There’s a scene in an episode of “Friends” where some of the characters have to answer questions about others because they have a bet going. When Joey and Chandler are asked how many types of towels Monica has they hem and haw before finally answering “11!”
Freelance writers have to be adaptable and have 11 or more personas and styles they can slip into easily. I’ve long prided myself on my ability to write in any number of styles and voices, from deeply casual to much more professional and serious to whatever the client in question needs I need to push my own tendencies and preferences to the back to best serve the needs of the client or, more specifically, their audience.
That’s no less true when editing other people’s writing.
Over the course of my career I’ve been asked to edit numerous items. Massive reports written by a dozen people in need of a consistent voice. Blog posts from colleagues. White papers needing to be checked for compelling narratives and strong calls to action. Press releases, landing pages, emails and more. To do so I’ve relied on a handful of points to guide my thinking and decision making.
- Their voice, not mine: The document or post isn’t going out under my name, so it’s not important that it reads as if I wrote it. It may not sound like me, but it should sound like either the individual or the brand, whatever’s appropriate.
- Don’t rewrite: Along the same lines, I’ve had to stop myself on countless occasions from rewriting whole sections from scratch. Doing so is usually less about the quality of the piece than my desire to put my own stamp on it, which isn’t fair.
- Go ahead and rewrite: Sometimes, though, it’s not only fair but needed. It’s often not that the paragraph or section is poorly written, it’s just that the writer clearly isn’t making the point they want to. Doing some rewriting can help clear things up.
- It’s still about serving the audience: It’s always essential to remember that the end result isn’t meant for either myself or the original writer, but for the reader. Keeping the purpose and target audience in mind while editing is just as important — if not more — during editing as it is during writing. You’re the last check before it goes out, so success or failure is on the editor’s shoulders.
- Read it over and over again: There’s no maximum number of times for you to read the piece you’re editing over again to make sure it’s working. Keep doing so. I can’t count the number of times my 14th pass through a piece uncovered something new to address. The only limit in place is the deadline.
- Read it out loud: Don’t just keep it in your head. Doing so will continue to make you prone to missing dropped words and other small issues. Reading it out loud helps you catch things you might otherwise skip over.
- Treat paragraphs like chapters: Novel chapters are supposed to end with a “hook” to keep people reading. The same logic applies to even technical writing. Each paragraph should make the promise to the reader that the next one will be just as, if not more, important.
I’ve always considered myself a fairly light touch editor, working to respect the voice of the original writer as much as I try to gear it to have the biggest impact on the target audience. Some of the people I’ve edited might agree, but my goodness, Mike, did you need that many commas in a single sentence? I have my own style, but that’s not everyone’s. Being able to put that aside for the greater good is the most important attribute a good editor can have.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.