Working principles

Critical thinking. You cannot edit with the TV on. Editors must continually contest the text they’re working on, shifting constantly between the author’s and the reader’s perspective. What is the author saying? What is the reader hearing? Is there a better way to bring the two together? 

Verve. Editors are professional outsiders. We know that nobody really likes to be corrected, although most people are willing to listen if you show them that you can help them do their jobs better. Editors have to find ways to practice their craft gently, persuasively, interactively, and transparently. When you love what you do, it shows … and wins people over.

Flair. There’s always a way to say something better. Usually that means boiling it down, finding opportunities to replace listless words and phrases with bold ones, and engaging the reader.

Breadth. Editors who do not have a broad education can’t tell terms of art from mumbo-jumbo. No one is an expert in everything, but a good editor knows what an expert sounds like. She knows how to recognize a well-reasoned and internally consistent argument.

Vigilance. Errors and inconsistencies are everywhere. A good editor knows where they lurk and is not afraid to go there. When she has looked at a text too often, she asks a colleague to take the baton. 

Persistence. Asking authors for clarification implies an obligation to edit the new text they supply. Taking on a task means finishing it with the same zeal you showed when you took it on. You have to go the distance. 

Advice for authors

Know your audience. Put yourself in the busy reader’s shoes. Ask yourself what you want him or her to take away from your writing. Make a list of those points. Make it easy for the reader to absorb them, starting with your title and continuing with your heads, which together should telegraph your story.

Focus on your story. Everything in your report should contribute to your story; nothing should obscure it. In addition to the title and content-laden heads, good captions and bold, uncluttered graphics help you convey your message. Don’t worry about cramming detail into your most prominent paragraphs or figures. You can come back to the details later, or tell readers where to find them. 

Keep your writing “light, layered, and linked.” Writing coach Bruce Ross-Larson advises us to keep our writing light, especially at the beginning—“to engage readers, not repel them.” Then, he says, we should slice our reports into layers of increasing density and detail, so that readers can skim across the surface and go deeper whenever they find something that engages them. Finally, Bruce advises that we add signposts (links) that point readers to further information.

Be consistent, be concise, and be clear. Consistency is psychologically appealing. If you are consistent in your voice and presentation, readers will quickly adapt to your approach and follow your reasoning more willingly. If you start out in the first person (“I, we”), stay there. If some of your heads are sentences, make them all sentences. If you capitalize a term in one place, make sure you capitalize it elsewhere. By establishing patterns and adhering to them, you won’t tax your readers’ mental energy.

Brevity is a virtue. Pare your writing to its essentials in successive drafts. Move less essential material to less prominent repositories (such as annexes) in your reports. Stanislavsky, the great Russian stage director, advised his actors to “cut 90 percent.” Good advice.

Content and presentation cannot be divorced. Guide your reader with heads and links to related material. Use short paragraphs with clear topic sentences. Within paragraphs, vary the length of your sentences. Use strong verbs and other interesting words. Don’t clutter the page with unnecessary punctuation, capitalization, bolding, or abbreviation. Leave plenty of white space (wide margins and additional line spacing)—it’ll help you think more clearly.

Edit yourself. Worth money and time are The Chicago Manual of Style, The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, and Edit Yourself by Bruce Ross-Larson. Fully half of Edit Yourself is a list of clunky phrases that, if eliminated, will bring you appreciably closer to concision. You’ll be delighted at how entertaining it is. The World Factbook is great for getting country names right.  

Hiring an editor

What makes an editor competitive is usually not wholly discernible from the hourly rate, which tells you little about the quality, scope, and speed (productivity) of the editor's intervention. Asking for a fixed project price is not reliable either, as the editor is rarely completely familiar with the scope of the project at the time bids are prepared and may succumb to the temptation to cut corners if he runs out of time.

Among the other factors making up competitiveness are responsiveness, adaptability, tenacity, and a willingness to assume responsibility for moving matters to closure. These are obviously desirable qualities—as no two publication processes are alike except in being full of surprises—but they are hard to demonstrate in a cost estimate. A good proxy for them may be recommendations from leaders of a wide variety of projects.

Another factor is experience, but this is easily gauged. Experienced, knowledgeable editors reduce the load on the production staff by fixing problems rather than referring them back to you. Intelligence and depth of general and specialized knowledge are related factors.

A last factor is the depth and range of the editor's service offering. If the editor can claim to have an efficient system for dividing editorial labor in a cost-effective way, the customer can save money without sacrificing quality. Range is a self-explanatory benefit: if the editor can also provide ancillary writing or page layout or graphic design services, that's good. If he is a whiz with Excel and able to fix figures, that's good, too.