How To Be A Better Editor
[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
My first full time job was at a nonprofit on the South Side of Chicago. I was hired as a Grant Writer, but I wrote and did a lot of other things. It was a small nonprofit so everyone did a little bit of everything, which isn't exactly efficient, but is the reality of nonprofit life. Nonprofit employees are often asked to forego financial gains to support an organizations "mission," and I was paid a mere $35,000. This was barely over living wage at the time, and I had a Master's degree. I felt like I didn't have any better option, so I took the job and drummed up side business after work and on the weekends. I babysat, dog sat, and started doing freelance writing and editing projects. I liked editing the most, because I could set my own hours, set my own wage, and I wasn't re-creating the proverbial wheel, I was simply polishing it.
I initially found clients on Upwork and Craigslist, but Upwork charges a hefty fee and Craigslist is sketchy at best. Eventually, I built a website and found clients there. The best clients I've had though, found me through word of mouth. Do good work, and your clients will be happy to refer you.
Editing can be time consuming, frustrating, boring, and for Type-A persons like myself, deeply satisfying. Here are some tips and tricks I've learned along the way to be a better editor.
Define your niche. I've done medical documents, white papers, grants, blogs, and memoirs. My favorite thing to work on so far has been memoirs. I'm a storyteller at heart, and it's extremely satisfying to help someone tell their story well. Once I did a few (and did them well), I received more referrals and inadvertently defined my niche.
Use digital tools. I've been asked to do handwritten edits and I usually will, but only as a final edit. The first round of edits are always done in Microsoft Word, using the track changes feature. This helps me keep my edits organized, and helps my clients receive quick and clear feedback.
Utilize style guides. The Chicago Manual of Style is my most used style guide, but I've also used the Associated Press. A thesaurus is also handy, and readily available in Microsoft Word.
Do a read-through before you get into the details. Every time I tackle a big project, like a book or white paper, I read the entire manuscript before making line edits or content suggestions. Otherwise, I find myself making edits that I later redact. The first read through should be for big picture clarity and to find any gaps in content.
Then, edit line-by-line. After the big picture edit I do a line edit, which means checking each line for spelling, grammar, and syntax. Sometimes I break up sentences, and sometimes I lengthen them. Variation in sentence length adds life and rhythm. I also replace passive voice verbs with active voice verbs to aid clarity and readability.
Be brutally honest, but respectful. The fastest way to lose a client is to either do bad work (by not being brutally honest), or being a conceited jerk (by being disrespectful). Emphasize your desire to make their work great, and don't cut any corners.
Don't change the authors voice or style. You'll have to check your ego at the door. Your job is not to change the writer's voice but to make it better. Doing this requires a temporary divorce from your own style/voice.
Explain why you're making big changes. If you can't tell someone why you're changing something, chances are, you shouldn't be changing it. Most of the time, your clients will want to know your reasons for changing their work, and you should be fully able to provide it.
Be open to feedback. You're going to be the one dispensing feedback, so you should be able to accept it as well, from your clients and from other writers. If your edits are unclear or if you're consistently making mistakes, you should know about it so you can address your errors. At the end of the day, your clients will largely determine your success, so listen to what they have to say. Maintaining good relationships is essential (and not that difficult.)
Read. Being a good editor requires reading, which seems obvious if I do say so myself. As I've gotten busier with my writing, I've found it harder to read consistently. I try to read every night before bed, and I read a variety of genres (memoirs are some of my favorites). I think about what I like in a book and what bores me, then apply my takeaways to my own work.
Editors and publishers are part of an industry that can influence and advance social change, and it behooves us to stay informed and abreast of current events. In a hyper-connected age, this isn't hard to do. I like NPR, The BBC, The New Yorker, Slate, or The Guardian.
P.S. Contact me for editing services. Check out Reedsy if you're an editor looking for work. Read Elements of Style (4th Ed. by Strunk & White) and Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write. Watch YouTuber Mollie Reads explain how she became an editor here.