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
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.

Cynthia Williams is a department manager at Dragonfly Editorial and interviews editors of color at

Lourdes Venard

Job title: Professor
Location: Illinois

What was your journey to teaching copyediting?
I was a journalist for 30 years, but even from my first years as a reporter — and, later, a copyeditor — I took part in workshops, classes, and opportunities for students and young journalists of color. These included the METPRO program (run by Times-Mirror years ago to bring diversity into newsrooms) and the student-run paper at National Association of Hispanic Journalists conferences. Throughout all those experiences, I found I really liked teaching the craft.

Toward the end of my newspaper career, I began teaching as an adjunct at a New York state university, and shortly after that, I began teaching online classes through the University of California, San Diego (UC San Diego), and the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA). 

I’ve now been teaching for nine years and am the lead teacher for UC San Diego’s copyediting certificate program. As the lead, I’ve created or revamped several of the classes there, and I help new instructors.

We have revamped our program over the past two years, and as part of that, we’ve made a concerted effort to discuss inclusive language, biased language, and conscious language much more. The last class in the program, actually, has students edit a manuscript — and the exercise deals with biased language. So beyond teaching proper grammar and style, we’re focusing on these other important issues.


What copyediting course(s) do you teach? 
Through UC San Diego, I teach Copyediting I, Copyediting II, Copyediting III, and the Business of Copyediting. I’m also creating a class on Associated Press style.

Through the EFA, I teach core classes in beginning, intermediate, and advanced copyediting, as well as fiction copyediting. I’ve also given an EFA webinar on sensitivity reads.

What areas of editing does your course cover?
The core copyediting classes I teach are for those new to copyediting and are meant to teach the basics, although they do concentrate on The Chicago Manual of Style. The fiction copyediting course is self-explanatory. The Business of Copyediting course is meant to help new freelance editors start their businesses.

What books are used in the class? 
For most of these classes, we rely on what I think is the best copyediting manual: The Copyeditor’s Handbook, by Amy Einsohn and Marilyn Schwartz, and the accompanying The Copyeditor’s Workbook. But we have a lot of handouts and links to other websites, so students get a broad range of information.

Do you feature or discuss any working copyeditors? 
I feature, mostly through videos and podcasts, editors and other language experts, such as Mary Norris, Kory Stamper, Melanie Padgett Powers, Malini Devadas, and Carol Fisher Saller. We discuss Karen Yin’s Conscious Style Guide quite a bit.

Do you invite other guest speakers? If so, from what backgrounds? 
Because these classes are asynchronous, and we have students from many countries and time zones, we don’t have real-time guest speakers. But we do let them know about other online events and webinars featuring editors. For instance, the San Diego Professional Editors Network has a lot of online events, and they invite nonmembers, like our students, to attend.


How do you and your students feel about copyediting job availability? 
I know students are nervous about job availability, especially as in-house copyediting jobs shrink. In freelancing, I do believe there are more opportunities, but this is not for everyone, of course. Some students, understandably, want the security of an in-house job with health benefits. But I believe that, just by taking these classes, they are getting a boost when they step out into the job marketplace. Plus, learning to be a good copyeditor can open up jobs in adjacent fields: writing, marketing/communication, translation, etc. So there are opportunities out there. In our classes, we try to prepare students for job hunting and networking as well.

Students are interested in all sorts of fields: medical and scientific editing, fiction editing, and relatively new fields (role-playing games, for instance). Their interests are really varied, as are their backgrounds. And I think it is this individuality that they should focus on — it is what will set them apart when seeking work.

Has COVID-19 changed these conversations?
Oh, yes! In fact, many of our students come from other fields. Recently, I’ve had many students who were furloughed or lost their other jobs due to COVID and the closing of businesses. They’ve decided now is the time to learn these other skills that have always interested them. Our programs are seeing more students than ever. So even though students are concerned about job availability, they see these careers as more viable and as something they might potentially be able to do from home.

The pandemic made most of us anxious and uncertain about the future, so the past year has been tough, for students and instructors. Our lessons (video slideshows) were created before the pandemic, so some of our suggestions (“attend conferences for editors”) aren’t things students can do right now. It’s been a challenge to find alternatives when we talk about finding work. But one feature of the classes is that students support each other, and they often come up with great ideas themselves. So our discussions have pivoted to reaching out to clients and employers amid a pandemic. It’s a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. By the end of our program, some students have already started getting editing jobs.

Does your university offer any pathways for students to work in editing? 
We don’t necessarily offer any internships or pathways as such. But the Business of Copyediting course, which I created about a year ago, came about because many students were going into freelance work and didn’t know what first steps they should take. This class is aimed at helping students get set up and started as freelance editors. It was a real need that I think we’ve fulfilled.

All of the UC San Diego classes, though, discuss finding work. We found that students really wanted this information, almost from the very first week, so we’ve incorporated that into our lessons. We also encourage students to form informal groups beyond our classes. This helps them network as they move into the world of editing.

Are any of these pathways specific to students of color?
Not necessarily, except for in the Business of Copyediting. This class is structured to give individual help to each student and what they want to do.


What do you think best supports students of color in entering the editing profession?
I think it begins with instructors. We need — in all our institutions and organizations — to have instructors of color. They bring different backgrounds and experiences that white instructors, no matter how well-meaning or wonderful, don’t have. I often hear talk about diversity in the workplace, but not diversity at the instructor level. But these are going to be the initial role models for those entering the workplace. I hope students hear about my experience and think that they, too, can have a successful and long career in editing. 

As they enter the workplace, I hope students reach out to people who can become mentors. Companies themselves should provide these mentorship opportunities, and I wish they would. But the reality is that they don’t always do that, so oftentimes it falls to the employee to seek these opportunities out. I wish I had known to do that in the beginning of my career.


Is there anything you would like working editors to know about new editors entering the field?
They are passionate and invested not only in their careers, but in shaping the language of the future. Language is always evolving, but it seems to be doing so more rapidly these days. For the most part, the editors entering the field understand this. They aren’t stuck in following old rules and aren’t afraid to embrace our evolving language. They are thoughtfully listening to the conversations out there about language and making it more inclusive. They are also thinking about how they can give back to the community, which I think is wonderful. 

Is there anything you would like new editors to know about the field?
You don’t do this alone. This is why I always tell students to network and maintain connections. In the past month, I had two referrals from people who I worked with years ago, on two very exciting projects. Throughout my career, I’ve always been helped by other people and have tried to help others, in turn. Yes, I sit in my office alone all day, but that doesn’t mean I’m alone. People can network simply by joining editorial groups and being active. If you don’t like face-to-face networking, you can do it online. There are many ways to connect.

Is there anything else you would like to share about your work?
I’m also a subinitiative leader of the EFA’s Diversity Initiative, which is actively working to bring more diverse voices to an organization that is, at present, mostly white, cis women. I would encourage editors to get involved in these subgroups that are moving the conversation forward.