How to be a Good Editor: The Challenges of Editing

Editing is a great way for writers to make money using their natural skills. If you are a good writer, you are a heavy reader, and heavy readers can detect problems in writing quickly and naturally. However, good editing isn’t just about reading material and making changes on those gut feeling and opinions. A good editor has a solid rule-based reason behind pretty much every edit. A good editor will always have an answer when a client asks, “Why did you do that?”

When I got my first editing job as an intern working on a fiction manuscript, I went into the job thinking that knowing my comma rules, recognizing tense shift, and knowing the difference between similar words like “affect” and “effect” were enough. Grammar and punctuation rules are absolutely essential, but there are other aspects of editing that I did not consider until that internship.

Here is a list of those editing challenges you may not have thought of:
  1. Consistency: Another intern (I’ll call her P) had already done some editing on that previously mentioned manuscript before I did. P was, frankly, terrible at catching punctuation problems, but she was great at catching consistency mistakes. These were things I hadn’t even thought of until viewing her corrections. There are aspects of grammar and writing that are up to the writer’s choice. For instance, this author had a character who was an admiral. There are no hard and fast rules on the capitalization of “admiral” when used in relation to a person because whether you say “the admiral,” like this one admiral of many, or “the Admiral,” as in a title of this specific admiral, you are technically correct. P made note that the author most commonly used Admiral to denote this character, and thus, she corrected all the lower case instances. Sometimes authors make up words. That’s okay, but you must make sure they are spelled the same every time. Some words are acceptable being hyphenated or not. You must make note of what your author does most or ask them which one they want to stick with and then make sure it stays consistent throughout.

    If your client doesn’t already have one, create a style sheet, which is simply a document that lists certain spellings, capitalization preferences, contraction preferences, etc. within the work. You can even deliver this style sheet to the client at the end of the project to help them with future pieces, whether it be a sequel to a novel or just similar projects. Going the extra mile is always good for getting return clients.
  2. Automatic Corrections: Your brain is a marvelous thing. It has the ability to fill in missing words and correct misspellings in order to make reading the material go more smoothly for you and enhance your understanding. However, this is bad if you are trying to find those problems. This is also the main reason for the old adage that it is far harder to edit your own work. If you know how the sentence should read because you wrote it, your brain will happily fill in the gaps and tell you that the sentence reads beautifully even though you’ve put a possessive apostrophe on a plural word or left out an article.
    The solution? SLOW DOWN! One way to ensure that you slow down is to do a read-through of the material first, so that your brain gets a feel for it and isn’t trying to keep a steady, normal pace in order to comprehend the material as a whole. However, if you have a large piece of work to edit, like a manuscript, and the client isn’t willing to pay you a little extra for the time it takes to do a read-through, you may not have this luxury. You will just have to learn to catch yourself when you begin to read too quickly. This is why I also strongly suggest reading out loud. Reading in your head is faster than reading out loud, unless you talk like an auctioneer. Hearing the material spoken can also help you catch awkward phrasing or a missing word, because not only does your brain have to slow down to read and speak the words, it must also process what it hears. The extra step can make all the difference.

    Tip: Want to make paying for that first read-through of that long piece more attractive to your client? Tell them that at the end of the read you will provide an analysis and critique of the piece as a whole at the end. If you’re doing this for a manuscript, you can charge upwards of a hundred dollars or more.

  3. Following Style Guides: A style guide is basically a list of rules that dictate punctuation use, numeral use, citation methods, etc. The Chicago Manual of Style(CMOS) is the most common style guide because it isn’t overly formal and it doesn’t complicate common rules. If you don’t own it—get it. It will come in handy a thousand times over. Don’t know if that word needs a hyphen? Look it up in CMOS. Don’t know if you need a comma after that word? Look it up in CMOS. It will make you look professional to clients, and many professional companies make knowledge of it a requirement. Those clients will know those rules, and if they see that you aren’t following the style guide, they won’t rehire. Publishers also look for adherence to the CMOS, so if your client is an author and they submit their freshly edited book to an agent or publisher and get back a list of problems with punctuation or style, they aren’t going to be too happy (though many publishers won’t take the time to do something like that, they’ll just make a note, if anything).

    CMOS isn’t the only style guide, though. If your client wants you to edit a scholarly piece in the liberal arts field, you’re going to need that MLA Handbook that you used back in high school and college English classes. If you are editing a news piece, a press release, or anything having to do with science or psychology, you’re going to need the APA Publication Manual. I have personally purchased all three of the aforementioned guides and have needed to use them for jobs on a regular basis, especially CMOS.

    Certain clients will have their own style guide to follow either in place of or in addition to a professional guide. For instance, some clients may want you to follow CMOS in all other punctuation methods, but not use the serial or Oxford comma. Some clients will have specifications in their guide like “use factual language, not flowery” or tell you not to use a certain word or phrase. I recently applied to an editing job for a client that writes descriptions of wedding venues, and their style guide warned against saying things like “the big day” too much.

    Keeping up with all these different guides and rules is, in my opinion, the biggest challenge of editing. However, after some practice, I have gotten to where I have many of the rules memorized, and I can recognize aspects of a sentence or word that signal that I should probably look up the official rule. For example, when I come to a word that I think could need a hyphen, I look it up to make sure. This is something that simply comes with time. So try to stay patient when flipping through those style guide pages. It gets easier.

    Tip: I would suggest buying the most recent edition of these style guides initially, just so that you are up to date starting out, but don’t feel like you need to buy a new one every year. The changes they make are usually so minor it’s not worth the extra cost.

  4. Unrealistic Expectations: Some clients (not many) will forget to factor human error into their expectations of your work. I have found spelling errors in Stephen King and J.K. Rowling books. Does that mean their editors aren’t good at their job or that I’m better than them? Hell no! It means mistakes happen. Especially when working with a huge piece of writing. However, you will inevitably come across a client who demands a refund or a redo because of a single error (that somebody else pointed out to them, probably). Now, if that client is paying you a nice, professional fee and it’s a small piece, that client has a point and you should make it right. However, if not, take it in stride and apologize, but don’t beat yourself up and don’t give that refund. And don’t work for that client again.

Editing is a fun and rewarding experience for a writer, and a great way to make money doing something enjoyable, but it isn’t as easy as wielding a red pen and marking at will. Know what you’re getting into and prepare accordingly for the best results.


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