Ask Dr. Wobs: Advice to a first-time editor

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Here’s a query from a new-minted editor that gets right to the heart of what an editor must do:

Dear Dr. Wobs:

I want to be an editor when I get out of school, and right now I’m doing beta projects for free to get some practice. I was looking for advice on my first project (it’s a bit like the blind leading the blind right now) when I came upon your list of tips for priceless editors. The author is posting the story online as she goes along and the idea is that I edit every chapter right before it’s posted. What tips would you have for me? And how do I make sure I don’t turn the author’s writing into a copy of my own (as in, how do I know when I’m changing something that needs to be changed, and it’s not just because I wouldn’t have written it that way?). Thanks!

— K.N.

Dear K.N.

Experienced editors just do what they always do. New editors ask what they’re supposed to be doing, as you did. Frankly, I wish more editors were as introspective as you are.

While an editor must be in complete command of all the rules of English and conventions for whatever publication they are editing for, applying those rules is not really the editor’s main job.

As an editor, your main job is to stand in for the reader, and help the writer to communicate effectively to that reader.

This means you need to ask questions like this:

  • Can I clearly understand what’s going on in this passage?
  • Is this organized in a way that’s easy (or at least possible) to follow?
  • Is there a clearer way to organize it?
  • Does the author have mannerisms (repeated words or ways of writing) that distract from the content?
  • Did the author’s writing convey something that is different from what they intended?

There are many more questions to ask, and every time I read content from a new writer, I find yet another thing I need to be thinking about. But the pattern here remains: as an editor, you look for problems with the writing that interfere with the communication, and then suggest ways to fix those problems.

One way to restrain your tendency to rewrite things in your own voice is to use comments as opposed to redline edits. So, for example, mark a passage and write “This seems repetitive with what you wrote on the previous page; could we delete this second example of the same point?” rather than just deleting the text without comment.

While it’s your job to find the problems and suggest the fixes, it’s the writer’s job to determine what to do about the problems — which might be something completely different from what you suggest. So long as you consider yourself as a proxy for the reader, rather than a replacement for the writer, your suggestions are more likely to improve the writer’s effectiveness rather than eradicate her voice.

Editors who help writers be the best version of themselves end up in high demand. Take that as your goal and you’ll be on the path to success.

3 responses to “Ask Dr. Wobs: Advice to a first-time editor

  1. This is gold: “So long as you consider yourself as a proxy for the reader, rather than a replacement for the writer, your suggestions are more likely to improve the writer’s effectiveness rather than eradicate her voice.”

  2. It would still be hard to edit consistently on the fly, particularly fiction. There are so many elements that tie in across a story.

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