For many editors, there is a fine line between making sure copy reads clearly and concisely and ticking off the writers. Some editors might consider toeing the line daily in an effort to keep the readers’ best interests at heart.
Where does cleaning up copy end and infringing on the writers’ creativity begin? Those who attended Rob Reinalda’s session at the 2018 ACES National Conference in Chicago came prepared for him to answer what appeared to be a straightforward question: How much editing is too much?
Judging by the size of the crowd, more than one person was hoping to get the answer. In fact, the room was packed. All of the seats were filled, a handful of people were sitting on the floor, and more spilled out into the hallway.
The answer to that burning question had a surprise twist and an ending that no one expected. (Well, except for Reinalda.)
“Every time you edit well, it bolsters the profession. Be bold, be right, love the thesaurus and love the dictionary.” — Rob Reinalda
To start things off, Reinalda shared a few details about his nearly 10 years of working for Ragan Communications then said, “We all share a trade … we are assassins. We’re the ones who kill the darlings!” He explained that writers sometimes get their feelings hurt when their pieces are heavily edited. Reinalda said that all copy editors need to set priorities when editing in the following order of importance:
When it comes to editing, “what is appropriate is finding a middle ground where you get the message across in a way that it reaches, advises and affects the reader,” Reinalda said. He said that it’s OK for editors to “finesse” the copy, but they should do so to make it correct. He added that the four Cs of writing are:
Reinalda said he has a baseball on his desk at work that he plays catch with while scrolling through text for the first time. “Before looking at the lede and headline, look at the word count,” he stated, adding that editors should not read through copy with a mouthful of coffee. This drew laughter from the crowd.
Then he moved on to the point of the session. “My advice is to go at it hard … if they don’t serve the readers’ purpose.” (Gasp! This is the exciting twist!) “Not every writer has a terrific voice. There are edits that you can justify,” Reinalda said. “Explain to your writer what you’re doing.”
Reinalda added that writers need to know that the internet is their permanent record. Tell them “if it’s bad, that’s your reputation. That’s the writer’s reputation. It’s the appropriate thing to do.”
He discussed some ways that copy can be made more clear, such as removing filler words, also called throat-clearers, helper verbs, etc.
“People don’t know how to get out of their own way when they write,” he said. He also suggested editors track their changes and invite their colleagues to challenge edits that don’t make sense.
Reinalda ended his session by emphasizing that every editor’s goal should be ensuring what is published is clear and understandable for readers. “Every time you edit well, it bolsters the profession. Be bold, be right, love the thesaurus and love the dictionary.”
The final slide of his presentation read, “The real question is this: Are you editing enough?”