Part of my work as freelance copywriter and business / marketing coach involves editing what other people have written. Although I’m primarily a writer, I’ve found editing to be just as creative and fulfilling as writing – and often even more meaningful to my clients.
Editors are often perceived in the same light as high school English teachers… or librarians. Dour, critical and always ready to point out the flaws of the hapless writer. I’m not sure about other editors, but I know that when I fill that role, it’s actually challenging, fun and really, very creative. I’d hate to be viewed as a malevolent critic.
My main goal when I’m editing someone else’s writing is to ‘hear’ their ‘voice’ and to do whatever I can to maintain it. It is, after all, their creation, not mine. Some people cannot write grammatically and they misspell, but have a very engaging way of articulating themselves. Others are more serious and perhaps have better grammar and spelling, but struggle with the ’emotional’ side of writing.
I’ve worked with both kinds of clients and find that when I’m able to understand the personality behind the words, it gives me insights into reengineering their work so that it sounds just like them, only better.
When I say ‘better’, I mean that the grammar is correct (unless I believe it advantageous to allow a deliberate variation), the spelling is correct, and the intended message is clear and powerful.
It’s a lot of fun, especially to hear the excitement in a clients voice when they read what they’ve written and it’s suddenly, miraculously laser focused and powerful. I’ve been told it’s a gift. I’m not sure about that. I think it has more to do with years and years of listening carefully to what people are saying – both with their words and their non-verbal communication.
I think that any writer should be able to be a good editor if they practice a few basic skills:
- Listen carefully to what people are saying both verbally and non-verbally. Then mirror what you hear back to them in words you believe reflect what you’ve heard. Listen for clues as to whether they’re agreeing or disagreeing, and alter your words until you’re satisfied that you’re articulating their message accurately.
- Edit everything you write yourself. Spend more time editing than you spend writing. Examine every word to eliminate superfluous ones that don’t pull their weight. Eliminate flowery phrases and redundant descriptions. Don’t use two words where one can do the job. Use words carefully as if you were going to be held accountable for each.
Do this long enough and you’ll naturally develop a talent for editing what others write.
A few caveats once you begin editing someone else’s work:
- Don’t ever change something just because you feel that as an editor, you’re expected to make changes.
- Resist the impulse to make ‘power’ changes – in other words: changes that are made simply to place your ‘stamp’ on the project, or to assert your authority.
Follow these guidelines and you’ll find that not only are you a better editor, but you’ll also be a better writer.