At my first ACES conference in 2019, I was thrilled to hear from so many editors with storied careers. Paula Froke teaching me about AP Stylebook changes? It was a fan-girl moment. But I was in the fourth year of my career, facing a problem I didn’t think would be solved until I had the experience of these grammar masters: How do I make my mark as a millennial editor? How do I convince my colleagues of the importance of the editing process? How do I promote a culture of editing when I’m only 25?
Today, I certainly don’t have all the answers, but reflecting on these questions for the past year has brought some lessons to light (and allowed me to see the mark I have indeed made so far).
Like many 20-somethings, I suffer from imposter syndrome, that feeling that my success isn’t due to my own abilities, that somehow I will be proven a fraud. So one of my earliest lessons was to gain self-confidence. It didn’t matter my age, especially in comparison to my colleagues; I was a good editor, and I had been hired to do a job. Through continual training (thanks, ACES), taking feedback to heart and remembering my love of words that got me into this career, I began to believe in myself.
Grammar and style are difficult for many people. In the same way I feel embarrassed I can’t figure out Excel formulas, no one wants to feel uneducated or unintelligent about commas — especially in front of someone younger than they are. It’s in working together and framing the delivery of edits with grace that buy-in of the editing process begins.
Buy-in is about making people want to rely on you, not feeling like they are being forced to listen to the editor. Preface edits with a compliment — about the writer’s knowledge of the subject matter, about their mastery of a grammar rule they’ve been struggling with, or even about the promptness of their first draft. You’ll put them in the right mindset to receive edits. Remember, you’re critiquing something they spent time writing.
When I edit, I use Word’s Track Changes feature to encourage my writers to see what has been edited. The more they master grammar, the quicker my editing round will be and the faster they can get their final document out to the public. Should you find a recurring issue with a writer, explain the rationale behind the change. For stylistic or readability changes, pose a question instead of mandating a change: “Have you considered…?” “I suggest something like…” It’s all about the delivery, and it gives the writer a choice to make their piece better.
Buy-in is also created outside the editing process by giving writers a stake in the style. Let them be the experts in their focus area and use their experience to your benefit! Every six months when I update our internal style guide, I ask staff to send me their questions and needs for me to evaluate, and I give them credit if their suggestion leads to a change. Ask what writers need for success, whether that is department-specific style sheets or training sessions.
Research shows that Generation X workers — the CEOs and managers of 20-something editors — are task-oriented. Create a workplace culture where editing is a required step in the process. If it hasn’t been edited, it doesn’t go out. With self-confidence, examples of well-edited pieces and some patience, this culture can be built over time.
A 20-something editor should be accessible. Find what works with each writer — handwritten edits versus track changes, in-person reviews versus phone calls versus Skype messages. Being accessible creates an environment in which writers feel safe asking questions. But creating boundaries is equally important. You want to prove yourself but not at the sake of your sanity. Set reasonable deadlines, build in padding, and guide others to work within your process.
Be brave. You are the expert and grammar does not bend for someone’s job title or salary. Know your style guide and the rationale behind each entry. And if you don’t know the answer when a rule is questioned, a response of “I don’t know, so I’ll find out” will build trust.
But remember to pick your battles. Sure, your stylebook may say X, but if your organization wants Y and that change doesn’t impede a reader’s understanding, be open to adapt. Know your non-negotiable rules, but be willing to admit that style is flexible. When you’re wrong, own it. You can still be a top-notch editor while learning.
Recently, I gave an all-staff presentation to explain the updates to our internal style guide. I asked (ironically, I thought), “Who’s excited to learn about grammar?” The room erupted in cheers. It took me a few seconds to recover, and after the presentation, I gave myself a minute to celebrate: “You did it. You shifted the culture. You made your mark.” And then I picked up my red pen and went back to editing.