This is a guest post written by Adrian Harley.
Congratulations! If you’re reading this, I’m willing to bet you already have a lot of the skills you need to be an editor. Even among full-time professionals, a lot of editing skill comes from reading a ton—you get an “eye” for when a sentence just doesn’t look right. The more you read professionally edited work, the better you get at it. (Fanfiction is incredible, obviously. But fanfiction has its own quirks, and the grammar and punctuation can vary, so I’m not confident recommending it as a way to brush up your instinctive grasp of when a sentence “looks right.”)
The specifics of what you do as an editor can vary a lot depending on what you’re editing and who you’re editing for, so in this post, I’ll be covering some of the basic principles that I think will be helpful no matter what type of editing you do. Broadly, I’ll be going over language-related tips and profession-related tips.
I won’t be going over the nuts and bolts of grammar here, as a zillion good guides to it already exist online. Grammar Girl is my go-to free resource, and a lot of grammar and punctuation questions can be easily answered online or in a style guide from your library. I looked up the rules for commas a LOT in my first years of editing, and I still have to double-check them sometimes. A lot of the fiddly details differ between guides (how to write a.m. and p.m.; serial comma), but the nuts and bolts of grammar and punctuation stay the same across guides.
Professionally, those fiddly details are a big chunk of editing. Do you write out numbers less than 20? Less than 10? Do you capitalize titles like “President” all the time or only in certain situations? There’s no one right answer, which is one of the many reasons there’s no “right guide” to editing. A style guide will decide many of these questions for you. If you pick up editing as a profession, your employer will most likely have a style guide in mind. You may want to pick one for yourself if you do freelance editing. That way, you won’t have to re-decide on every job, and if you get repeat clients, you’ll be sure their text is consistent across all their documents. A “series bible” for fiction works on similar principles.
Whether you’re looking at those fiddly details or at the big picture, one principle of editing is to never take anything for granted. Someone says there’s five ancient orbs needed to defeat the dragon? You’d better count the orbs. Make sure every proper noun in the story (names of people, places, things) is spelled the same every single time. This is the kind of thing you’ll get quizzed on if you ever apply for a professional editing gig. Every editing job I’ve ever applied to has an “editing test” of at least a page, and it usually has at least one of those errors (if not both).
Another major thing to watch out for is colloquialisms, especially ones that mean multiple things. A short list of common errors I see:
“Since” should only relate to the passage of time; it does not mean “because.”
“While,” again, should only refer to time—two things happening simultaneously. “But,” “although,” “whereas,” and others are good substitutes for the other sense.
“Due to” does not mean “because of,” it means “caused by” (and I’ve seen some editors argue to not even use it for “caused by” and to only use it for when something is owed to someone).
“If” will often need to be replaced with “whether.”
Obviously with dialogue, that’s a whole nother story, but be careful about these in narration, even with a colloquial narrative. They can introduce unintentional double meanings.
When you’re moving from basic accuracy to style, you’ll often need to “tighten up” the language. This might be something you’re used to doing in your own writing. This doesn’t mean all prose should be sparse! But as an editor, part of your job is making sure that every word is contributing something, no matter whether the sentence is flowery or stark. One exercise is to go through and see if you can cut one word from every sentence. Depending on what type of editing you do, you’ll have different “filler words” to look out for. My personal demon is “just,” so I always do a search for that when I’m revising my own work. In my day job, the word “provide” often signals a clunky phrase that could be condensed into a single, better verb (e.g., “provides assistance” vs. “helps”).
You’ll look for a lot as you edit, so don’t feel like you have to do it all at once. A simple search can make sure you’ve caught issues like “while” and “since.” Other issues are best solved in their own read-through. For me, I try to do a read-through specifically for passive voice. I often skip over passive voice on my all-purpose read because, well, the sentence makes sense, doesn’t it? So my eye simply doesn’t catch it if I’m not on the lookout. As you edit, you’ll figure out what process works best for you.
And to wrap up the language section—checklists are your friend! I used to have a post-it of all the things I knew I struggled with, and I’d systematically search the document for those trip-ups after I did my first read. You can customize your own checklist with whatever snags give you trouble.
A huge part of editing as a professional is in how you interact with other people. Your whole job is telling people they’re wrong, after all, and you often have no control over whether they’ll listen to you. Everything you can do to make the criticism easier for them helps!
My favorite “one weird trick” that my first boss taught me is to turn every criticism into a question. If you’re suggesting a significant revision, “How about…?” is one of my favorite leads. If you have no idea what’s going on, do your best to figure out what might be causing the issue, then form a question around that. “Are there missing words here?” is kinder and more useful than “Huh?”
Essentially, your role as an editor is to advocate for the reader. This “reader stand-in” role can help frame critique as well. Will the reader understand this? If you’re in one of the more-technical editing jobs, that question may be completely necessary. As an editor for scientific research, I’m often editing documents meant for people who know way more about the subject matter than I do. The framing of “the reader” is also a useful tool in your toolbox for fiction. You may be editing something that you are not the target audience for. Or, on the other end of the scale, you may know without question that you’re reading something incomprehensible. The polite device of “the reader” helps add a level of depersonalization to the critique.
Unsurprisingly, for editing, communication is key before you even start work. “Editing” covers a huge range of possibilities. Make sure you and the author are on the same page. Do they want a proofread—only correcting glaring errors? Do they want you to improve the phrasing of sentences? It can go all the way up to practically rewriting the thing, if you’re working at a corporation and the authors aren’t professionals. This conversation beforehand will let you know whether you should make “artistic” suggestions as you read, whether you need to stick with nuts and bolts, or something in between.
If the author says they only need a proofread and you discover the whole thing is terrible, that’s when some tactful emails come into play. Never start doing a higher-level edit unless you’ve talked about it with the author first. You have much better odds of an affirmative if they feel like they’re collaborating with you–that you’re both in it together to make the best document possible. As far as the tactful emails go, be kind and be specific. If you have examples of what you’d like to correct, throw those in. It helps the author know what to expect and make an informed decision.
And sometimes the author says no, and that’s okay! You must wash your hands of it. It’s not your name on the thing, and if you don’t put it in your resume, it never will be (fresh out of college, I worked on a couple truly awful novels that nobody will ever know I worked on). Perfectionism is HARD to overcome, I know, but accepting the errors gets easier with practice.
And finally, if you’re still wondering, “Am I cut out to be an editor?” I would recommend the words of Neil Gaiman. In his excellent “Make Good Art” speech, he says that as a freelance artist, you need to do good work, do it on time, and be pleasant to work with. And then, he adds, “You don’t even need all three! Two out of three is fine.” I recommend the whole thing if you ever want to battle imposter syndrome, because the same tenets apply to editing. At least I think they do. You don’t need to be the perfect editor—nobody is. But I guarantee that you have most of what you need already, and I hope this has helped.
Adrian Harley, one of Duck Prints Press’s editors, has been a full-time professional editor of scientific research for 10 years. Their freelance and ad-hoc editing has run the gamut from books to blog posts to family members’ cover letters. They’ve been published in Duck Prints Press’ And Seek (Not) to Alter Me and the forthcoming She Wears the Midnight Crown, as well as OFIC Magazine.
Want to learn more?
- Beware the Weasel Word has information and resources for “tightening up” language.
- How to Ask for Feedback on Your Writing talks more about how, from a writer point of view, to help your editor understand what type(s) of editing you’re looking for.
- Giving Quality, Motivating Feedback focuses on exactly what it says on the tin: how to give a writer feedback they’ll listen to.
- What is an Alpha Reader? talks about what role alpha reader editors play and how to work with one.