Practical Editing Tips

Do you ever forget that you work with people?

When I hyperfocus on the writing projects that come across my desk, I have been known to forget the human who turned it in.

My primary directives are user focus, consistency, and clarity. If content misses the mark, I will tear into it with abandon. Then suddenly, I’ll remember that an actual person wrote it, and back way off, throwing softball suggestions at them as a weak kind of apology. This doesn’t make the writer feel better, and I don’t get the outcome I want either. Nobody wins.

My penchant for aggressive editing has a term now: The Full Diffenderfer. It’s fun to joke about but it reveals something true. I expect a lot from people, and I will push to get it.

In management buzzwords, it’s called pacesetting and it’s not as exciting or on-trend as it sounds. Done too intensely or too frequently, this behavior can really hurt results and, worse, your relationships.

What I’ve finally learned after a few years of this flip-flopping is that the person behind the draft matters. A lot.

Every draft is a coaching opportunity.

Instead of trying to force writers into a mold I’ve created in my head, it’s my job to ask questions and be a resource to them — to guide them toward the most effective version of their document at that moment.

As the pendulum has moved from Full to Very Limited Diffenderfer and back again, I’ve landed on a few central tactics that I rely on every day.

1. Consider the author

Did a peer ask for your general thoughts on an internal resource document? Or is a writer you work with asking for in-depth edits on something that will be published to a wide audience?

Find out what level of feedback the author is looking for. If they aren’t interested in a tête-à-tête, just hit the high points so they can get it out the door.

But of course, we can all be better writers! If they express interest in getting actionable and generalizable feedback, take advantage of this teachable moment. (And check out the rest of these tips.)

2. Take a step back

Put the red pen down! Don’t get carried away with word choice or turns of phrase right away. Give the document some breathing room, and read it from start to finish.

Use this pass to think about the goal of the document, its audience, and whether its structure and messages are aligned with those. Check in with the author to make sure you’re on the same page.

It can be hard to stay focused on the big picture when you spy a typo or one of your pet peeves, but it is the most critical step of this process. Don’t give up.

3. Make notes or add comments

It can be really overwhelming to everyone if you start rewriting sections or making copy suggestions right off the bat. With all that context from item 2 and the big picture in mind, use a comments tool or keep a running list of the conceptual issues you spot.

Use your understanding of the user (or reader) and think about what changes would have the most positive impact to that person. When you provide this feedback to the writer, ask questions and allow them to resolve the issues in their own way.

Give the author space to seek their own solutions.

If you make direct suggestions, be sure to back them up with your understanding of the material and why the writer should consider a different approach.

4. Refer to a style guide if you can

When you make line edits for style, provide links to a shared resource. This helps clarify that a certain change is a rule or guideline rather than a personal preference, and it also gently reminds the author that the resource is available for them to lean on and incorporate into their workflow.

5. Be transparent

If you make a note based on personal preference, fess up. Just say, “This sentence isn’t really doing it for me, can you think of a way to rework it that will [fulfill this need]?” And be prepared to say “yeah, you’re right,” if they come back with a justification you hadn’t considered.

You may also interpret a phrase or pop culture reference differently than your author or the potential reader. Be honest about where your brain went, and let the author weigh in on whether that discrepancy is acceptable.

6. Celebrate the good stuff

Nobody likes a hater. The editorial process is a critique, and that means providing feedback on what’s working, too. Do you like the structure? Are the headings particularly descriptive or scannable? That turn of phrase tickle you? Let the writer know.

Nobody likes a hater. Try positive reinforcement.

Don’t forget that you’re a coach, a guide. In addition to pointing out places that need improvement, be sure to provide positive reinforcement when things are going well.

Like everything, the way you edit should vary.

It can depend on your product, the content, the person writing it, or the timeline. Some of these tactics might work for you, and some of them won’t. Some of them will work for one person you work with, and not another. And sometimes, everything’s on fire and there’s just no time.

Natural consequences, maybe.

Still, leading with context, transparency, and flexibility can go a long way in establishing an effective, drama-free editorial review process.

In fact, I’ve noticed that as I’ve formalized editorial reviews, writers are more likely to ask for feedback earlier in the process. In some cases, they’ll even tell me they’ve got a particularly drafty draft and ask me to do my worst.

Oh, gladly.