Eva van Emden, Freelance Editor

Certified Copy Editor and Proofreader

eva@vancouvereditor.com

January 12, 2021

The Art and Science of Editing

“The Art and Science of Editing” is one of the courses in the Poynter ACES Certificate in Editing, an excellent and affordable introduction to editing. Here are some notes from when I took the course a few years ago.

Who are you editing for?

Know your readers, boss, self, publication, and writer.

What is editing?

Making things better.
  • Who is the audience?
  • What is the goal?
  • What is the reader hearing? Can the reader hear what the writer is saying? If background information is missing, or the writer is using language that the reader can’t understand easily, the message won’t get through.

Hippocratic oath of editing

  1. Don’t go looking for errors, because when you’re looking for errors, you’re not experiencing the writing in the way a reader does. Most readers are looking for information, not for errors to pounce on. Instead, pay attention to what happens when you read. Alertness and healthy skepticism are good, but suspicion is the wrong attitude.
  2. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
  3. A good doctor leaves few visible scars. Try to be invisible.

Changing versus editing

A change is something you want to do. An edit allows the copy to meet the needs of the reader. An edit focuses on the reader, but a change is done for convenience, or to conform with a rule. A habit of making changes is what can give editors a bad reputation sometimes.

Ask yourself:

  1. What is it that bothers me? What’s the fix that does the minimum damage?
  2. Does the rule I’m applying actually fit here? For example, a reporter whose style guide mandated using “to dismiss” instead of “to fire” changed a reference to “Last hired, first fired” policy to “Last hired, first dismissed,” applying a rule inappropriately.

Did you make it better?

  • You don’t have to make changes to justify your existence.
  • Compare the text before and after. This is one of the reasons you should use track changes.
  • Look at it fresh. Make another pass, and consider changing the font, letter size, or format you help you see the text afresh.
  • Look at the effect of the change. Did it introduce an error?
  • Don’t congratulate yourself—you’ll miss the next problem.

Keeping a good relationship with the writer

  • Don’t be aggressive or defensive.
  • Start with a compliment.
  • Don’t let it get personal: talk in terms of the copy and the reader. Avoid saying “you wrote” because another editor may have introduced that wording. Avoid saying “I fixed” because that means it was broken. Say, “The story says this.”
  • Always have a suggestion ready. “Could we make it say X?”
  • Use language that the writer understands. Avoid technical grammatical terms.

Negotiating changes with the writer

  • It’s OK to make some concessions for the sake of preserving your relationship with the author, as long as it doesn’t hurt the reader.
  • Start with the easy stuff, like clear-cut errors like typos and spelling mistakes.
  • Once you’ve built some confidence, move on to less obvious errors. Be prepared to let some of these go. Maybe you’re wrong about them.
  • Save the most difficult issues for last.
  • In a tie, the writer always wins. The writer is the one whose name and reputation are on the line. Never be the editor who makes changes behind the writer’s back.

Empathy

Try to put yourself in the writer’s place: understand what they’re trying to do, and when you make edits, do them the way the writer would.

Editor’s role

Aim to be respected, not liked or feared. The editor is the writer’s safety net or spotter. The editor stands up for the reader.

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