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.

Aliza Amlani

Years editing: 20 years
Job title: Freelance editor and writer
Job description: Update and refine technical, business, and educational content
Location: Toronto, Canada

EXPERIENCE

How did you get your current job?
I connected with two of my current clients via social media (one through a Facebook group and another via Twitter). I mainly work with guides, intranet content, and online learning materials. Some of my social media projects include editing content for a Europe-based organization and adapting it for North American audiences.

What copyediting training have you had?
In a way, I got into this line of work accidentally. I helped write simplified English content for promotional pamphlets at a summer job, which led to full-time work as a technical editor. Since then, I’ve written and edited technical guides, edited online-focused educational content, and worked on a lot of business content geared toward social media. I’ve also been taking part-time classes at George Brown College and Ryerson University for the last few years to help enhance my copyediting and writing skills. 

DOING THE JOB

Are there any complementary skills that are important in your job?
Writing plain-language and concise content for social media is super-important. So much content needs to be tailored for online audiences and social media. I’m also working on technical skills to boost content accessibility (e.g., adding subtitles to video, describing video and visual content, and ensuring that web copy can be read by screen readers [assistive technology]).

Do you use any editing tools to get the job done (e.g., PerfectIt, Adobe stamps)? 
Nope! I’m a little old school this way. I tried one of the popular tools once and it missed so many big things. So I didn’t think it would be all that useful for my work. 

COMMUNICATING WITH OTHERS

How do you and your colleagues talk about editing among each other?
Right now, I’m flying solo. On a previous in-house project, I had a great team of editors, and we’d often discuss issues or questions on Slack or in-person chats. I still keep in touch with many former colleagues and am always learning from them, as well as other friends who are freelancers or in-house writers and editors. It’s always good to surround yourself with other word nerds.

Do you participate in a community (or communities) that supports editors?
I occasionally participate in communities on social media, but I often do more reading than chatting within many of these (e.g., Facebook groups, Twitter chats). Some examples of Facebook groups I enjoy are EAE Backroom, Editors of Color, and Writing the Other.

Do you have any thoughts on the need for editors to network and talk about what they do?
Networking is vital, especially for work like mine, which often involves internal or proprietary content that can’t be shared in a standard portfolio. I also find it’s helpful to talk about the details of what I do. I have found that many people mix up proofreading and other types of editing, and often think of any form of editing as either unnecessary or a bonus, but not essential.

Any advice for editors on getting buy-in from the non-editor colleagues with whom they work?
I think it’s important to focus on the fact that editors can help organizations perfect and enhance their messaging, especially in this current moment when (I’m hoping) more people understand how much their words matter.

THE PERSONAL

Tell us about a project that you’re proud of.
On a recent project, I helped to update an internal style guide with content and guidance around writing about different communities to promote inclusivity. Some of the advice included using an uppercase “B” in “Black” and using the singular “they.” I’m proud of any opportunity to improve language in this way and to help others understand how small changes can make a big difference to many people.

Any hobbies you’d like to share with us?
I love listening to many different types of music — I’m getting back into the Hamilton soundtrack these days (it’s the last show I saw before the lockdown)! I also love travel and will be excited to get back to that when it’s safe to do so. I think much of my work has been influenced by my interest in and exploration of different parts of the world.

RESOURCES

What resources would you share with fellow editors?
Conscious Style Guide is an excellent resource, and its offshoot, Editors of Color, is a great database if you’re looking to diversify your editorial staff.