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?