Forensic editing

A follower recently described my analysis of companies according to the flaws in their writing as “forensic editing.” I’ve decided to adopt that as my slogan.

Frankly, I can’t help it. Forensic editing is what I do.

My editorial work started within companies. It is a crime to edit the work of colleagues without considering how you can help them. The question is not just “what’s wrong here” but “why did they do this?”

Psyching out what caused a pattern of errors is work. Do your paragraphs fail to connect because you weren’t thinking logically? Are your sentences fragments because you are rushing on to the next thought before completing the one you just finished? Is your terminology inconsistent because the categories aren’t clear in your mind?

Did you avoid the obvious tools of using bullets, lists, headings, quotes, and graphics because you never considered them — or because you had a traumatic experience with a bulleted list when you were learning to write?

When I was at Forrester Research, my job was to work as an editor with the most important reports and report authors — but also with writers who were clearly brilliant, but had exhausted the patience of their other editors. “Josh, can you help me out with this person?” they would say, with pain in their eyes. “Of course,” I’d answer.

Several times, I had this odd experience: First, the writer tells me “Man, you are making me work harder on this than I ever did on anything I wrote before.” Then, after we had fixed idea problems, structural issues, and sentence and word issues over several drafts, I’d hear “Gee, I can see how much better this is. It was worth it.”

And then, surprisingly, “That was terrific. Can you work with me on my next report?” (The answer, of course, was “No, now it’s somebody else’s turn.”)

Nobody says “Thank you, sir, may I have another” after receiving an extensive round of criticism unless they learned something. And that only happens if you understand the psychology of writers — not just what mistakes and tendencies they manifest, but why they do so.

That, in turn, is only possible when you’ve edited so much that you’ve seen most of the problems and causes before. (Even so, every once in a while I see writing that finds a new way to fail that I’d never encountered before.)

Only an experienced editor, willing to put in the work to help a writer improve, can do forensic editing. It means that for each edit, you can answer the question “why” — and that when you make any suggestion that requires work on the part of the writer, you explain why right in the editorial comments.

Now that I am working freelance with authors, I’m often doing jobs with people I won’t work with again for a long while. There is no requirement that I put in effort to improve the writer, just that I improve the writing.
But even so, I still take the time to try to understand and explain why a problem occurred. Because:

  • If it occurs one place in the manuscript, it’s probably in lots of other places, too.
  • If I explain my reasons, the writer is more likely to take my advice.
  • If I have empathy for the writer, they are more likely to like and respect me, which improves the relationship.

There’s one more reason. If I improve the writer, not just the writing, they’re more likely to be impressed with me. They’re more likely to refer me to other authors. That generates more business, and keeps my rates high — because my prospects hear from my former clients, “This guy is the best.”

Most editors don’t have the time and energy for forensic editing. They’re just trying to make the text better, and that’s fine. But if you can put in a little extra effort, you may find the results encouraging — for what your writers publish, for how they feel about you, and for how you feel about yourself.

And that’s a lot more enjoyable than just criticizing people’s work all day long.

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