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So you want to be an editor?

by Geoff Hart

Previously published, in a different form, as: Hart, G.J. 1998. So you want to be an editor? Intercom, July/August:17–19.

Most technical communicators are hired primarily as writers and creators of information, but despite this, many of us must learn how to edit at some point. Whether the reasons are good (to prepare better first drafts for review) or bad (your employer won't pay for a full-time editorial position), the reality is inescapable: at some point you're going to have to edit your own writing or that of a colleague. The problem is that editing requires an entirely different mindset than writing, and it's difficult to make the mental shift from creating to revising. I do both kinds of work, and I've gradually gotten pretty good at making the shift, but it's no less of an effort. So, given that you're going to have to make the shift too at some point, just what does that shift involve?

(Professional) idiots wanted

In my opinion, the most important skill in editing—more important than more obvious skills such as spelling and formal grammar—is the ability to empathize with your audience. I often describe my job as being a "professional idiot" if I want to catch someone's attention. If they hang around long enough to find out whether there's a method to my madness—or just madness—I explain: The professional part means that I'm paid for what I do and I'm good at it. The "idiot" part means that my job is to misunderstand darn near anything a normal reader would trip over but eventually figure out, determine what the problem is, and fix it. If misinterpreting the writing could potentially lead to blood loss, I return to the manuscript to fix the problem as soon as I've got the bleeding under control. If I can fry my computer or lose data, I pull out the backup disks once the smoke clears and figure out how to ensure that nobody else has that delightfully familiar moment of existential panic: "I did make a recent backup, didn't I?" If I can somehow manage to get lost in a sentence and have to stop to ask for directions—I'm a 90s kind of male, after all—I pull out my red pen and add some road signs for my fellow travellers. (For the record, those of you who know me might also claim that I'm an amateur idiot, which means I do lots of stupid things I'm not paid for, and that I'm apparently very good at doing. Mea culpa.)

Phrased a little more respectfully, "professional idiocy" means that you must be able to adopt a certain naiveté towards what you're editing. Probably the biggest single reason why each of us—even editors—needs an editor is because of overfamiliarity with the inner landscape of our own minds, which is the place where our ideas first dwell before we try to share them with others. Think of it this way: each of us has spent the past 20 to 70 years decorating that inner landscape in an idiosyncratic fashion that is completely alien to anyone who hasn't lived there; even a spouse or lifelong friend only visits occasionally, and they probably don't know where you keep your secret stash of chocolate, let alone the Victoria’s Secret catalogues. Imagine how foreign that landscape is to someone who doesn't even know you! Every writer experiences the same problem in trying to describe that inner landscape to someone else: you’ve lived there so long that you take certain things for granted.

The old cliché that "familiarity breeds contempt", like all clichés, has a large grain of truth at its core: as soon as you become overly familiar with something, you start making assumptions about what your readers will understand. You may not have to explain how to find the bathroom, but you’re definitely going to have to explain how you’ve organized the library; odds are, it’s not Dewey Decimal. Because you’ve lived so long inside your own head, you automatically understand things that your readers probably won't understand. It's tough to be able to distance yourself far enough from these assumptions that you can act as a reader's advocate in your writing. Learning to identify those assumptions is the first step to becoming a good substantive editor. In a nutshell, that's what substantive editing is all about. Frankly, the spell check and grammar parts are a piece of cake if you can get this part down pat.

Calling Miss Manners

In addition to being able to assume the aforementioned state of mental idiocy at the drop of a hat (or a manuscript), it helps to make yourself into a cross between a diplomat, a psychologist, and everybody's best friend. Think “Miss Manners” and you’ve got the general idea. Nobody other than a masochist enjoys having their deathless prose hacked to bits or—the horror!—ruthlessly homogenized into some bureaucrat's notion of "house style". A reference guide to the "Print file" command may not be in the same league as Shakespeare, but it's nonetheless a creative effort that deserves respect—or at least sympathy.

Anyone who's hung out with technical writers has heard of the dreaded “subject matter experts” (the "SME"—pronounced "Smee", as in Captain Hook's left hand man); these are the keepers of the sacred knowledge that we require to produce our documentation. Need to know the timing on the modem's clock chip? Need to know the difference between a feller-buncher and a feller-director? Need to know why the software hangs every time you select the Print function? You're not going to find that information in the manual, because you're the one writing the manual, and you know it’s not there. Who you gonna call? Call the Smees. It pays to remember, however, that Smees have their own problems: think of any Dilbert cartoon and you'll get the picture. The last thing they want or need is another writer banging on the door to demand answers to intuitively obvious questions when they could be productively debugging the latest asynchronous communication protocol or playing with their Lego set instead.

You'd think that after years of dealing with hostile Smees, technical writers would be somewhat sympathetic to the notion of responding politely and helpfully to questions. You'd be wrong. As an editor, you're often going to work with authors who make the Smees seem like models of cooperation. Engineers and programmers at least know, somewhere deep down in their twisted psyches, that just perhaps they're not the world's finest communicators. Technical writers labor under no such pyschological burdens. After all, we're all trained to excel at communication, and by damn, we're good at it. Some of us even have advanced degrees in the subject. (For the record, I don't have an advanced degree in writing or editing. We each have our own crosses to bear.)

So, let's retreat a few paragraphs to where I started this section: the notion that as an editor, you'd also better be a diplomat, a psychologist, and everybody's best friend. The diplomacy and tact part is fairly straightforward: writers, whether technical or literary, place a great deal of their self-worth into their writing. Callous or harsh editing quickly becomes a personal issue, not a professional one, so edit gently. If you can demonstrate an improvement to text, and not just a change, you'll meet with far less resistance. The psychologist part is a little more obscure, but it's part of that mystical phrase "audience analysis" that we're all so enamored of. Why do technical and other writers often treat editors as harshly as engineers and programmers treat writers? Because they're people too, with real lives outside work and with real problems at work. People under stress react badly to criticism, and as an editor, criticism is your raison d'être. That brings me to my final point: being everybody's best friend. The key to getting away with editorial murder is to earn the trust of your writers. Once they know that you're going to eviscerate their manuscript out of love, they'll be more willing to sit still for the red pen treatment.

As an editor, it's vital to cultivate good working relationships with your authors. Learn the names of their kids, share jokes, gossip, find out about their hobbies, go out for a beer now and then, play volleyball with them at lunch, make time to help them with their résumés—in short, don't just visit them to deliver the bad news about their latest writing efforts. By no means should you feign friendship with people you don't like—they'll figure that out real fast. But neither should you be the Grim Reaper, appearing on their doorstep only when you’re bringing a lifeless, blood-stained manuscript to lay at their feet. (Some editors claim good results using green pens or anything other than red. I don’t buy it. All engineers are science fiction nuts, and green blood is every bit as recognizable as red.)

It helps to understand that there's always a point beyond which you don't need to go: sometimes "good enough" really is good enough. I've often been accused of being a nit picker, to the point that I developed a standard response: "If you don't pick nits, they grow up and become lice. Check the dictionary if you don't believe me." But facetious comebacks aside, it pays to recognize that you can be too thorough and end up boiling away more of an author's voice than you need to. Resist the temptation.

Just do it!

There are dozens of textbooks on editing, but most have a fatal flaw: you can't get good at editing by reading about it. Sure, you can learn the mechanics of grammar and the sort of structural problems to look for, but the only way to get good at editing is to actually do it. (Editing is just like writing in that way.) I've seen the recommendation that you skim published books in search of mistakes, but I don't suspect this would be very productive. Most presses do still edit their books before publishing them—though the evidence for this is growing weaker—so you'll be looking for relatively minor things such as typos. The only way to get good at editing is to start with the raw ore and try to turn it into refined metal. (There are parallel metaphors involving fecal material and fertilizer; if you’re thinking along those lines, reread the previous section.)

I've mentioned that textbooks can teach you what to look for when you edit, and that's a good starting place. One thing that all good editors learn to do is to make certain changes instinctively, by reflex. For example, I edit mostly scientific manuscripts, and these manuscripts are chock full of figures (graphics) and tables. After more than 10 years of doing this, I've learned to automatically stop what I'm doing when I come to the first figure or table reference, and do two things:

I don't even have to consciously think about this any more: I just do it. Similarly, when I hit the first heading, I stop what I'm doing and run through the rest of the headings to ensure that their hierarchy is logical and consistent; others do this as soon as they hit the table of contents, which strikes me as more logical, but I’m too well-habituated to change just because something is more logical. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of other things to look for (is it Microsoft or MicroSoft?), and the key is to pick a new type of problem every week (or month, or quarter—whatever works for you) and focus your attention on it until you can do it in your sleep. After a year, you've got 12 learned reflexes you no longer have to think about; after two years, you've got 24; after 10 years, you probably feel your fingers twitch whenever you see a printed page, but at least you don't have to devote your whole attention to a checklist of 120 editorial criteria.

The final thing you can do to perfect your editing is to form an editorial group. Writers have been forming writers' groups for as long as there have been writers, with the goal of obtaining professional reviews of their writing. In a writer's group, everyone brings their latest fiction for group review, and authors revise their prose again and again until everyone is tired of criticizing the manuscript or until the author attains literary perfection. There's no reason why this shouldn't work for editors too, with a small modification. Bring your latest edited manuscript to the group meeting and have everyone else go through it with a red pen to highlight anything you’ve missed. As in the writers' group, you won't agree with all the comments, but at least you'll have a good idea of the sort of problems you consistently miss. Add these to the list of reflexes you'll have to learn.

Thriving on chaos

One luxury writers have that most editors lack is the ability to focus on one (or relatively few) projects at a time. In marked contrast, I've yet to meet an editor who doesn't juggle several projects simultaneously; during one particularly hectic period, I had dozens of manuscripts moving across my desk. Although project management per se has little to do with editing, knowing how to juggle priorities comes in very handy. Some of the tact and diplomacy I mentioned earlier helps; being able to coax your authors into revealing the difference between when they want an edit completed and when they actually need the edited manuscript can make all the difference in the world.

The problems of deadlines and multiple projects are exacerbated by a character quirk of writers and editors: nothing ever gets done completely right the first time. In various informal discussions in the Internet's copyediting–l discussion group, it's become apparent that most editors take at least two passes through any document. In my case, I use a standard three-pass approach that includes verifying the final layout:

Depending on the amount of work required, you may have to repeat Pass 1 a few times just to get the manuscript to the stage at which you can actually attempt Pass 2. Most editors use some variant of this approach, perhaps including an initial read-through of the manuscript to get an overall feel for the message and any consistency or structural issues. Time permitting, the initial read is an excellent idea because it helps you spot significant problems with the sequence of the information, and provides the context you need to understand what you're editing.

There are many reasons why editors don't get it right the first time. The most important ones are that:

Given that you're going to have to see a manuscript several times before it's ready to print, you should formally let everyone know that this is the case. You'll be given a lot more slack if everyone understands this editing process and lets you use it efficiently.

Even with the best intentions, sometimes you're going to have to accept that you'll be doing an imperfect job. The usual reason for this is an unreasonable deadline. Under those circumstances, it's important to understand the concept of triage. Triage comes from the French verb trier, to sort (and not, as one might expect, to “try one’s patience”), and is most familiar to North Americans in a medical context. In emergency medicine, there are three categories of patients: those you can save if you act immediately; those who will survive even if you ignore them for several hours; and those you can't help at all, and who must be left to die so you can save the other two groups. Editorial triage follows a parallel, albeit less morbid, course: some errors must be fixed immediately, since they'll fatally disrupt comprehension; others are trivial enough that you can ignore them, confident that they'll only annoy readers; and others you simply can't fix in the time allotted to you, so ignore them and fix what you can. One very simple triage scheme might be as follows:

You gotta dream!

Editing is probably the most rewarding activity I do at work, in part because of the intellectual challenge of figuring out what's wrong and how to make it right. But more satisfying still is the fact that I get to help my best authors sound as good as they think they sound, and my worst authors communicate well enough that they can focus their efforts on things I can't do, such as programming and field research. It took me a long time to figure out what I'd do with my amateur idiot status, and now that I'm a professional, I wouldn't trade it for any job in the world, except perhaps that of official personal masseur to the Sports Illustrated swimsuit models. After all, it's great to do a job you love, but a man's gotta dream too!


While honing his massage skills and keeping the dream alive, Geoff works for the Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada as the official professional idiot, French translator, full-time publisher, part-time technical writer, and all-around Geoff-of-all-trades.

©2004–2018 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved