I want to let you in on a secret: any piece of writing that you edit has been written by someone.
Okay, perhaps that isn’t much of a secret, but it’s a piece of information that’s easily forgotten when in the throes of editing. Once you begin checking those Oxford commas and correcting spelling errors, you can lose focus of the author and instead see a piece of prose that simply needs to be fixed.
Where does that leave our authors? Without them, editors wouldn’t have anything to edit, and without anything to edit . . . the thought sends chills down any editor’s spine.
A good editor must keep in mind that the author is your friend, even if you two might not agree on everything. I know what you’re thinking: not everyone listens to reason, or some think their writing is perfect as is; there are definitely authors who fit those descriptions, but you still must ask yourself whether you do everything you can to foster healthy relationships with those kinds of authors.
There are a few practices and tips editors can (and should) follow when editing that transform them from those who edit prose into those who work with authors to make that piece the best it can be.
The biggest tip ties back to that “secret” I mentioned earlier. A piece is an author’s baby, and for someone to start criticizing and marking it up is perhaps the worst feeling for the author in that situation. It’s very possible you may even be the first person to see this piece besides the author. You can begin to see why authors might become defensive of their work.
The best thing to counteract this is to follow that old and lasting description of empathy: putting yourself in the person’s shoes. If you treat an author’s writing with the same level of respect and care they do, then you’ll already be leagues ahead of others.
The phrase “kill your darlings” will likely show its face—either verbatim or in spirit—when discussing changes to a piece with the author. It’s important that you come from this place of empathy and understanding when you deliver the suggestion. The author might balk, and you might have to back off. That’s okay. It’s not about being right or proving a point. As with any relationship, communication is key, and giving authors space to consider change and then coming back to it is much easier to process than getting into an argument.
It’s likely you’ll still run into the occasional uncooperative author, and unfortunately, there isn’t much to be done about that; people will be pigheaded if they want to be. What’s important is you remind your author that you’re both working to make the writing the best it can be.
In order to fulfill that goal, you have to be sure you’re upholding your end of the bargain. As difficult as some authors can be, editors can be just as bad. Perhaps the biggest mistake an editor can make is rewriting a piece. Your job as an editor is to service a piece of writing so it’s strong, free of errors, and concise, not to change out words for ones you like better.
When you decide to change words, you’re not only disrespecting the author and the work, but you’re effectively removing the author from the piece by changing the voice. Of course, there are instances where removing redundancies and misused words are acceptable and maybe even necessary, because those examples are more objective and can be justified; however, if your only reason to change an author’s writing is because you’d personally write it differently, that’s a red flag.
A good editor is subtle. You are a literary ninja, working behind the scenes to execute proper grammatical prowess and empower the piece. As soon as you begin to show your face, you’ve violated the sacred code of the editor.
Another approach to take with authors is to explain your process to them. I don’t mean having them watch you edit (although that might work for some), but if the author takes issue with a change you’ve made, realize they likely don’t see the piece the same way you do. (There’s that empathy thing again.)
Explain the change, why it was made, and how it works to make the piece better. The author has the final say, but communicating your thought process to the author helps with understanding and develops trust.
If you prefer, instead of making a change, leave a comment on the section with the potential issue. Point out what you’ve noticed and provide guidance on how to fix or improve it. This works well for subjective matters like changes in word choice or rephrasing. By providing the reasoning and guidance, you allow the author to make the change, resulting in the fix you wanted and the author retaining control over what’s said.
At the end of the day, the author and the editor share the same goal: provide the best writing possible to readers. The two of you form a team rather than separate parts of the writing experience, although you each have your own jobs. For the author, that means working to keep readers captivated and entertained.
For you, the editor, you have to help tell the author’s story in the best way possible, but you can’t do that if you’re making changes solely in the name of following the rules. That means for most modern writings, the debates of antiquated stylings—such as who versus whom and ending a sentence with a preposition—are out of the question, because more often than not, they’re stuffy and only serve to trip up readers. Instead, work to service the piece, because people read for the writing, not for the rules.
If your author is a storyteller, you’ll want to keep The Chicago Manual of Style in mind (as that’s often the style of choice for novels and stories), but it couldn’t hurt to also brush up on the art of storytelling.
As the saying goes, all good writers are good readers. The same goes for good editors, at least if that’s the kind of material you’re working with. Reading stories is not only fun and educational, but you’ll also learn storytelling techniques and aspects through osmosis. You’ll be able to read a manuscript and immediately know if something is off simply because you’ve subjected yourself to enough good examples. Or it’s also possible that you’ll find examples of how not to write stories, which are equally valuable lessons.
Of course, there’s also a swath of storytelling guides to read, some being more useful than others. Never be afraid to look into screenwriting guides as well since the material within often overlaps with that of book writing. Regardless of where you gather the information, being well versed in storytelling is never a bad idea if you’re looking to edit story manuscripts.
This one is pretty self-explanatory. Many editors are obsessed with memorizing all of the rules they can when they first start out, as if being armed with the technical knowledge of a topic is what makes someone a professional. This kind of approach exists in any kind of activity, and while it’d be nice to skip it and go right to being a pro, it’s necessary to learn the rules before you can break them.
But why on earth would one break the rules of English? Isn’t the whole point of editing to enforce the rules?
Yes and no. The rules are there to promote understanding between people. Without syntax, words would have no meaning. But there’s more to language than just rules: where editing is the logical side of writing that brings meaning to words, actual writing is the artistic side that makes language beautiful and interesting. Neither can exist without the other, and it takes a balance of the two to achieve the best results.
That’s why once you learn all (or at least a significant portion) of the rules to English, you begin to understand exactly what those rules do and when it’s okay to break them. In breaking them, you make language fun and interesting, and you’re able to pull off effects that are unachievable otherwise.
So when an author breaks the rules, whether knowingly or not, humor the blunder and ask yourself if it holds more importance and meaning because of how it’s formatted than if it would if it were changed to the “proper” form. After all, the ultimate goal of editing is to format writing in the clearest way possible; much more is up for interpretation than one would initially think.
Depending on your personal approach to editing, it may be difficult to make these changes, so practice is always recommended. It’s straightforward advice, but unless someone sends you material to edit, how are you supposed to practice?
A quick search on the internet will reveal thousands, if not millions, of free stories posted to self-published websites. Even news articles will contain room for improvement (although the local presses will often have more mistakes than the big names, making them better for practice).
Find a chapter or article, copy it into your word processor, and run through it like you normally would, but this time, practice being conscious of the changes you make and either explaining to yourself or jotting down the reasonings for them. Consider how you’d talk about these changes you’re suggesting with the author, and practice a combination of being supportive of your changes, respecting both the author and the piece, and being open to other opinions.
When in doubt, take a step back and ask yourself if your edit is actually improving the piece. If it isn’t, remove it. That’s your main goal as an editor, and through cooperation with the author, the two of you can arrive at that goal.
Everything covered here can be summed up into three main aspects: respect, transparency, and communication. If in the future you forget the specifics discussed in this article, adhering to at least these three principles will always guide you in the right direction as an editor (and maybe even as a person). It may be difficult at times to implement them, especially depending on who the author is, but it’s still important to do your best. Not only will the author appreciate it, but your readers will as well.