Pro Tips from Your Favorite Editors

CaTyra Polland and Cynthia Williams

Editing is art and science. Two editors can look at the same copy and use very different approaches to get it in the best condition. Though a colleague often can’t tell us the “right” way to do an editing task, sometimes, we can benefit from seeing how other professionals work. Here, Editor Knows Best and Outside the Book have curated some tricks of the trade from your favorite word nerds.



Adrienne Michelle Horn
Editor, I A.M. Editing, Ink LLC
Years editing: 7
Specialty: Line editing, copyediting
Type of material: Articles, blogs, dissertations, manuscripts

Do: Always inform your client of what type of editing is needed and why.

Don’t: Never return a draft to a client without reviewing your changes at least once. We are all human and make mistakes.



Amber Riaz
Editor, A4 Editing
Years editing: 14
Specialty: Copyediting
Type of material: Academic manuscripts, web content

Do: Find an editorial niche that makes you happy, so you wake up every day actually looking forward to your workday.

Don’t: Treat grammar rules as immutable/unchanging. Language evolves constantly, so editors must keep themselves informed of new ways of using words and phrases. A prescriptivist attitude to editing suppresses creativity


Andrae D. Smith
Editor
Specialty: Primarily nonfiction
Type of material: Self-help and personal development books

Do: Know your reading and editing pace and plan accordingly. Check your availability and never be afraid to ask for a sample to see if you can reasonably take on a project.

Don’t: Rush or procrastinate. Take on more than you can handle. Overbook or book outside of your skill level, even if you need the money. The worst thing you can do for your reputation, your business, and your clients is take on so much that you’re rushing to get done and you do a bad job. Each project deserves your full attention.



Chris Obudho
Editor and proofreader, CJO Writing + Editing LLC
Years editing: 25
Specialty: Substantive editing
Type of material: Everything from digital ads to scientific journal articles

Do: Read everything you can. Of course, read books about the business, process, and art of editing and proofreading, to keep your skills sharp — but don’t neglect other forms of prose: cookbooks, catalogs, random websites, dictionaries, “junk” mail/sales letters, old textbooks, etc. These seemingly weird sources of information can give you great insight into how words are used and how sentences are formed. Reading broadly also helps hone your sense of curiosity, which can build knowledge. This knowledge base can then be used to help you better understand what you’re editing. The broader your knowledge about various topics (you don’t have to be an expert!), the more you’ll be able to help (1) your author express an idea and (2) your reader understand that idea.

Don’t: Never forget why you’re editing or proofreading a particular document. It’s not about your ability to redline a document so it looks like a crime scene. It’s not about showing how smart you are. It’s not about making the author’s work “better” by your standards. The editing or proofreading is about the reader.



Crystal Shelley
Editor and proofreader, Rabbit with a Red Pen
Years editing: 4
Specialty: Line editing, copyediting, proofreading, sensitivity reading
Type of material: Novels

Do: Don’t settle for the existing style guide. Style guides are meant to be a reference, to aid us in making decisions for consistency. Sometimes, following the style guide results in choices that don’t suit the circumstance. This is especially true given how quickly language evolves through the work of advocates and social justice movements. Style guides and dictionaries don’t always keep up with how to style terms related to social identities and human rights. If we come across a style guide that’s outdated, we can ask that it be updated to reflect current guidance.

Don’t: Never assume you know everything. The best editors are curious and recognize when they don’t know something or aren’t sure. We are trained to look things up so that the story or the copy is as accurate and clear as possible. If we have any doubt, it’s safer to double-check and be right than to assume and get it wrong.



Debbie Innes
Editor and proofreader, Debbie the Editor
Years editing: 10
Specialty: Copyediting, proofreading
Type of material: Annual reports, website content, corporate reports, nonfiction manuscripts, children’s books, newsletters, brochures, members’ magazines, university student handbooks, media advisories and news releases

Do: If you’re a freelance editor, don’t accept a project with a very low rate, if you can help it. Your skills and experience are worth more than that. Know your worth.

Don’t: Never stop learning. (Most editors know this, but I’m saying it anyway.)



Erica James
Editor, MasterPieces Writing and Editing LLC
Years editing: 6
Specialty: Book coaching (which includes developmental, line, and copyediting)
Type of material: Book manuscripts, academic papers, professional writing, business copy, social media content, website content, digital products

Do: Operate in your gifts both proudly and boldly. Regardless of how many other editors are making their mark on the literary world, no one is making their mark exactly the same. It’s important to know what you do best and to do it well, without fearing the outcome.

Don’t: Don’t take on projects without a clear game plan. To ensure your clients receive high- quality work, it’s best to implement a process that reduces stress and allows you to complete tasks within a reasonable time frame. Editing can be tedious at times; therefore, it’s crucial to know how much of your time and resources will be needed for each project and to plan accordingly. Also, be willing to say no if a project doesn’t align with your process.



Jessica LeeAnn
Editor, Chocolate Readings
Years editing: 14
Specialty: Developmental
Type of material: Fiction and nonfiction manuscripts

Do: Be honest.
Don’t: Discount your rates.



Kassel Pierre-Jean
Editor, Razorfish Health
Years editing: 15
Specialty: Copyediting
Type of material: Print/digital ads, direct mailers, websites, banner ads, conference panels, white papers

Do: Find an editor who is better than you and learn from them. They don’t necessarily need to be a mentor. Just someone you feel has mastered the skill and craft of editing — someone you respect.

Don’t: Don’t be a narcissist. Never act like you know it all. There’s always more to learn, and language and grammar are always changing. Be humble.



Lakeisha Bell Cadogan
Editor, Freelancer
Years editing: 3
Specialty: Substantive
Type of material: Fiction and nonfiction manuscripts

Do: Continuously strive to become a better editor. In the same way that writers should be consistently honing their craft, we, as editors, need to do the same. Taking courses is great, but there are other options too, like reading books and attending seminars (in -person or online). Also, join editing groups on social media. It’s a great way to make friends and learn from other people.

Don’t: A core principle in my business is: Do no harm. As editors, we should never remove the writer’s voice when editing their work. Yes, we can make changes, but that doesn’t mean we should impose our personal views on the writer’s work. The primary goal is to help the writer achieve their best work.



Lourdes Venard
Editor and instructor, University of California, San Diego’s Copyediting Program and Editorial Freelancers Association
Specialty: Copyediting
Type of material: Fiction and nonfiction manuscripts

Do: Read, read, read — especially in the genre or subject area in which you edit or hope to edit. The late Amy Einsohn, who wrote The Copyeditor’s Handbook, said the novice should have a “well-tuned ear.” But this ear can be difficult to develop if you aren’t reading widely. And if you are editing fiction, join a book club. It forces you to read books you might not pick up, and it also is an education to hear how other readers feel about a book and the writing.

Don’t: Don’t be inflexible. Yes, there are grammar and style rules to be followed, but some of these are not set in stone. And even those set in stone can be broken at times. Novice editors often get so hung up on the “rules” that they miss what the writer is trying to achieve. Language can be playful; we, as editors, should allow for that and be open to how language is always changing.



Lyric Dodson
Editor, Editing by Lyric
Years editing: 6
Specialty: Copyediting
Type of material: Blog posts, nonfiction books

Do: If you’re working as a freelancer, get everything in writing! It can seem intimidating to write up a contract that hits all the important points, but it’s absolutely imperative that you do so. You most likely won’t encounter troublesome clients too often as you work, but there is a chance you will — and you want to be prepared if anything happens.

Don’t: Never undersell yourself! Setting your prices is one of the most important things you’ll do, so it’s incredibly important that you charge what you’re worth, no matter how “outrageous” you think your prices are. Remember, you’re charging not only for your time and expertise, but also for the potential return on investment your client can expect to gain in the long run. Don’t price gouge for the sake of making a few extra dollars, but don’t undercut yourself either.



Renee’ D. Campbell
Editor and proofreader, MyPen Syl Writes
Years editing: 15+
Specialty: Substantive editing
Type of material: Résumés, books (fiction, comedy, sci-fi, poetry), white papers, research papers, marketing material, presentations, infographics, websites

Do: Attention to detail is key when editing. Take the role of editor seriously, as the author is entrusting their words to you.
Don’t: Do not promise what you cannot deliver! Deadlines are key!



Taiia Smart Young
Editor, Smart Girl Media
Years editing: 26
Specialty: Developmental editing
Type of material: Self-help, memoir, personal development, spirituality

Do: Edit work that you have some experience with or connection to.
Don’t: Never be afraid to turn down a client.


CaTyra Polland, MA, is the CEO of Love for Words, an editing boutique. She is also a published author and the hostess/creator of Editor Knows Best Podcast. http://www.pollandllc.com.

Cynthia Williams is a department manager at Dragonfly Editorial and interviews editors of color at Outside-the-Book.com.

Chris Obudho

Years editing: 15 years
Job title: Owner of CJO Writing + Editing LLC
Job description: Writing and editing technical and marketing copy
Location: Indiana

EXPERIENCE

How did you get your current job?
I work with a broad array of clients to write an equally broad array of products, including blogs, product descriptions, press releases, articles, social media posts. I also edit scientific journal articles, LinkedIn articles, corporate training courses, government agency newsletters, and many other materials. Every day is truly different!

I fell in love with the process of editing about 15 years ago while working on political campaigns. Polishing press releases, campaign plans, and other documents was (and is) intellectually stimulating. Finding the right words, correcting mistakes, and making the message clear is fascinating (and can be fun)!

I’ve always had a desire to work for myself. The opportunity arose when I left an advertising agency (where I served as the primary proofreader) here in Indiana. I landed my first client after offering to help them create an in-house style guide. They’re a copper fittings manufacturer and their long-serving marketing manager had been struggling with consistent messaging and style. I thought a style guide would be a great first project. 

The president of the ad agency I’d left actually referred them to me. Maintaining relationships throughout an organization is key. That first client led to others, and now I’m going into my third year and (fingers crossed) many more.

What training do you have in copyediting, and what positions have you held?
I have a liberal arts B.A. from William Paterson University — so no specific copyediting training. Over the years, I have gained an appreciation for the nuances of the language. I had the opportunity to work for many political and public affairs campaigns, which, obviously, require strong language skills. 

I also was lead writer and editor for the Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in New Jersey, an effort that involved working with architectural, engineering, community planning, and public affairs experts. 

At the ad agency, I worked with many corporate clients (Whirlpool, Fifth/Third Bank, Amway, Stryker, etc.) to write and edit various documents (digital and print).

DOING THE JOB

Are there any complementary skills that are important in your job?
I’ve come to realize that basic graphic design and layout skills can improve your chances of landing a project. Even if it’s just understanding how to lay out something in Microsoft Publisher, you can offer that extra service and add value to your client. 

I have a love-hate relationship with social media. On the one hand, I think it’s an important skill to have. But I’m seeing some transfer of the “240 character” mindset to other types of writing, and I don’t really think that’s healthy (though linguistic evolution is a thing!). Being able to distill a fairly complex thought into short, concise content is an important skill to have. 

I’m a generalist, and I know that’s bitten me in the backside looking for jobs, because many employers feel that their industry is so unique that you have to have a graduate level of knowledge to even walk in the door! I think generalists with skills and interests in writing, editing, leadership, communications, discipline, attention to detail, patience, curiosity, and teachability are just as valuable as someone with a degree in mid-century Venezuelan agricultural history (apologies if that’s a real degree)!

Do you use any editing tools to get the job done (e.g., PerfectIt, Adobe stamps)? 
Most of my editing is done in Microsoft Word, so I don’t use any other tool. I don’t use macros either! I do some editing in Adobe and just use the edit option. Pretty basic stuff.

COMMUNICATING WITH OTHERS

How do you and your colleagues talk about editing with each other?
When I was the proofreader and editor for the ad agency, I was responsible for training my backups. We would have periodic discussions (once a month or so) about the in-house style guide, proofreading marks, other style guides that clients used (AP, Chicago Manual of Style, etc.), and other grammatical topics, to make sure everyone was up to speed. They weren’t “word nerds” necessarily but understood the importance of consistency with the different client documents.

Do you participate in a community (or communities) that supports editors?
Unfortunately, I don’t. I’ve often meant to join something like ACES: The Society for Editing or Society for Technical Communication, but I never seemed to find the time or resources to attend conferences. I’d like to one day!

Do you have any thoughts on the need for editors to network and talk about what they do?
It all depends. What are your career goals? If you want to head a large copyediting operation at a corporation or newspaper, then networking, interning, having great clips and samples, etc., will definitely help. Obviously, you have to get work in that organization, but once you do, it definitely won’t hurt to network both internally and outside the company.

Starting your own shop means you definitely have to network. I hate cold calling, but this is where social media may be a good place to start. For example, find local people you’d like to work with and connect with them on LinkedIn. Ask for a coffee or lunch meeting to pick their brain about their industry and begin to build that relationship. Be patient. Don’t focus on what you want from them, but on what you can give to them. Be open. Be friendly. Be humble.

A colleague of mine said his secret (he’s in financial public relations) is simple: “Do good work.” That’s stuck with me. My first client liked my work, which built my confidence and pushed me to seek more work. I did good work for the next client, and so on and so on.

Editing is a very solitary exercise, but being around people can be helpful to both your mental and emotional health, and your professional progression.

Another way to network is to go to a co-working space. You never know who you’ll meet there. I actually picked up a client that way too.

How might we get buy-in during the editing process from authors who may not be receptive to changes?
Writing is a very personal process. Spending all of that time developing an idea, writing, rewriting, and having the courage to put it out there is a big deal. Empathy and professionalism are the keys, in my opinion (and all of the editors and proofreaders I’ve met have been authors at some point). Understanding what the author has gone through is a great way to connect. Explain your editing process so they know what to expect. After you’ve read their piece, compliment them on it (regardless of how it looks, reads, or feels to you!). You should already know the purpose of the piece, so explain that your editing is part of reaching that goal and you look forward to teaming with them to make it happen.

Once you’ve made the suggested revisions, walk the author through each one and have a justification for each change (no matter how small). Be professional about it. The first edit for a new author is always the toughest, but once they see that you’ve “done good work,” they’ll be more receptive to the editing process.

BUILDING DIVERSITY

Have you faced any hurdles in getting into/advancing in the copyediting profession because you are a person of color? Or have you observed such barriers for others? 
Thankfully, I haven’t faced any racial issues with respect to getting jobs or clients. Now, maybe I didn’t get a job along the way because I’m black, but I never knew about it. Throughout my career, I haven’t worked with very many people of color (POCs) in the writing, editing, and proofreading space. I do see many online.

Any suggestions on what offices/employers could do to increase diversity in your field of editing?
Whew! That’s an interesting and tough question. I think that it has to be addressed from both sides (i.e., what can employers do and how can we get more POCs interested in the field?). As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t see many POCs working in this field. That’s got to change. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2019, only 15% of editors were POCs.

Our broader mission as editors is to make communications clear between our clients/companies and their audiences. It can’t just be on the employers to do this. POCs often have unique perspectives to bring to editing. Building a love for precision, curiosity, and attention to detail is a great way to become more attractive to employers. Are these intangible skills being taught in schools now? I don’t think so. That may be the more fundamental issue. 

THE PERSONAL

Tell us about a project that you’re proud of.
One of the largest documentation projects I worked on was a statewide disaster recovery plan called the Recovery Support Strategy. The plan involved multiple federal and state agencies and laid out how FEMA and other federal agencies would assist New Jersey with recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. Over about 10 months and thousands of hours from dozens of agencies, we wrote, edited, revised, and sought approval for this plan, which would help my home state recover. I had the opportunity to work with some of the smartest, most talented, and dedicated people in the country. As the process went on, I was given the responsibility of leading the project to completion (final edits, final approvals, and submission to FEMA leadership and the governor).

On some days, a stack of copies of the plan that had been sent out for reviews by various stakeholders was piled on my desk (3-4 feet high!). I had to make updates to the master copy. Lots of nights and weekends reviewing, revising, and pulling my hair out attempting to keep things on track. We used hard copies for most things, so daily, my supervisor (or another reviewer) would drop an additional reviewed copy on my desk with a thud and say, “Here are more revisions. Good luck!” 

I learned a lot from that process: I worked with people of varying experience and interest levels. I learned more about grammar. I saw how a large government project works. That’s when I really knew I loved editing!

Any hobbies you’d like to share with us?
I’m a super Star Wars nerd and spend way too much time thinking and reading about what’s canon and what’s not! I also became an accidental gardener when I started feeding birds and squirrels in my backyard and they dropped or buried some seeds. Surprise! Sunflowers, sorghum, and corn sprouted up. That pushed me to find out what else I could grow, and now I have fresh basil, lettuce, cilantro, and, hopefully next year, a bounty of fresh vegetables!

RESOURCES

What resources would you share with fellow editors?
Match and search games. I spend a lot of time using these to help hone my attention to detail. Games like Find Objects, June’s Journey, and Find the Difference are great detail-oriented games that can keep editors sharp.

The more traditional resources I use a lot include the Title Case Converter and Google’s Ngram tool. Ngram has helped me justify a word choice on many occasions.

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about you or about diversity in the profession?
I really appreciate the chance to share some thoughts with your readers. Increasing the representation of POCs in the writing, editing, and proofreading space is a noble goal, and I think there just needs to be more interest in the precise use of the language. Whether you’re a prescriptivist or descriptivist, there should be a baseline of accuracy before you can start “riffing” with words. How do you get there? It’s got to start young. Read to kids. Correct mistakes (lovingly). Play word games. We can build future generations of editors by starting early!

Tia Ross

Years editing: 35
Job title: Freelancer, business owner
Job description: Consultant, project manager, copyeditor (content, legal, technical), proofreader, writer, writing coach, and editor mentor
Location: Texas

EXPERIENCE

What copyediting training have you had, and what positions have you held?
I was an insatiable reader as a child and teenager, and I remember studying the structure of books I read, character by character. I paid attention to minor things, like the spelling of grunts — the “uh-huhs” and “mm-hmms.” I analyzed dialogue punctuation, tags, and beats. I noticed shifts in point of view, the key differences between first-person and third-person narrative, and the intricacies of internal dialogue.

I studied proofreading in grade school, but I didn’t get serious about it until the early ’90s. That was when I took my first college-level proofreading and editing courses.

I began freelance editing professionally in 1986 for United States military recruiters and classmates in high school, then for lawyers in 1989, but I didn’t start my first official editing business until 1995.

I moonlighted as an editor while working full time at law firms, advertising agencies, and telecommunications companies as a legal editor and proofreader, advertising editor, and technical writer and editor, respectively. I’m also skilled with software development and programming, and have worked as an intranet developer and content editor. 

DOING THE JOB

Are there any complementary skills that are important in your job?
As an entrepreneur, I wear all the hats, doing tasks myself or delegating them. My roles require skill in analytics, contract creation, email management/communications, graphic design, image editing, invoices/fiscal management, marketing, newsletter development, project management, search engine optimization, social media, and web design, to name a few. 

Then there are the critical soft skills one must have to be successful: active listening, flexibility, honesty, integrity, leadership, negotiation, optimism, reliability, responsiveness, time management, and transparency.

Do you use any editing tools to get the job done (e.g., PerfectIt, Adobe stamps)? 
I’ve tried PerfectIt, ProWritingAid, Grammarly, and Ginger. PerfectIt is my tool of choice right now, although it’s painfully slow. Grammarly is second. While recently editing the 140,000-word U.S. Civil Rights Trail guide for Moon Travel/Hachette Book Group, for example, I used PerfectIt to ensure consistency in acronyms and abbreviations. 

When proofreading galleys, charts, magazine pages, and other PDFs, I use iAnnotate. I’ve also used ProofHQ (now Workfront) and Ziflow for online corporate proofing that requires a team review.

COMMUNICATING WITH OTHERS

How do you and your colleagues talk about editing with each other?
I currently have two editors working with me at WordWiser Ink, Brandy Patton and Sherian Brown. We have a great private group on Telegram. We also enjoy discussions with other Black editors in an online community, Black Editors Network, where we talk about business, projects, other opportunities, work-life balance, health and fitness, etc.

Do you participate in a community (or communities) that supports editors?
Only Black Editors Network at this time. It’s the only real community of editors I’ve ever been part of. It was originally created for members of the Black Editors & Proofreaders Directory but has recently been opened to all Black editors.

I was a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA). I served on the board of directors and as conference planner for its national conferences. I was a member of the email discussion list and forums, but I always felt like an outsider. I was also a member of ACES: The Society for Editing for one year, but I don’t know if they had a community where editors could discuss issues. 

Do you have any thoughts on the need for editors to network and talk about what they do?
For freelance editors, yes, networking and referring clients to other editors of your ilk can be worthwhile, particularly when other freelancers refer clients to you in return.

How might we get buy-in during the editing process from authors who may not be receptive to changes?
When I first started editing, it mattered more to me if authors were receptive, but not anymore. As a freelancer, I tell them what the rules of style are according to The Chicago Manual of Style, AP style, or whatever style manual I’m using. Whether they decide to reject that is not within my control, so I don’t concern myself with it.

BUILDING DIVERSITY

How diverse is your office? 
My firm is 100% Black-owned and woman-owned, with two Black female editors.

Have you faced any hurdles in getting into/advancing in the copyediting profession because you are a person of color? Or have you observed such barriers for others? 
No. I forged my own path as an editor, and I find that authors and other editors seek me out because I’m Black, experienced, and skilled at what I do. Companies (Black-owned and otherwise) want to work with me for the expertise I lend to their projects, and Black individuals want me on their teams because “we” like working with “us” when we find someone who’s capable, reliable, responsive, honest, and professional, and who operates with integrity. 

I am all of those things, and I discovered long ago that hurdles tend to move aside when I operate in my gift.

THE PERSONAL

Tell us about a project that you’re proud of.
I should preface this by saying that I absolutely adore sci-fi, mythology, and fantasy — movies, TV, and books. I am editing a speculative fiction series written by Carolyn Holland called Brothers of the Dark Veil. Its storylines infuse mythology, history, and science fiction in a way that is so engrossing that I have to remind myself while reading her work that I’m supposed to be editing it — despite doing pre-reads! She writes the kind of stories that make readers lose track of time and have ’em sitting up in the bed turning pages in the wee hours of the night. 

Her standards for the production of these books are top-notch. I’m so proud of her and this project that I seriously consider it an honor to be part of her team and to edit her work. I can’t wait to have the entire series grace my bookshelf. 

Any hobbies you’d like to share with us?
I enjoy cycling, yoga, Pilates, hi-fi audio, traveling, superhero films and shows, and sourcing venues for retreats and conferences for writers and editors. My next event will be a retreat for editors in conjunction with the next Writeful Places Writers Retreat at the Grand Hyatt Playa del Carmen Resort, June 5–8, 2021 — if COVID-19 will let us be great — followed by the next EFA conference.

RESOURCES

What resources would you share with fellow editors?
Other than Blackeditors.net, another online community worth checking out or referring to is Blackwriters.org, an online community for Black creative and freelance writers. It offers job leads from employers seeking diverse applicants, calls for submissions, fellowship and grant leads, critique groups, and an accountability/writing tribe, to name a few of the benefits.

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about you or about diversity in the profession?
In the current environment, I see a strong, ongoing demand for skilled developmental editors and substantive editors of color. To aspiring freelance editors: Don’t be deterred by how many other editors are offering these services, and don’t believe that all of them are competition. What’s important is the distinction between quantity and quality. All editors are not equal. Strive to be the standout.

Also, be careful about with whom you affiliate as an editor. In this business, reputation is everything. Find your tribe. If you’re an independent, whether self-employed or the only Black editor in your office, you don’t have to be solo. We’re out here!