The Editor’s Greatest Skill of All

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The other day, I got to thinking about what skills make an editor good. Of course, there are all the obvious ones: excellent grammar and sentence structure, comma wrangling, large vocabulary, audience analysis, strategic thinking, collaboration, and near-obsessive attention to detail.

However, the greatest ability for an editor is to ask the right questions.

Surprised? Most people think that writers are the ones who should be most concerned with questions.

If clarity is the goal of a written item (whether it be a 250-word blog post or a 200-page report), the editor must make sure the way the information is presented is understandable to readers.

If the editor is unsure, the readers won’t get it. When readers are confused, there’s miscommunication which can lead to lost time, inefficiency, and other forms of chaos.

Well written copy doesn’t usually require a lot of editorial questioning. The writer has already asked herself the questions and answered them for the reader. But, as we know, almost all copy needs some massaging since writers have a hard time remembering readers can’t see inside the writers’ heads.

That’s where editors come in. As representatives of readers, they must ask questions to make sure the message is complete and written to get the intended response.

Sometimes this requires fearlessness, especially if the writer is a superior convinced she is the latest incarnation of Shakespeare.

A large dose of tact is also essential. (Take it from someone who learned the hard way.)

So, what are these questions I speak of? Here are a few to have in your arsenal:

  • Is this what you meant? (Insert paraphrase)
  • Why is this important to include?
  • Is there a way to break up this sentence so we don’t lose the reader?
  • Is this the word you meant to use or might this (insert substitute) be clearer?
  • Can you give an example or details of what you mean here?
  • How does this connect to the rest of what you have written?
  • Is this the tone you think will be most effective?

What do you think? Are there other questions editors should ask?

When to Seek Professional Help: Editing

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It’s done! You’ve finished your writing project.

You went through the agony of how to get started. You fretted over what words to use and whether they produce the result you want. You drove yourself, everyone around you, and even your pets crazy with getting it written and then revising endlessly.

You’re done, but is the process really over? Do you need someone to edit what you wrote? That’s a question every writer asks, and there’s no pat answer. (Okay, I’m an editor; I thing everything needs to be edited.)

The main thing to determine is the importance of clear, understandable, and professional writing. If mistakes are going to taint your reputation or drive away readers or potential customers, you need to seriously consider working with an experienced editor.

Of course, there are lots of other questions that have to be answered, too.

  • What’s the purpose? Is it a quick e-mail, a marketing piece, a blog, a press release, or a book? The more involved the writing piece is and the more people who will see it, the greater the need for a skilled editor.
  • Who’s the audience? If you’re trying to impress someone, you definitely need the help of someone proficient in written English. We so often can’t see problems with organization and grammar in our own writing. We all (me, too!) need a fresh, competent review of our work to make it sparkle. What many consider sloppy writing errors (misused words, misspellings, run-on sentences) and poor organization can ruin those all-important first – and even subsequent – impressions.
  • What’s the time frame? How quickly does it need to be turned around? So many times, people want things “fast and good.” The problem is that “fast” often leads to errors. We’re in such a hurry to meet a deadline that we can’t put it aside to review later with fresh eyes. With “fast,” we sometimes have to sacrifice “good.” How much not-so-good writing will readers tolerate? If you have a relationship with an editor, it may be possible to squeeze in that review no matter how fast you need to work.
  • What’s the writer’s skill level and experience? Some writers are good with mechanics but trip up on organization or phrasing. Some are great storytellers but can’t spell to save their lives. I once worked with a reporter who was terrific at finding and writing stories. However, she was lousy in mechanics. Anyone reading her raw copy would think she was a terrible writer. As her editor, it was my job to showcase the brilliance of her work. More experienced writers, who recognize and can correct their writing weaknesses, can often squeak by without an editor for some writing, but I wouldn’t make a habit of it for everything.

ROI

Working with a professional editor is an investment in your writing. There are always questions we need to answer no matter what we invest in. We must look at the return on our investment (ROI). Will working with an editor help us keep readers, gain new readers, make our ideas more attractive, put our products and services in their best light, or make the piece more attractive to a publisher?  A good editor will always strive to make your writing as extraordinary as possible.

To learn more about professional editing services, visit AIC Communication Services or e-mail info@aic-communication-services.com.

Dissecting the Editor

Editors – what is it that they do, exactly? Who are they? What motivates them? Why are they always so grumpy?

If you tell people, “I’m an editor,” you get this look. People have a vague idea of what an editor is and what an editor does, but they don’t really know. It’s like saying you’re a philosopher, theoretical physicist, or member of Congress.

Beth Hill does a nice job of breaking down what various editors do in her post “Duties of an Editor & How Editors Help Writers” on The Editor’s Blog. The only caution: don’t presume that each type of editor remains strictly within the description.

editor cartoon 001It doesn’t happen that way because good editors will always do what’s needed to coax the best out of the product. Besides, job titles are always such flimsy things.

Editors of writing love the English language. We love the stories; we love the words and their shades of meaning. We even love the grammar and punctuation.

We see the potential for excellence and do everything in our power, within whatever limitations, to get every piece of work to its shining best. It can range from a novel to an operating manual to a blog post, to a resume. We don’t care. We just want it to be right. (We’re compulsive that way.)

A writer bleeds and sweats over a piece and finally brings it to an editor. The writer is shocked when the editor starts hacking and cutting away like some crazed serial killer. The writer wants to snatch the piece back and flee, but it’s too late.

What the editor sees is a bloated, overstuffed piece that would be so much healthier with a little trimming. The editor knows readers won’t tolerate wading through heaps of literary garbage to get to the kernel of truth or usefulness.

Editors usually find themselves “betwixt and between” things. They stand between the reader and the writer. They represent the reader’s interest while preserving the voice of the writer.

Editors stand between writers and publishers. They want to develop the writer and show how a piece can be better, but they have to deal with the interests of the publisher and try to get a marketable piece out in a limited amount of time.

Yes, editors are grumpy sometimes. How would you feel if you had to deal with constant butchering of the English language? How would you like to always be able to see the greatness in writing without being able to accomplish it because of time, ego, or money? Isn’t it uncomfortable to be in the middle of two conflicting perspectives?

I have always loved the following poem tacked up on the wall of the newsroom I “grew up” in. I think it perfectly (and succinctly) describes what every editor yearns for.

The written word
Should be clean as bone,
Clear as light,
Firm as stone.
   — Anonymous