Category Archives: Editing 101

Editorial | Editing 101: Copy Editing

The human brain has two writing modes, creating and editing.  It cannot switch back and forth between the two efficiently or easily.  Because of this, I always advise writers—especially new writers—to stick to one mode or the other.  The very first thing to do is to get a draft on paper, even if it is terrible.  Then, the writer should go back to any areas he knows to be awkward or to phrases that he could not get right on the first try and attempt to smooth over them.  At this point, it is always best to have a pair of fresh eyes take a look at the draft.  This is where the copy editor comes in.

Some writers labor under the misapprehension that copy editors are only good for the final grammar and spelling check.  This is not the case at all!  Most word processing software will run a basic spell check, and most can find the common grammatical errors as well.  Copy editors do much more than that.

As a copy editor, the first thing that I do when I get a new article or essay is to read over the entire thing and look for glaring mistakes in context or inconsistencies in the layout.  I will also make sure that the progression of the topic makes sense and flows along an outline from beginning to end.  Anything that I miss in this editing stage gets caught in stage three.

editingThe second read is for grammatical, spelling, and obvious syntax errors.  Some editors will leave this for last, but I usually cannot stand leaving them longer than this.  The mistakes that I most commonly find in this edit are homonym issues (e.g. they’re, there, their), verb conjugation—especially using past tense instead of subjunctive tense, and minor spelling errors, which usually occur because the author was writing in a hurry.

The next read through is to make sure that the overall story that the writer is conveying makes sense.  This is also the time that I take to cross out unnecessary details that obscure the author’s intention, and sometimes combine or separate sentences to flow more easily.

Depending on how well I know the writer’s style, I may also make suggestions for clarifying phrases or sentences.  Of course, while doing this, I have to be careful to not step on the author’s toes.  I always leave the original wording in the draft, with the strikethrough sign, and type my suggestions in a comment or another color font to make it clear that they are not a part of the original draft.

At this point in the editing process, I will return the draft with the first round of edits to the writer.  He or she can choose to take my suggestions, or may ask me why I have suggested certain clarifications.

Once his changes have been made, the writer sends me a second draft.  At this point, it is much like receiving a brand new manuscript, so I read through it three times in the order that I did the first time.  A lot of time and care goes into making sure that the author not only gets across his intended point, but also that he does it in a way that does not undermine his credibility, such as using vocabulary incorrectly, or having glaring grammar errors.

The draft goes back to the writer, and is checked over.  By the second draft, most edits are very minor, and are usually accepted.  I always insist on reading the final draft one more time before publishing, just to make sure everything is exactly right, and I have not missed a comma, or the double space after a period.  Then the “publish” button is hit, and the post is live!

Copy editing is time intensive and takes a lot of effort.  One of my favorite quotes is sometimes attributed to Justice Louis D. Brandeis, “There is no great writing, only great rewriting.”  This is true.  Behind every great author is a great copy editor.

You can find more interesting information about copy editing, and an interview with an editor here.

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Editorial | Editing 101: “How to… Avoid Pissing off the Writer”

As an editor, one of the scariest things I have to do is… edit someone else’s work.  It may sound odd, because it is my job, but it is the truth.  As an editor, I’m responsible for taking the brain child of another human being, and making just enough changes so that readers can understand it, while making sure the author’s voice is never lost.

A large part of the fear comes from the fact that telling another person that their work needs improvement is never easy for either party.  It is important that I as an editor point out the flaws in writing as gently as possible.  At the same time, it is always hard for anyone to accept criticism without taking it too personally.

First of all, it is important that an editor and a writer have a good working relationship.  It is a bonus if they have a solid friendship.  Often when two stubborn people bump heads over the correct word to use in a sentence—and believe me, both writers and editors are inherently stubborn; it’s in their genetics—only a healthy relationship will allow them to back away from the situation.  This relationship also allows them to see each other as humans, and not just the faceless creator or modifier of words on a page.  Often, this relationship (and sometimes a significant distance between them) is all that will keep an editor from killing her blog writer.  Not that I speak from personal experience, of course.

Secondly, as an editor, it is important to have respect for the person whose work is being edited.  I have found that when I personally respect the person whose writing I am editing, I am much more likely to be cautious in how I approach changes.

I never tell a writer that their ideas are stupid.  As far as I am concerned, every idea is excellent—it is sometimes merely a diamond in the rough.  It may require a little cut and polish to truly shine.  Instead I find ways to point out how their ideas can be improved, or that their particular audience may not be the most appreciative of a piece of writing.

I keep my words respectful as well.  Sometimes just the choice of language in discussing someone’s work is the difference between making them angry, and actually getting a fantastic final piece of writing.

Lastly, and I have mentioned this before, it is incredibly important to retain the author’s voice in his piece.  If I think that a sentence or paragraph is awkward or unclear, I usually will just say as much to the author, and allow him or her to rewrite it in the way that seems best.  If they prefer that I give them suggestions, then I do so, but in a style as close to theirs as I can write.  This is much easier if I do have a good working relationship or a friendship with the person.

Being a good editor comes down to the attitude with which I handle the person writing the piece.  To make sure that I don’t piss off the writer, I try to establish a good relationship with him, hold him and his work in regard, and I do my best to preserve his voice within his work.

Have you ever worked with someone that you pissed off too badly to continue working together?  Let us know in the comments.

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Editorial | Editing 101: “How to… edit without losing the writer’s voice”

In honor of the six month anniversary (birthday?) of Therefore I Geek, I would like to present some “how to” tips for editors.  I especially want to stress correcting grammar and syntax without losing the original writer’s voice.

The first time I was presented with a request for editing (it was a friend’s high school paper), I ripped into it.  With a red pen I circled phrases that I felt belonged in a different spot and drew arrows to where I thought they should go.  I struck through whole paragraphs and drew question marks over the original writing.  Ordinary punctuation and spelling errors were the fewest of my corrections.  My friend rewrote his entire paper in my image, and I thought it was good.  It was good.  He got an A.  However, the paper wasn’t actually his by that point:  it was mine.

I’ve learned, through trial and error, that there is a way to edit that doesn’t involve inserting my voice into a piece by someone else.  After all, if I had wanted to write it, I would have.  There have been moments when a writer and I have pounded our fists on the table and glared at each other in a disagreement over the best turn of phrase.  This is somewhat ridiculous, and can be easily avoided.

So how does one edit a piece to be the best it can be, without losing the author’s style?  It is always a good idea to keep in mind the overall tone of the piece of writing.  A research paper will have a very different quality from a blog post.  Blog posts are informal, and a writer can get away with a lot of casual and dialectic grammar that would otherwise meet with disapproval.

The editing process starts with a basic edit for simple grammar changes.  Then, a thorough read-through will make the areas which need work clear.  Sometimes, sentences sound too similar, and need to be re-worded.  Rather than changing the sound of the sentence, it is better to simply rearrange the author’s words to give the sentence a different cadence.  For instance, if there have been several sentences in a row that begin with a counter-factual clause and end with a factual one, switch the two.

Example:  It is easy to believe that an editor should insert their own style into a sentence, but it is preferable to leave the author’s choice of words intact.

Corrected:  It is preferable to leave the author’s choice of words intact, even though editors may find it easier to insert their own style into the sentence.

This does not mean that it is wrong to cut out redundant sentences, or to consolidate multiple weak sentences into one strong, cohesive sentence.  It is merely important that the author not get lost in the editing.

Next, it is a good idea to check for weak wording.  Many writers are trying get the thoughts in their heads down on paper as quickly as possible.  If they cannot think of the correct noun or verb, it is easier to just use banal phrases as place holders, so they can move on to the next thought before it is lost.  A good editor will point these out to the author for replacement.  Over the course of their relationship, the editor may know the correct word, and simply replace it in the sentence and move on.  If the entire phrase or sentence is trite, however, it may be in the best interests of having a singly voiced piece to just mark the phrase as awkward, or needing to be re-written.  The author can then make the choice of wording.

Sometimes the best advice that an editor can give to the writer is to erase what he’s written and start again.  If the editor is confused, the audience will also be confused.  I’ve often found, under these circumstances, that I can work with the writer to improve whole pages.  When we work together, it is more likely that the writer’s work will sound like it belongs to him, and not to me.

A good working relationship between a writer and an editor means that the writer’s voice is not lost during the editing process.  As the great poet Anonymous once said, “There is no such thing as good writing, only good re-writing.”

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