Everyone needs an editor

Everyone who writes needs an editor. Sure, you can write well without an editor. But the more important the content, the more important the need for an editor. An editor—be that editor a professional editor, a co-worker in another department, or a friend—can help make your writing stronger and clearer by spotting errors, omissions, incongruities, and ambiguities to which you are blind.

Most people need an editor because they know what they’re talking about—not because they don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re subject-matter experts, and therein lies the problem. A writer knows things that his reader does not know, and it’s easy to forget to include those things in the final written product.

Image source: epa.gov/plainlanguage

Image source: epa.gov/plainlanguage

In other words, it’s easy to take writing shortcuts, make assumptions of your reader, and overlook the need to explain events and concepts that, though old-hat to the writer, are new to the reader. For example, a writer might rattle off acronyms and jargon that she uses daily in conversation—acronyms and jargon that are foreign to a new but important audience. Or a writer might plunge in to the latest details of a project without providing the backstory—a few historical tidbits that would give readers (both old and new) essential context and make the writing more meaningful to them.

When your writing confuses the reader, the reader loses your message and you lose the reader. And you often lose some or all of the reader’s respect.

Good writers might not need an editor. They might need two editors. One editor would look at content and structure—the substantive editing. (Is this the right/best/strongest/most appropriate information to convey? Is the content understandable? Is information presented in an orderly way, a way that makes sense for readers? Does the writing include analogies or descriptions that just don’t hit the mark? Is the tone appropriate for or relatable to the intended audience? Are there big gaps in the information? Has the writer assumed too much of the reader?) Another editor would look at spelling, grammar, and punctuation—the copyediting function.

Following are a few tips for taking some of the pain out of editing and being edited.

Don’t take it personally. It’s easy to get defensive about what you have written. It’s easy to view what you have written as perfect or as being from the soul. If you’re writing for yourself, you don’t need an editor. But if you’re writing for an external audience, your writing will benefit from some editing help. An editor serves as a stand-in for that external audience. A good editor anticipates. A good editor asks questions not because he’s “stupid” or trying to make you “look stupid”—but because your audience might have those same questions. Answering seemingly silly questions during the editing process allows you and the editor to rework content before it gets to the reader. It allows you to take those questions out of play for the reader and to eliminate confusion. It allows you to write more clearly. And it allows the reader to absorb your message more easily. So try to put pride of authorship on the shelf during the editing process.

Don’t make it personal. It’s easy to get excited when you find a glaring problem in writing—whether it’s a simple misspelling or failure to mention the name of an organization. It might as well be a golden Easter egg. (“Look what I found! It’s a doozy! I’m saving us from looking stupid!”) So when you’re playing the role of editor, don’t gloat. And try not to use the word “stupid” when pointing out errors. Be diplomatic. Writers love to bristle when their work is viewed as less than perfect. They push back. The editors push back. Tempers flare. The writer/editor relationship suffers, and the writing suffers. Again, be diplomatic. Take some time to appreciate the amount of work it took for the writer to gather and distill lots of information into the written product you are now editing. (It’s kind of like assemble-it-yourself furniture. The writer did all the upfront heavy lifting. But it’s going to take two of you to assemble the product and make it usable.) And put your edits and your suggestions in terms of the readers’ perception and questions that the readers might have. It’s about the reader. It’s always about the reader. So make it about the reader—not about the writer, not about the editor.

Know who has the final say. Is there a formal editing hierarchy in your organization? Who makes the changes that an editor wants? (The writer? The editor?) Who reviews the material after the changes have been made? When do you consider the editing to be “complete”? And where does content go after the edits are complete? Who moves the final edited content down the line? Is there a proofreading step or a quality-control step at some point after the final edits are made? Who’s involved in that step? Knowing the answers to these questions before the editing process will save you lots of confusion and hurt feelings.

This last point is often tough to sort out. But some organizations make the question of “final say” easy by having honest-to-goodness editors on staff. And sometimes those editors fail to get the respect they deserve. In an organization where someone serves an official editing function, where the function is part of the professional role, defer to the editor as the expert—the same way you would defer to corporate counsel on legal decisions or to the CFO on tax decisions.

If that editor type is your language expert, resist the urge to overrule her unless (1) you have the authority to overrule her and (2) you can provide a solid argument or contemporary evidence for why you are overruling her. “Because I learned it this way in school” is not enough. Language changes. What you learned in school might be wrong today. It might even have been wrong back then. And yes, you might have written scads of papers throughout college—and scored well on all of them. But that doesn’t necessarily make you a writing/editing/language expert. The editor in your organization, however, should be a subject-matter expert on language. So treat her like one. You need her.

(Full disclosure: I confess that I did not turn to an editor to help me improve this post on my personal blog. But I’m sure that an editor could have made my writing clearer, cleaner, and more powerful!)

Copyright © 2013 by L. Scott Tillett, lstillett.wordpress.com. All rights reserved.

6 responses to “Everyone needs an editor

  1. “Most people need an editor because they know what they’re talking about.” Yes, this exactly! I’m finding it’s far too easy for me to read what I think I wrote rather than what I actually wrote. I just know too darned much about the story to be effective at editing it on my own. My critique partners and beta readers have been very helpful in catching these issues for me 🙂

    • KLB, you reminded me of a topic that I did not quite address—or that I’ll address in a future post: the “freshness” of editors. As your editors/critique partners/beta readers become more knowledgeable about your content, they fall into the same trap. They *know* what you’re talking about. And then *they* can start to assume too much of the reader. It’s easy for an experienced editor to forget to play dumb and serve as a realistic stand-in for the new, not-so-knowledgeable reader. … Thanks!

  2. Pingback: Don’t Get Too Cute with Your Writing | L. Scott Tillett·

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