips are listed in no particular order.

Editing skills

  • “I always used to tell new hires that the cardinal rule of editing is similar to what is told to doctors: First do no harm. You’re going to miss things along the way. That’s fine, as long as you learn from your mistakes. The biggest sin is to insert an error that wasn’t there.” —David Yontz (@davidyontz)

  • “Learning to honor the writer’s voice is continuing professional development. Every project has something to teach you.” —Karen Conlin (@GramrgednAngel)

  • “Many grievances you may have with English grammar have been in constant, uninterrupted use for at least 300 years, so complain judiciously.” —Christian Wilkie (@CWWilkie)

  • “Editors need to learn to ‘feel’ the story as a musician feels the music, or a painter feels the brush strokes. They focus too heavily on ‘what’s proper’ and miss out on the STORY itself. Telling a good story is an art, and it’s our jobs as editors to help authors do well.” —S.D. Howard (@SDHoward3)

  • “Developmental work is strongly intuitive, but also relies heavily on knowledge of craft, even more so than copyediting. You also have to know your genre conventions and keep up with what’s current in publishing. It’s creative work, and fun, but takes very specific skills.” —Sonnet Fitzgerald (@Sonnet_Fitz)

  • “It’s possible to develop an irrational dislike for a word without realizing it. You step through a manuscript striking every instance of ‘utilize’ for instance (a plague in business writing) and suddenly realize you’re even killing the useful versions. It’s vital to maintain a strict hold on your horses and be sure you’re editing in the author’s voice (or the company’s, or the client’s), and not yours. If someone else’s writing sounds like yours when you’re done—unintentionally, I mean—it’s a bad job, even if it reads well.” —DeAnna Burghart (@DeAnnaBurghart)

  • “You don’t have to know everything; you just have to be willing to look it up.” —M. David Nichols (@MDavidNichols)

  • “There’s always going to be stuff that you don’t know or you could know better. But it’s far, far worse to assume you and you alone have all answers. Memory is fallible.” —Rhiannon Root (@rhiannonroot)

  • “Fewer words is not always the answer. 2. Learn the style conventions and ignore them when appropriate. 3. Soft skills (communication & relationships) are as important as hard skills (rules & tools).” —John Andrilla (@activevoicer)

  • “Look it up, even if you’re almost positive. Have a defensible reason for every change. Do different passes for different things. Tie goes to the writer. Review your comments before you hand it back. Do your best, then let go.” —Mike Pope (@mikepope)

Working with clients

  • “Learning how to write queries effectively and compassionately. Even now, a decade on, I have to pay careful attention to my comments and rewrite them a few times over before sending them to the [author]. Otherwise, I can come across as too blunt.” —Sea Chapman (@sheofsea)

  • “Be kind. An author has spent months or years working on this manuscript. Opening up a file and seeing it dripping with red is a shock. Establish a relationship with the author and set expectations if you can. Use careful language in queries.” —Brian MacDonald (@bmac_editor)

  • “Sometimes giving a choice is better than making the choice for them. It takes longer, but it also gives the client more agency when they’re going through your changes. Doing it this way helps fight the urge to think there’s one ‘best’ way to do something, too.” —Davy Kent (@DavyKent)

  • “Subject matter experts with little-to-no writing experience might not know the meaning behind some editing jargon. Active voice? Stet? Be patient and explain yourself in comments, if necessary.” —Emily Primeaux (@EmPrimeaux)

  • “Look for and celebrate/encourage (out loud in comments) the writer’s goals and intentions. If I can’t see the potential, the value, then I can’t help them reach it.” —Kyra Freestar (@KyraFreestar)

  • “Copyeditors, please PLEASE don’t make your manuscript comments snarky! It gives production editors more work to do to have to tweak your comments so you don’t make authors CRY just because you couldn’t help being a wise-ass. Be professional.” —Marinda Valenti (@MarindaReads)

Keeping the reader in mind

  • “You’re getting paid by the author or institution, but you’re editing for prospective readers. Keep them in mind, and cast your comments less as ‘This is wrong’ and more ‘This will confuse people.’” —Denise Logsdon (@denisemlogsdon)

  • “Edit a subject to address the needs of the target reader, specific purpose, and genre or form. For example, an informative article about a career or skill, a promotional web page about the career, and a description of the career in a story will differ.” —Laura Edlund (@EdlundLaura)

Practical tips and tools

  • “Copyediting requires a level of intense focus that the human brain just can’t sustain more than about 4 hours a day. Even if you’re fast, a novel is going to take you about two weeks of work.” —Sonnet Fitzgerald (@Sonnet_Fitz)

  • “Sometimes, less really is more, and this applies to all types of editing. In developmental editing, for example, trying to pick out every possible developmental issue will overwhelm you and the author. Focus on the most important stuff first! (I often do this by building two rounds into my pricing.)” —Rachel Skelton (@EditingSkeleton)

  • “What style manuals call things (I’m looking at you, Chicago manual, with your ‘direct discourse’) and names for parts of speech and categories of grammar (appositives, for example, or sentence adverbs). It’s hard to look things up if you don’t know what they’re called.” —Christy Karras (@christykarras)

  • “Learn some basic keyboard shortcuts for common steps. Word has a cornucopia of useful ones. And get familiar with how to do a few macros for things you do all the time (like copying and pasting a word into your style sheet).” —Patty Boyd (@Dottyeyes)

  • “The simplest math can often be wrong. Check every sum or percentage if you can. And finding a teeny math error makes many authors appreciate and trust you.” —Patty Boyd (@Dottyeyes)

  • “There are things your client routinely misspells/does wrong. And things you routinely misspell. Keep a list as you notice them, and search for them when you think you’re done. At least one will have hidden from you.” —Jen Goode Stevens (@goodeedits)

  • “When to encourage writers be consistent and when to encourage variety in wording—there are different reasons/places in fiction as well as nonfiction. (I love Panlexicon when seeking variety.)” —Kyra Freestar (@KyraFreestar)

  • Google Ngrams can be helpful for usage issues too new to appear in a usage manual.” —Karen Conlin (@GramrgednAngel)

  • The Online Etymology Dictionary is a lifesaver when working on period fiction.” —Sarah Terry (@spellegance)

Final thoughts

One thing I learned quickly when I transitioned from editing on the side to a full-time freelance career was the importance of connection. I feel lucky that the editing community is such a welcoming one. Whether I’m looking for an answer, a pep talk, or a laugh, I know I can turn to my fellow editors to learn and to grow in this profession. What pieces of advice have you learned along the way?

Crystal Shelley is a freelance editor with a focus on conscious language and representation. Read more of her work on the Rabbit with a Red Pen blog.

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