A Quick Thought

Why Everyone Needs an Editor

The person who already knows and understands what they’re trying to explain is in no position to evaluate whether or not they’re doing an effective job of communicating it. It’s a classic instance of the curse of knowledge.

And now, here’s a hedgehog in a bathtub.



What No One Ever Told You About Editing, Pt. 3: Fact Checking

red-pen-3jpgIn a previous post, I said that being smart requires two things: 1. thinking, “Is there an easier way to do this?” and 2. having access to Google.

For this edition of “What no one ever told you about editing,” the number one of that strategy doesn’t even apply. There’s no need to think of an easier way. Just have Google at the ready because authors absolutely make stuff up.

Um, Okay, But Why Do I Care if They Make Stuff Up?

Hard truth time.

Many times, real-world folks mostly want an editor not because they’re aiming for the most beautiful prose of all time. They want a safeguard against being embarrassed.

They may not ask you to fact check. They may not actually know they want you to fact check. But they want you to be a filter for potential humiliation. If something ridiculously untrue and easy to verify slips through, they will think (whether fairly or not), “Where was [your name here] on that one?”

So. Should you fact check things that aren’t easily verifiable, such as company-specific knowledge? Nope, don’t charge the client for tons of extra time. But is fact checking a universally understood part of your job as editor, like an unspoken contract with the client? Yeah, kind of.

“That Doesn’t Seem Right

I was once handed a letter from a high-ranking executive at a company for inclusion in an annual report. This letter claimed that Bermuda was a halfway point between the U.K. and the U.S. I read that sentence and thought, “Huh. That doesn’t seem right.” And just the other day, I edited something that claimed “Leone, France,” was the location of a conference. I had to google the conference to make sure that I was correct in thinking that “Lyon” was meant and not some city I hadn’t heard of spelled “Leone.” Microsoft Word hadn’t flagged it, so I’m glad I knew to check.

These are the types of things that are not the end of the world, mistake-wise, but they can embarrass authors or organizers on a fairly public scale, and I think much of an editor’s job is to prevent these types of embarrassments. And mistakes can have more damaging consequences. What if there were a Leone, France, and folks were booking travel to the wrong place? That’s a serious hit to the public’s trust in the organization publishing the brochure.

In the same brochure, I also had this in a sentence: “This city…is located in the southern part of the Rhine-Main-Area,” and I was pretty sure that “Rhine-Main-Area” wasn’t going to be the correct way of noting the area. (If you’re wondering about specifics, I doubted that “area” was going to be capitalized and that the whole thing would be a hyphenated cluster.) So I googled it. That brings us to the next point…

Plagiarism, Ug

This trip to the search engine in the case of this brochure revealed not only the error in this sentence but also the error in Wikipedia’s sentence…because this entire section of the document was a copy/paste job from Wikipedia. Sigh.

Plagiarism, whether in school or in the business world, is often not meant to be malicious, nor does it necessarily show any lack of integrity on the author’s part. In this case, the writer just wanted to add some facts about the city to a pamphlet for a conference so the reader wouldn’t need to go to Wikipedia on their own and get the exact same information. It’s hardly the end of the world to copy in cases like these. However, as a recent grad and essay coach who’d encountered policies that could punish plagiarism with expulsion, I’m used to the stakes being high as far as plagiarism goes. And I still take a pretty hard line on it. If I hear a voice change in a piece and my spidey sense tingles, I don’t let it slide. The source needs to be identified, the text needs to rephrased, and, preferably, the material should be cited. And once I’ve found one copy/paste job, I know something about the author. I’m on red alert.

Now, here’s where I’ve relaxed since school. Technically, if you get information from a source and you rephrase it in your own words, you still have to cite or it’s plagiarism. In the real world, a copy/paste job on something like a brochure, you’re not going to use the back page as a bibliography. That’s just not realistic. If the brochure is, for instance, about a place with easily-google-able information, such as the year a city was founded, I’ll just rephrase so the exact wording isn’t a copy/paste job. Half the time, the copy/paste source needs editing anyway.

Plagiarism is all over the real world, especially from people who lack (or are years separated from) higher education. They never learned how to properly engage with other people’s written work. I once worked on a book on entrepreneurship. It was over 100 pages long, and I noticed even in the first few pages that the voice seemed choppy. When a oddly specific statistic appeared without citation on page three (something like “83.6%”), alarm bells were ringing furiously. As I started googling verbatim sentences, time after time, I realized his entire book was a Frankenstein monster of other books, academic journals, published research, business bloggers, you name it.

The book I was editing was thoroughly researched, and the author had probably done years of information-gathering, stringing all the bits together to make his own point. That’s exactly how good academic papers work and is seldom seen in non-scholarly writing! But he was going to spend another few years going back and citing the hundreds and hundreds of sources he had copied and pasted without crediting in the slightest, because that cannot, cannot fly–not even in the real world, where pragmatism often supersedes stubborn adherence to rules.

One Last Thing: What They DO Tell You About Editing!

References. Bibliographies. Works Cited. Whatever form they take, you’ll meet them again, even when you’re out of school. Knowing how to build a proper reference section has served me better than just about anything I learned in school. Well, beyond the more abstract, critical-thinking-type lessons, anyway.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve needed to find a title at an online bookstore, go to the publisher’s website to hunt down their city, revisit the Chicago Manual of Style’s rules for citing online journals, track down a blog post and figure out how to cite it, etc. Getting good at this in school had been extremely valuable to me afterwards.


A recent post from copyediting.com on fact checking


That’s it for this series on editing. I hope to get back to books soon. I’m wading through American Pastoral. It’s good, but it’s taking absolutely forever to get through because I pretty much don’t “do” leisure right now. These days, it’s all work, travel, or preparing for travel, or unpacking. I always used to read on planes because I couldn’t concentrate, but even that now is work time instead of forced chill time. I’d ask you to feel sorry for me, but I’m going to fabulous places like London and Scotland and Panama, so I feel like no one’s going to be playing me any songs on the violin.

What No One Ever Told You About Editing, Pt. 2: Politics

red-pen2Editing. It’s so romantic. You will work with fiction authors to make their story a masterpiece. That IS what being an editor entails, right?

Aspiring editors are probably at least a little more down-to-earth than that. There’s a ton of content in today’s world, and most of it isn’t awesome fiction. In fact, most of it isn’t fiction at all. And fiction editors aren’t nearly in as much demand as ones with other areas of specialty—editors of web copy, B2B or B2C content, blogs, tech pubs, communications material, etc.

And here’s the other reality. Even if you’re the next Max Perkins, taking F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work and molding it into a thing of stunning beauty to be remembered for decades to come, it’s not your show.

Here’s what I never learned about editing, part two: it’s all about your author, and diplomacy is more than essential—it determines the success of the project.

(Note: most of this probably doesn’t apply to journalism where there’s a style in place and you’re accountable to a boss to enforce rules.)

Being Edited Can Hurt

In some circumstance or another, surely you’ve been asked to change something you’ve written. Unless you’re of a heartier stock than I am, it hurts, even if you’re not particularly attached to the material. You took the time to sit down and choose those words, one by one, to explain something or to tell some kind of story. It’s a part of you. It’s difficult when someone essentially asks you to call the time you spent, even on just one sentence, a wash. I know this from being a writer myself. Criticism of creation, even valid criticism, can be hard to take.

Side note! Writers, don’t treat an edit like a marriage: going to bed angry is a great idea. Wait out that initial resistance to be critiqued. See if you feel it’s valid after you’ve gotten some space. You’ll wake up with perspective, and you’ll either be ready to accept some truths you couldn’t accept before (that’s me) or else you’ll know the editor and you are not a good fit.

Other side note! After getting used to it, being edited is like going to a writing spa. I throw a snarl of word bedlam at someone and it comes out all beautiful and sparkly, and I didn’t even have to do any work! I love being edited.

Your First Assignment with an Author

Of course, it’s helpful to feel out what the client is looking for with a discussion first. The problem is that most people looking for an editor think they’re done and just want a quick check, but they almost always need at least a few rewrites. As I said in an earlier post, if they think they need proofing, they probably need copyediting; if they think they need copyediting, they probably need global work. An editor almost always knows better what a piece needs than the author does. The author may have vision, but they’re too close up to fulfill it by themselves.

But the reality is, at least for freelancing, that the author is the boss, and they’re hiring you to do a job they dictate, not you. In a 9–5 situation, you might have more leverage if there isn’t a time crunch. But you have to manage relationships. Even if the piece you’re handed could be amazing if you could just reshape it with total freedom, don’t give into that temptation with a new author. Every word was chosen. Maybe it was chosen carefully, maybe not. But it always will serve you well to treat those words as if they’re precious.

The first time I edit anyone, even someone who knows their piece is going to need to be ripped apart and reassembled or maybe even completely rethought, I always note even just a little thing that the person has done right. That’s done with the idea that they can take that and build upon it the next time they write. I really think that’s one of the most important services an editor can possibly provide—rather than focusing on failings to be addressed, how can we amplify their best qualities as a writer?

Next to note is this: I always use a light hand the first time I edit anyone, especially if they specifically just ask you to look for typos or if they’ve just spent a lot of time polishing it and are exhausted. Sometimes, a recommendation to revisit the entire thing is inevitable. But if you can avoid it, reserve the “this would sound better if”-type advice to the comments section or in an email. Seeing work crossed out is rough, and it shouldn’t be done more than absolutely necessary the first time you work with someone. Even if you’re tracking changes and the author has the power to just click a button and reject what you’ve done, don’t overestimate the unspoken judgement and finality of going into a document, looking at a sentence that’s troublesome but has no grammar errors, and making it clear you reject what they did and can do it better. An author will learn to trust you if they like your advice, and you can eventually get to the point where you can just rephrase.

Bottom line: always assume an author will be extremely sensitive to edits until you know otherwise. It’s a hard thing for editors, especially those editors who are meticulous or—worse—are seeing potential go unrealized. But it’s (generally) more important that the author is happy with their piece than if you’re happy with their piece.

Not Causing a Scene

Have you ever finished a long project, sent out your work, and gotten an email in response that said, “Great start!” and then listed the 40 things that you needed to fix? You don’t want to that person unless you have to be—the one who will send back a piece with way more work to be done than even before the canvas was blank.

If an author trusts me, I’ll often go into the medium itself (WordPress, Constant Contact, InDesign, StackEdit) and make my changes without tracking. That way, they can have something that’s ready to go without needing to do any more work than they have to. People are busy. But the first time you edit someone, you want to track pretty much everything.* You want them to know your style of editing—what you recommend, what problems you’re catching. You also want them to feel empowered to accept or reject things.

If a piece needs a ton of work, I’ll often send them a marked up and a clean copy, attaching the clean copy first and calling it a suggested version or something. Most people will only review the clean copy and not even really look at the tracked one. If they like it, they’ll just send you a thumbs up. No one needs to do much work after that, and if they didn’t open up the tracked changes copy, they probably never even saw how much you did.

If you do this, make certain that you maintain the author’s voice. If they read something that seems like a completely different piece, they will dive into your changes, and you’ll be in for an ongoing email chain that’s bound to be varying degrees of awkward.

* The exception is when you don’t want to send someone back an intimidating, potentially psychologically damaging document covered in red. If there’s a common comma error, I’ll track the first change, note the error in a comment, and say that the rest of the instances have been changed without the distraction of markup. Then I’ll just toggle track changes on and off as needed.

Preparing to Defend…

Your edits are your castle and your knowledge is your moat. Make sure you have a good one, with alligators and possibly harmful bacteria.

We were all misinformed to varying degrees about the rules of English language in grade school. For some people, that’s the last and only encounter they had with grammar. They will use their zombie rules as an excuse to go swimming in your moat.

Be friendly, and make it clear that you’ll do whatever incorrect thing they like. It’s their piece, not yours. But make your castle unapproachable for any author who values “the right way.”

…But Don’t Be a Pedant!

That being said, this isn’t math class. In school, there’s often one right answer. In the real world, there isn’t–even when there is. Let me explain.

Don’t insist on the right way if it hinders communication or if your author says, “I understand it’s wrong, but I like it better the way it is.” Save your battles for things you feel will strongly harm a piece if it isn’t addressed. Nine-tenths of people aren’t going to notice if job titles are capitalized when they shouldn’t be. But if your client is using “supercede” instead of “supersede” and insisting on keeping an incorrect spelling, that’s pretty embarrassing for them and may hurt their attempt to be a voice of authority. You should probably point them at a source that explains that they’re wrong rather than just say, “Whatever you want!”


Authors are the bosses. Choosing to be an editor means that you’re caring for someone else’s baby. Don’t hand the baby back with a new arm and different colored hair unless that arm had gangrene and that hair was, um, plagiarized (a toupee? A baby toupee?). Once you have a relationship with the author and you know they want your full treatment, writing can more of a partnership. But you have to earn trust.

Be an awesome editor—be a flexible editor—be an editor people know will make them sound fantastic. But most importantly, be an editor that treats people’s work as if it has value, not like it’s just trash to be crossed out at will.

After all, if you can really do that much better, perhaps you’ve chosen the wrong profession…


Kill Your Darlings,” a blog post about being edited by the very amusing Geraldine from The Everywherest

What No One Ever Told You About Editing, Pt. 1: Formatting and Word

red-pen1Hi guys! I have not posted in months because I have not read anything in months. So sad, I know. I’ve been doing a lot of work, so what’s mainly on my mind these days is editing.

I started making a mental list a few months ago of all the things I wasn’t prepared for and learned on the job. I thought it might be a fun series for writers and the generally curious, and maybe it will even be valuable to some aspiring editors.

Your New Roommate: Microsoft Word

As I said in my last series on the subject, someone once asked me what it was like to go to school to be an editor. I would again like to reiterate that going to a liberal arts school and getting a degree in English is wonderfully edifying and 10 of 10 Amandas would recommend. But it in no way teaches you how to be an editor in the real world.

Here is one of things they never tell you about being an editor: you and Microsoft Word are going to be reeeeeeal close. You will have to become the god of MS Word. And I’m not talking about “yeah, I can put in footnotes!” I’m not talking about “yeah, I see that styles pane on top of the screen, and sometimes I press it if I want to change the way my title looks!” I’m talking about setting up macros to run a series of find-and-replace tasks for an author that makes continued mistakes. I’m talking about designing a custom style set to auto-number second and third level headings in multi-leveled lists, and then telling it to decouple the numbers for the annex section but rank the sections the same in the headings navigation. I’m talking about people sending you a Word document with all sorts of weird spacing between the letters, and not just understanding why it’s looking wrong but also knowing where the kerning section is in Word. (Hint: it is deep in the Word-bowels, and I would have never found it on my own the first time I needed to access it.)

There are people better than me at Word, who know how to do things that I never knew were even options. But I am at least a demigod at Word, a minor deity. Maybe a Word fury. And I learned NONE of it in school.

So potential editors, here’s the stuff they don’t teach you.

Track Changes

First things first. You cannot, in this day and age, be an editor and not be good with Microsoft Word’s track changes. Track changes is not intuitive, and your document will be a rainbow mess of garble if you have multiple people participating—no avoiding it. But you have to be able to read it, understand it, switch views, accept and reject the changes, and deal with people’s comments. You also should know how to accept only format changes, limiting the displayed changes to substantive edits.

Also, I promise you will be mighty pleased with yourself if you figure out how to password-lock the document so that other users can’t turn tracked changes off. The worst thing in the world is when you get a document where some maniac has actually used the manual underline/strikethrough/font color features so that it looks like tracked changes you can accept or reject. Then, oh god, it’s really just formatting you have to manually delete. ~Bangs head on desk until blood pools.~

Like democracy, the only thing worse that Word’s tracked changes is everything else. It can be a real headache, but it really is the top of the line when it comes to collaborating and editing. You have to know how to use it and be comfortable with it if you’re the editor of the document.

Find and Replace

Next! Find and replace is launched by Ctrl + H. Memorize it. It’s the feature, other than track changes, you’ll use most as an editor. Let’s say I convert a technical document that started out as a PDF to Word, and I see all the mathematical symbols and Greek letters have converted incorrectly. But what I also see is that they seem to have all come in as Times New Roman, whereas the rest of the document is in Calibri. I open the find and replace dialogue box, click in the “Find” section, search for the Times New Roman typeface, and replace with a highlight. Poof. All the places I need to double check are highlighted, and I know I won’t miss one. (If I were more trusting, I might try changing the typeface to Symbol and replacing all. But after many Word-traumas, I have learned that the wise find the balance between expediency and caution.)

Or how about this? A document is full of inconsistencies. Sometimes they spell out the numbers 1–10; sometimes they use the Arabic numbers. You can use find and replace and enable something called wildcards to find all numerals instead of typing in “1,” “2,” etc. (Wildcards are amazingly powerful, and I’ve only begun to understand what they’re capable of.)

And there’s more. Find and replace will change all those stupid double-hyphens into em dashes. Or, in one shot, it will save you the agony of turning all the double-space-after-periods to single-space-after-periods. It’s irreplaceable. Irrefindandreplaceable.

Alt Codes and Macros

I work primarily on a Surface now, so I don’t have a numbered keypad. But back in the day, alt codes were how I’d create en and em dashes. An alt code is this: if you hold the alt key and press a series of numbers on your number pad, you get a symbol character not available on your keyboard. There are so many of them that you’ll certainly find one for whatever you wind up using most: Greek letters, mathematical symbols, diacritics, that awesome o/e combo for writing “foeces” (more classy than poop!). It will save you so much time to not have to dip into “Insert” and “Symbols” and paw through endless boxes of undecipherable squiggles.

Now that I don’t have the numberpad, I’ve made serious use of Word’s macro option. When you record a macro, you record keystrokes, and your keystrokes will be repeated when you run that macro. So to set these up, you have to be comfortable enough with a keyboard and ribbon that you can get to pretty much anywhere you want without a mouse. (Hint: to access anything on the ribbon with a keyboard, try hitting alt and going from there.)

Because of macros, I can now hold “Ctrl + Alt + M,” a shortcut customized by me, and get my em dash. I can also highlight a Series of Words that are Capitalized for No Reason Whatsoever (this happens all the time) and turn them all lowercase with a macro I recorded. And, for the aforementioned psychopath who tried to mock track changes with all the underlining and striking through, I can highlight what I want to accept, hit a few keystrokes, and clear all his local formatting. Team macros!

Serial Killers and Word: Using Tab Stops and Styles

I’ll often get documents from people with lines all over the place, what looks like columns placed unevenly, text that looks like it’s right aligned but something isn’t quite right. So I choose to reveal paragraph marks and formatting symbols to see how they created this fun look, and, oh, the horror. Serial killer formatting.

If you’ve ever seen The Shining, you probably remember the scene that shows Jack Nicholson’s conviction all work and no play makes him a dull boy. That’s what serial killer formatting reminds me of. It looks like an insane person got ahold of the document and just held down the spacebar for 30 seconds, and then started hitting tab like it’s some kind of word processing tic. Then they hit return six times, threw in a soft return, put in a non-page-breaking section break, and when that didn’t work, put in a page break. All these horrors are revealed when you show hidden characters.

Anyone who doesn’t know how to make Word behave the way they want (read: everyone at some time or another) has been guilty of creating such a document. But revealing those marks and seeing what’s behind the veil is like peering into the mind of a deeply troubled human being—your eyes will widen and your heart will start pounding and you’ll wonder if the author, who you thought was a just a nice, regular guy with excellent taste in ties, is behind you with a knife.

Anyway, unless the client has a specific proofreader that will get the document after you or unless Word is not the final destination (in which case, shed a tear for the person porting it into its end document design program) you can’t let things like uneven alignment go. You have to learn to use tab stops, and you have to know more about them than how to click on a ruler. Leaders and right-aligned tab stops are important for forms needing names and addresses and other information (certainly, your client has held down underscore for this purpose), and creating a paragraph style once you’ve set up tab stops can make your life so much easier.

I edit a series of publications for a client, and they often have equations with coordinating labels (e.g., “Equation 2.5 I-P”). I know that most equations won’t go past the three-inch mark in Word, so that’s about where the label should go. I’ve created a tab stop at that mark and now can hit tab after the equation to make the label sit at the three-inch mark. I then saved this as a paragraph style, labeling it “Equation”–with my other saved styles so they make a set–and saved that set on my computer. If I apply this style set for all this client’s documents, I’ll be able to have them all have the equation label at the same place by quickly applying that style.


They don’t teach you this stuff in school, folks. At least they didn’t in mine. This is just one of the ways that school can help teach you how to think, but it won’t give you the practical skills you need. And Word is THE essential one I never knew I’d need to the extent I do every day.

For one thing, I was asked about it in my job interviews out of school. Of course everyone will say they know Word—after all, much of school is typing things out on a screen, printing it out, and handing it in. But when they start asking you the real questions, you may be in a pickle. I was.

And here’s the other thing. Now that I’m freelance, I often charge by the hour. There comes a point where you’re taking a silly amount of hours to get this formatting right or to fix repeating errors (and double checking for your own human error in correcting them, because I promise you missed one!). You have to have shortcuts for no-brainer work so you can focus on content. And for 9–5ers, you got stuff to do, right? You don’t want to be spending your time manually hunting down every semicolon in a document because your author thought it was a fancier-looking version of a comma.

Know your Word. Or at least know enough of the terminology to Google what you need. Half of being smart is thinking “Is there an easier way to do this?” And the other half of being smart is having access to Google.


Here’s a document listing all my favorite shortcuts and explaining macros as plainly as I can.

Is Editing Just Reading All Day?

It’s a great day to curl up with a book where I’m at in Louisiana today–storming like crazy, the constant rumbling and cracking of thunder. I guess the tornadoes touching down everywhere don’t add to the cozy reading mood for most, but I’m okay with it as long as the roof stays on.

I did curl up with a great book for my twice-weekly early morning insomnia today (Middlesex, 2003’s Pulitzer, if you’re wondering) (and 4:30 AM, if you’re wondering and also are a sadist). Just a little piece of me is wishing for cozy-ready-time back. But it’s really just a little piece. Why? Because–YAY–I read for a living!

“Reading for Pleasure and Reading for Editing Couldn’t Be More Different”: T/F

When I was in school, I was in a series of classes that dealt with various aspects of the school’s press. One day’s lesson was on what it’s like to really be an editor. I had brilliant teacher that I really enjoyed for this class, and since I knew editing was the likely the path I would take with my future, this discussion was of particular interest.

I remember the teacher saying this:

A lot of kids think, ‘Oh, an editor is just someone who sits around with books and reads all day for a living.’ And I’m here to tell you editing is nothing like that. Reading for pleasure and reading for editing couldn’t be more different. The experiences are nothing alike. It’s almost like having two parts of your brain that can’t function at the same time. You have to consciously shift from editing brain to reading brain and back.

At the time, I remember thinking, “Oh, of course.” But you know what? After doing this for a number of years, I respectfully disagree with my teacher on this. In fact, I think that in order to be a good editor, you have to have your reading-for-pleasure hat on. You have to be thinking of what would make what your reading of the piece enjoyable, if you just came across it in the wild. Putting yourself in the position of the audience is the key to all good writing and editing.

That doesn’t mean that editing is always the same as reading for fun. But I do think that you use the exact same parts of your brain*, especially if you’re an analytical reader (which, if you’re an editor, you better be).

Answer: F (If You’re a Certain Type…)

When good editors reads anything, it’s my opinion that they’ll note what sentence constructions go down easy. They’ll notice what turns of phrase tickle them. They’ll notice the words that grab their attention and the tactics that make them want to keep going. And from observing good writing and synthesizing it, they can often see the path to improving areas that aren’t as fun to read.

This leads me to think my teacher is totally wrong, because in order to get to this place of “good editor,” you have to (1) read (a lot!) for pleasure, (2) have much of that pleasure be derived from trying to understand what works.

Reading for pleasure is certainly an inextricable part of my editing. It’s as if I bought myself a book to read for fun, and I also have the amazing superpower of tweaking what didn’t work quite right.

Editing B2B/B2C communications, white papers, and other works of non-fiction are a little different, but not as much as you’d think. It’s a matter of having your priorities right. If you write, it’s because you have something to say. So it always pays to create enjoyable prose. If you want people to receive your message, that first requires that they read it at all. And they won’t if it’s difficult to work through. You want the applicable characteristics of good literature. (Cohesiveness. Maybe an kind of arcing structure. A powerful conclusion.) It will help people follow what you’re trying to say. But you also want easy-to-read sentences that facilitate rather than hinder communication. (Make action-oriented subject/verb pairs. Keep the subject and verb close together. Cut wordiness and excessive prepositional phrases.) You also don’t want to sound like a robot, and that means making things interesting. (No needless listing. Vary sentence length and forms of syntactic dependencies. And for god’s sake, get rid of every instance of “it is of importance to note.”)

And, if you’re the type of person that delights in that, you’ve learned all of that from reading for pleasure.

What Does It Result In?

I love my work! That kid my teacher talked about, who thinks editing is sitting around and reading all day? Well, sure, if you think you’ll be getting paid to read amazing literature all the time, it isn’t quite that. But if you think you’ll be getting paid to read all day and playing an active part in making it something you WANT to read, yes, that’s totally what I do. And it’s just as good as it sounds, for someone who loves the written word.

*The exception to this is proofreading, which, in my experience, is not in the least like reading for pleasure. That’s not to say it isn’t a pleasurable activity to some, but it isn’t like reading. It’s more like doing a PennyPress puzzle book or playing one of those “spot the difference” games. You can’t be in reading mode while proofing, really–you’ll get too big-picture to see that misspelling on the cover or that misnumbered page.

On Editing, Part Three: How to Become an Editor

Proofreading red pencil with various errors on paper

This has been a series of posts on disconnects. So far, the series has covered the disconnect between the editing people need and what they think they need and the disconnect between what people are willing to pay and what an editor needs to make per hour. This last post is on the disconnect between English courses at school and editing in the real world, and it’s all the things I wish I would have known a few years ago.

A few months ago, I was having a drink with a fellow language-lover. We were catching up on where each other was at in her life, and she asked, “So, how does one go to school to be an editor, exactly?” The implication, I suppose, was that step one (I went to school) led to step two (I’m an editor). It’s not an unreasonable thing to assume.

I thought for a second and said, “Um…one doesn’t.”

That isn’t to say one can’t, necessarily. The college I went to offered two English major tracks: writing and literature. I chose the literature track (which, by the way, demanded just as much writing as the other track). At no point was there offered any class on advanced grammar, linguistics, or the skill of editing.

Now, larger and differently-focused schools may offer editing classes, especially if they’re well known for their journalism programs. Of course, being an editor in the journalism world often actually means you’re writing. But you can seek out schools with editing courses.

For some, though, that’s not the most practical course of action to take. Editing and advanced grammar classes are not very easy to come by, I’ve found. And even then, they’re courses, not degrees.

You do need a degree, of course. English is best, but you might be able to squeak in with a communications, journalism or marketing degree. But this isn’t the way you will learn how to be an editor. A degree is your way into the door of a company.

If you want to be an editor, your training is in your own hands. Here’s how you really learn how to be an editor.

Learn Your Grammar

The first thing you want to do is become more grammar-savvy than the layman. You probably already are, if you’re thinking about going into this field. But you need to strategize around defense, especially if you’re just starting out. Assume someone is going to call you on every edit you make. If you know the rules, you can make many of these changes with confidence.

Figure our your parts of speech, your dependent and independent clauses, and your active and passive verbs. Learn to speak the language of grammarians. It will help you begin to understand how sentences work, and when those secrets are unlocked, sentences will become putty in your hands. Instead of thinking, “There’s just something awkward about this,” you’ll think, “Oh, of course this sentence sounding sing-song-y. It has five prepositional phrases in a row.”

Here’s where you start: at the 90s-tastic but still very useful website Garden of Phrases. Start on page one and take the quiz. Then select “quizzes” from the dropdown and start taking them all. It’s a brutal wake-up call. But you need to know what you don’t know.

From there, learn to diagram sentences. I got this workbook: I don’t know if I’m crazy about it, but lots of people are. Don’t get too hung up in mastering 100% of the details right away, like I did. Just plow through it.

Also, become zen about Murphry’s Law, if you write as well. There will be at least five errors in every post I make about grammar and editing. I try not to post garbage or anything, but if I actually strived for 100% perfection in everything I wrote, no one would ever hear a peep from me. I would just be sitting in front of the keyboard, shaking in terror. Don’t get so worked up about the rules that you can’t function, but know them.

Learn Your Style Guides

Following a style guide is what makes sure all things in the text are harmonious. These guides deal with issues that aren’t usually a matter of grammar, and they aren’t dictating what’s universally right or wrong. You can write a date as 9/5/15 or you can write it as September 5th, 2015. Neither are wrong. But you shouldn’t use both styles in one text. That’s where style guides come in.

The Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook are your two must-know guides. Learn the key differences between these two, and you’ll be in good shape. As a starter kit, buy a copy of each guide that’s one edition old–you’ll save money, and you can quickly find out what’s been updated in the new versions with a Google search. And for light reading, check out AP vs Chicago for the essential differences. It kills me that this blog is inactive because it’s been a marvelous resource to me over the years. Plus, the author is a delight.

You can check out my own in-house style guide I made for a company (and you can tell me about any grammar errors you find). Some of the decisions I made about style itself was because I was swimming upstream against legacy, but there is some advice in there you might find interesting.

Here are some books on general style that are beneficial and/or fun to read. They are not by any means holy grail resources, since so much of style is personal preference. (Except Steven Pinker’s book. Everything in there is gold.)

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss–A little prescriptivist and “thou shalt” for my taste, but I’m better for reading it

Lapsing into a Comma by Bill Walsh–and I can probably blindly recommend anything else he’s written. I loved this book and am dying to read his others. Bill is an editor for the Washington Post, and he is hilarious and brilliant. I don’t agree with every little thing he says in this book, but I love all of it anyway. He also does live chats called Grammar Geekery the first Thursday of every month, where he’s answered tons of my questions. But even if you don’t need answers, you should lurk just to watch his on-point, delightful snark at work.

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White—Dated, troubling in many cases, perpetuates zombie rules, but, well, you have to at least have read it. You can’t be the editor that isn’t at least able to argue about Strunk and White.

Besides, “omit needless words” is an editorial mantra that should stand for all time. If nothing else, that phrase redeems much of the stylistic quackery.

When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It by Ben Yagoda—Ben’s another great editor to keep tabs on, and this book will help you better understand the parts of speech and where they can go wrong.

The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker—A forward-thinking, beautifully written piece from a linguist who really understands how the written word works. I’ll be honest; I haven’t finished it yet. I’ve been too busy. But it’s so far been my absolute favorite book on style. Pinker is in the descriptivist camp, and with his ideas come great freedom to believe writing is improving as we communicate more and more. (See here for a description of prescriptivist vs descriptivist schools of thought. Hint: descriptivists are always on the right side of history.) He is a fan of deflating self-important academic/business writing in order to communicate with simplicity and elegance.

Follow Thought Leaders and Have Reliable Sources

Subscribe to the blog Lingua Franca, and keep your eye on people like Ben Yagoda and Geoffrey Pullman. Follow the marvelous Tom Freeman at the Stroppy Editor, though keep in mind that he’s operating under a slightly different set of rules due to geographic location. (And if you’re not American, beg pardon—it’s actually Americans who are operating under the different rules, of course.) I also subscribe to Baltimore Sun editor John McIntyre’s You Don’t Say, although you may want to avoid his blog if you have a low tolerance for politics. Keep tabs on the American Copy Editors Society (ACES) even if you don’t join. You can tweet to the editors at the Wichita Eagle @grammarmonkeys if you have any questions about grammar and editing. It’s an awesome service.

But most of all, if you have questions, learn where to go for answers you trust. If I can’t find answers in my copy of the Chicago Manual of Style or if I know my question is purely grammar-related, I go to straight to the English Language Stack Exchange, where a meritocracy and a community of field experts guarantees a good answer. Search for your question before you ask. The community is a little hostile if they think you’re being lazy. But it’s my favorite resource, and it’s never steered me wrong. It also deals with really complex questions.

There are other good resources. Purdue’s OWL is not comprehensive, but it’s very useful and reliable. If you go to Google with a question, and anything shows up with the address “grammar.ccc.commnet.edu” attached to it, it’s going to be trustworthy—that’s the site with the Garden of Phrases. Things from Jane Strauss’ Grammar Book tend to be correct, as well, although I’d be wary of that site being out of the loop for too long. It’s also worth saying Grammar Girl is totally worth the hype. If she’s addressed your question, she’s got it right. Sometimes, but not always, academic resources can be helpful. Look for .edu as a tag at the end of the URL. But the correctness of .edu sites is not a given.

Also, if you have two editorial choices you’re wavering between, check out Google NGrams. It searches Google Books for your terms. That means you’re not necessarily looking up the right answer, but you are seeing at usage over time and trends. It’s useful for a lot of things. For instance, I can see that I’m not making the best decision by choosing to leave the space out of “copyeditor.”


Lastly, I hope it goes without saying that you never, never go to forums like Yahoo Answers. That’s where all truth goes to die.

Start Editing, Even if You Have No Idea What You’re Doing

Offer to edit people’s blogs for free. Contact a small non-profit you love and offer to proofread their newsletter. Become an editor on your school newspaper or offer to do a little proofreading for your town’s community center. When you start, research the answer to absolutely EVERY question you have—never guess—and keep a list of your answers.

What really prepared me to be an editor had nothing to do with my coursework. It was tutoring at my writing center. Our writing center was no joke. I had four months of intensive training. I learned so much about research, argument structure, thesis-building, checking for coherency, writing for readers, how to self-edit, you name it. That was the true foundation to me becoming more than someone who just had a “feel” for what is right/wrong or clear/awkward. It was what bridged the gap between me just being a good second pair of eyes on text to being what is a real-deal editor. If you have an opportunity like this, take it. If you don’t have the opportunity for training like this, well, let me know. I was thinking of maybe starting a program that can do for others what this writing center did for me.

Have a Real Editor Look at Your Resume

Don’t have your mom read your resume. Don’t give it to college advisor. I mean, you can also do that. But if you’re applying to be an editor for the first time, you’ve got to get that resume in front of an actual editor. There are things you don’t know you’re doing wrong that can bump you off the radar if someone who knows what he/she’s doing is narrowing the field of applicants. I just looked at the resume I sent out as a fresh grad and I was horrified to see I had separated dates (as in “worked here September of 2010 through June of 2012”) with a hyphen instead of an n-dash. That might not seem like a big deal. But if I were hiring an assistant editor now and was looking through a pile of resumes, and all I’m looking for is a reason to throw some of them out, that hyphen tells me, “Oh. This person is too much of a newbie or doesn’t pay enough attention to detail to know that this isn’t how you treat dates.” Then I toss it to the side.

Get a real editor’s eyes on your resume. At least make sure the door doesn’t close prematurely.

I’m pleased to announce this part is pretty easy. I’m a real editor, and I’m happy to take a look at your resume if you’re starting out. No charge. I’m currently trying to build up good karma so I can go do something awful later and not be reincarnated as a cicada.

On Editing, Part Two: The Practicality of Editing

Two to too error found while proofreading paper

In my last post in this series, I wrote about the different levels of editing. In this post, I want to talk about the value proposition of having these layers of edit built in, or, more bluntly, the unquantifiable nature of that value, dollar-wise, for the individual. This is one of the disconnects that’s been bothering me: the disconnect between what people are willing to pay and what it costs in time for an editor to work.

The Market Problem

There are a lot of freelance editors out there that seem to be making it just fine, but I also hear a lot of complaints about being underbid by unqualified, inexperienced editors. These disgruntled folks argue that this brings down the expected rate for real editors, and it becomes impossible for professionals to make a living without lowering their standards for their work. I understand their complaint, but I don’t really have a lot of sympathy for the argument. Markets have a way of sorting themselves out, and if it’s really important for people to have professional editing, they will only make the mistake of hiring someone cheap once. If it’s not important, well, either you’ve overinflated the importance of your work or you’re not making a good business case for your skills.

But this is where I worry. I believe wholeheartedly in the necessity of an editor if you want to your written content to be taken seriously.  I’m also a pragmatist. I understand that you have to make a dollars-based case for things. How does an editor create a value proposition, contrasting the “without an editor” copy with the “with an editor” copy? And even if one could do that, would the dollar amount really be high enough to support hiring an editor, if you’re an author? It’s difficult for me to put make a case that isn’t more abstract than I’d like it to be. (As an aside, I’m planning on putting the Freakonomics guys on the case.)

These concerns are somewhat dulled by salaried employment. Your whole reason coming to an establishment and sitting in your office is to edit, so your value is somewhat decoupled from the work per hour itself. Certainly, there are deadlines, but you can just pump out a little overtime to get them perfect and then relax a bit next week. You get paid the same either way.

But what if you’re freelance and just looking to work with individual authors or copywriters? What if a particularly challenging piece would take weeks of work, and you charge by the hour? Or, worse, what if you charge by the word and you’ve underestimated the time you’d spend getting it to your standards? Now you’re talking about doing hundreds or maybe thousands of dollars of work and dealing with one of two scenarios: working for a wage that doesn’t sustain you or getting a response from a client that says “$700 to hunt for typos?” (Which is what many individuals think you’re doing–see my previous “On Editing” post.)

Now, certainly there are savvy clients and experienced writers who know this price is coming. All you need to do is go to Google and check for average editor’s hourly rates. Businesses will know what they’re getting into and know the value of a good editor, which is why scoring a business-based clientele as a freelancer is really your ticket. But the thing I find, and the thing that causes me consternation, is that the layman author just doesn’t care enough about it being perfect to pay for it, and I can’t say I blame him.

The Problem, in Anecdote Form

Let me give you an example. My husband’s a great writer. He’s a popular blogger, and I edit his posts every once in a while, when I have spare time. He’s a dream to edit, compared to most writers I’ve worked with. But when I edit him, I always find a few typos and a decent number of sentences that need rearranging or breaking up. I also read his posts very carefully to make sure I understand what he’s getting at and that I’m not changing anything that would alter his meaning. To get his posts to the level of perfect that’s up to my standards, it takes me 45 minutes to an hour to go through a 1,200 word post. One time, I asked him how much he would pay someone to do what I’m doing, and he said, “Honestly? Five or ten bucks a post. Maybe less. I write three posts a week, and people like my unedited writing enough that it really isn’t worth much, money-wise, to have them perfect.” And that is a totally reasonable thing to conclude.

I’m remembering, too, the time a friend came to me all excited about a book he was writing. He described the plot and told me what he estimated the page count to be. (It was roughly a quadrillion; he’s a man of many words.) He said he was really excited to have me edit it and asked if I could give him an estimate as to how much it would cost. After straightening out what he meant by “page”–very important to be speaking the same language of what a page is before an estimate, if you’re a freelancer–I gave him a quote with a buddy-discount of 40% off built in. He was still stunned into silence at the number.

Unfortunately, that means bad things for me. My skills and my meticulousness just aren’t really worth very much to individuals. To companies, maybe I’m a great investment, but I find I really prefer to work with people. And here I see a disconnect between what I have to offer, what I need to charge, and what my skill is actually worth. That’s a pretty rough thing to have to come to terms with.


So I’ve been thinking. When I edit, I edit for readers like me. I edit as if another editor is going read what I’m working on. I edit as if I’m claiming sole responsibility for every line that isn’t the best it could be. I want everything I touch to be something both I and the author can share pride in. But maybe this isn’t always what the market wants.

I’m not really talking about lowering my standards as much as I’m talking about filling a market need. When people want a rush on things at work and ask how long it will take, I’ll give them the option of “an Amanda edit or a normal-people edit.” They know that to mean, “Do you want me to fix the things only people like me would know are wrong, i.e., make it perfect? Or do you want me to look for any embarrassing or obvious mistakes?” Which of those two they choose makes a big difference in my estimation of time . So I wonder if there wouldn’t be a market for my “normal-people edit” service, in which an editor doesn’t concern herself so much with every sentence living up to its potential or common capitalization errors or the interchangeably used and and ampersand. Or maybe there’s room in the market for an a la carte type of edit. People can say, “I know I have trouble with homonyms. Can you make sure I used the right words in this piece?”

Even better, I wonder if there’d be a market for a partnership. What if an editor analyzes a few pieces from an author, tells him the patterns of error he should be looking out for (e.g., “you tend to use really long lists that will make people space out,” “you use nothing but versions of ‘to be’ verbs that make your writing kind of snoozy,” “your bullet points are never parallel,” “you have subject/verb agreement trouble”) and do custom edits just for those things.

The real problem with that is, for me, it’s really hard for me to limit myself. If I see a fragment, by god, I have to fix it. Double space after a period? NO. The wrong “its”? One eye will start twitching furiously like I’m some kind of maniac.

There’s also the problem with the fact that I won’t be proud of the work I’m helping people produce. It won’t be the best it could be. I won’t want my name on it, and it’s not satisfying work. Frankly, it’s a little soul-sucking, too, unless I feel like my goal isn’t really editing as much as it is making people better writers.

Maybe I’m destined to lose money freelance editing.