I often joke that I read for a living.
Editors like me work with words like potters work with clay. We read very carefully, and then we smooth the rough edges. And yes, people pay us for that.
I’ll keep editing until the day the AI-chatbot overlords pry my cold, dead hands off the keyboard. But I’m not worried about that happening anytime soon.
AI chatbots apparently can’t do anything more sophisticated than proofreading, summarizing, and grammar-checking, and their rewriting abilities are inferior, in the opinion of this editor. Chatbots are so far about as good at editing as Microsoft Word is.
And they’re not much better at helping people write. Sure, you can coach a chatbot to produce hallucinatory blog posts and marketing copy that resemble both fiction and reality. But so far chatbots are downright mediocre writing collaborators.
The GPT-4 chatbot that collaborated with well-known tech investor Reid Hoffman on his book Impromptu clearly wasn’t able, or allowed, to rein in the author’s voluble efforts, as the narrative mostly seems to depend on an enormous number of leaden chat transcripts. AI certainly made Hoffman more productive in cranking out his free-form ideas, as he argued it would. But it poses significant legal risks related to intellectual property and plagiarism for organizations that use it.
Suffice it to say, I don’t think human editors and writers have to worry about being replaced anytime soon. Maybe we’ll even learn to work alongside AI to make our lives easier, as Hoffman optimistically predicts, but the jury is still out on that.
Until all these issues get worked out, organizations will be stuck with us humans.
The Varieties of Editing Experiences
Many clients I advise often struggle with a problem more basic than the latest AI-powered wordsmithing: They can’t seem to describe what kind of editing help they need. Nonprofessional writers don’t always fully understand the content development process, so they’re frequently unable to identify the skills and experience they require. The lack of a common vocabulary for describing editing can hinder their ability to get the help they need from the right human.
To help bridge the gap between editors and writers of the humanoid variety, I developed the following cheat sheet on editing. I’ve already explained where good editing can’t be found, so I’ll focus next on where good editors come from. (Disclaimer: No robots were used in the writing and editing of this article.)
Decades ago, a crusty old newspaper editor might have yelled “Get me rewrite!” across a newsroom clattering with typewriters. If I had worked in newspapers back then, I might have been the guy who came running.
Today I’m more like a fixer. Leading organizations often call me in when an already drafted book, report, or article shows strong promise — good reporting, memorable details, interesting ideas — but needs a lot of love. Often that takes the form of extensive rewriting that covers the page in a sea of red changes that can make a writer’s blood boil.
As writer and writing coach Daphne Gray-Grant remembers, “My editor had covered [my manuscript] in so many red marks, it looked as though she might have accidentally stabbed herself with an X-Acto knife.”
But I’ve found that once writers take a deep breath and dig into the edits, they often realize their piece is not just better but sometimes much better.
If the writer has done as much as they can by this point, and we’re on deadline, I fix their writing, quickly run it by the writer for accuracy, and publish. Writers generally want to get their piece out rather than hold it up, so they grin and bear the editing.
Whenever possible, however, I add queries to the draft to help the writer rewrite the piece and produce another draft. The simple fact is that writing often improves with rewriting.
Rewriting lies at the heart of developmental editing, sometimes known as conceptual editing. With this type of editorial work, the editor often pays close attention to organization and structure. Since many developmental editors have read and edited a great deal on a topic over the years, we consider what’s unique and interesting to readers — and what’s probably not. We look for what’s missing, and what’s better left unsaid. We consider issues of argument, voice, tone, and content.
Often, clients pay me to do much more than edit. I also do a great deal of ghostwriting about business, technology, organizational, and social impact topics. The process sometimes resembles editing in terms of the queries and rewriting required to resolve issues, except that I’m responsible for drafting the pieces that “authors” — the subject-matter experts — help me refine and then publish under their names.
Each of the three advanced editing processes described above involves quite specialized and valuable expertise, especially when someone has deep experience and knowledge on the topic. We’re more like surgeons and architects than orderlies and construction workers, and we are often paid like the former versus the latter.
Line editors tackle the next level down in the content development process in terms of difficulty. Like a knitter, a line editor stitches and restitches prose, fixing issues at both the micro level of sentences and the macro level of paragraphs and sections.
Like the student of poetry I once was, I listen to the sounds and meanings of words when they rub up against other words. I try to improve the flow through transitions.
Ultimately, editors serve the reader’s needs. A great editor I worked with at Time Inc., Bruce Raskin, once told me, “Never make the reader stop reading.” I aim to follow that advice every day.
George Orwell recommended the following six basic rules for writing in his classic 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”:
- “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech [that] you are used to seeing in print.”
- “Never use a long word where a short one will do.”
- “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.”
- “Never use the passive where you can use the active.”
- “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”
- “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”
(OK, that last line could be improved for clarity in modern usage, but I won’t be the one who does more than copyedit Orwell’s original phrasing today.)
Line editors rework overlong, meandering, vague, redundant, ambiguous, and passive phrases and sentences. We consider consistency of terminology and definitions. We enforce clarity, brevity, and accessibility.
We revise the beginning and end of a piece of writing to grab the reader’s attention and ensure they leave on a satisfying note, and we strive to make sure the reader knows why it matters. We labor over headlines, subheads, captions, and other “display copy” to entice readers to read in the first place.
The first and last commandment of line editing follows a saying attributed to the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates: “First, do no harm.”
Copyeditors handle the final polishing. Editors often get too close to the storytelling by this point, so another person is usually needed to copyedit. Copyeditors help save everyone from themselves. They look for grammatical errors and misspellings, to be sure, but they also attend to issues of punctuation and “style” — the rules a publication chooses to follow, such as how to spell words and numbers consistently. To copyeditors, use of the serial (or Oxford) comma can be the subject of heated debate.
Copyeditors ruthlessly omit needless words. They make overly technical language more accessible to a more general reader, when needed. They heavily prune adjectives. They polish charts and graphs. They weigh every word and often recast jargon, colloquialisms, and clichés in more straightforward form.
Finally comes proofreading, which a copyeditor or dedicated proofreader often handles. The proofreader looks for typos and overlooked errors in the final publication, whether in a digital file or a print layout.
Given what I charge, few people hire me these days to fix commas, correct grammar, proofread copy, and ensure stylistic consistency, although I started out as a copyeditor who did exactly that and once managed a copyediting and proofreading team at a national business technology magazine.
Other Forms of Editing
Of course, many other types of editors can help ensure that words get published with quality and speed, including assigning editors who help come up with ideas and story editors who help reporters and writers shape the storytelling, as well as managing editors who keep the editorial trains running on time and production editors who deal with corrections and other layout and design issues. People with titles like editor in chief and editorial director oversee what is usually a multi-person editorial operation.
In my career, I’ve done all these jobs, and more. And each task requires different skills, experience, and knowledge. At Insight Content Lab, I’ve assembled a team of diverse, business-focused editorial collaborators with the capabilities organizations need to take their ideas to the next level of quality.
Where Good Editors Come From
No shortcuts exist for learning the art and craft of editing. The formula is simple to describe, but it takes time and practice to master:
- Read a lot of good writing.
- Learn a lot from good editors.
- Edit a lot of good publications.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Brown University made me the editor and collaborator I am today. I was fortunate to learn the fundamentals of editing during an intensive year in Brown’s pioneering Writing Fellows Program, one of the first paid peer-tutoring programs in writing in the U.S. The mission of the program’s visionary founder, English professor Tori Haring-Smith, was to support Brown’s requirement that all its graduates achieve competence in writing.
Writing Fellows were assigned to a class, working in partnership with a professor, like a teaching assistant in writing. We read every paper over a semester and offered suggestions to our fellow students for rewriting through one-on-one meetings and written comments.
After graduating from college as a member of the now-endangered species known as the humanities major, I quickly learned that people would keep paying me to do what I learned in college. So I started editing and writing for a living, and I haven’t stopped.
Why Editing Matters
It’s been said that good writing is good thinking. And skilled editorial collaborators help writers think — clearly and coherently.
While a good thought partnership isn’t always easy, the process almost always leads to a more powerful and creative outcome than working alone — or with a robot.
In the end, editing and writing well boil down to something Mark Twain said in a letter to Emeline Beach way back in 1868:
“To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement. To condense the diffused light of a page of thought into the luminous flash of a single sentence, is worthy to rank as a prize composition just by itself. … Anybody can have ideas — the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.”
That quote always leaves me at a loss for words. ‘Nuf said.