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.

Crystal Shelley

  • Years editing: 3 years
  • Job title: Freelance editor
  • Job description: Edit tech blog posts written by developers and engineers / provide line editing, copyediting, proofreading, and sensitivity reading for fiction authors
  • Location: Utah

EXPERIENCE

How did you get your current job?
I’ve been editing full time since 2019. Before that, I worked as a licensed clinical social worker and edited on the side. Now I edit full time and practice social work on the side.

I’m the owner of Rabbit with a Red Pen. I primarily do line editing, copyediting, proofreading, and sensitivity reading for fiction authors. I specialize in conscious language use and in representation and diversity in media. I also work with several companies as a contractor. One of these jobs involves editing tech-related blog posts written by developers and engineers.

I applied for the tech blog editing position through the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) job list because I wanted to diversify my experience. I’d only ever worked with independent authors, and this opportunity would allow me to edit a different type of material and to work for a company with other editors and a house style. The onboarding process was smooth, and it’s been a pleasant experience.

What copyediting training have you had?
I started out as a beta reader who worked closely with a copyeditor. Since developing my editing career, I’ve done trainings through the EFA, Poynter, and the Publishing Training Centre (UK). I also absorb as much information as I can through watching webinars and reading articles.

DOING THE JOB

Are there any complementary skills that are important in your job?
As a freelance business owner, I’ve found that producing content marketing and working on social media have been the key skills I’ve had to develop to attract new clients and network with other editors.

With tech blog editing, an inquisitive mind is particularly important. Since I’m not a developer or an engineer, a lot of the terms and concepts I come across while editing are unfamiliar to me. Therefore, I’m always consulting the style guide and search engines. If I can’t find an answer, I work directly with the writer on what would work best.

Do you use any editing tools to get the job done (e.g., PerfectIt, Adobe stamps)? 
I use PerfectIt to check consistency in Word documents. For the tech posts, which are hosted online, I use the free Grammarly plug-in as an extra set of eyes, and I’m able to ignore it when it’s wrong.

COMMUNICATING WITH OTHERS

How do you and your colleagues talk about editing with each other?
I’m the only editor for my freelance business. There are about 10 other editors for the tech blog, and we communicate through Slack. The conversations in Slack usually relate to the treatment of tech terms, such as capitalization, hyphens, and plurals. The tech world has so many terms that aren’t covered in the style guide (though they do update the guide frequently with best practices) that we have to use our judgment, but it’s nice to be able to talk to other editors to see how they would handle the issue. The results of these conversations are often incorporated in the style guide.

Do you participate in a community (or communities) that supports editors?
I’m a member of the EFA and its Diversity Initiative, ACES: The Society for Editing, and Utah Freelance Editors. I’m also part of the various Facebook groups for editors (e.g., Editors Association of Earth and its affiliates, as well as Louise Harnby’s group), the Editors Lair, and the #Edibuddies and #StetWalk communities on social media.

Do you have any thoughts on the need for editors to network and talk about what they do?
Networking and content marketing have been invaluable for me to grow my business. I joined Twitter as part of my marketing strategy, and it has led to my most significant professional opportunities. I think talking in public spaces about what editors do is important, because there are many misconceptions out there (that we’re sticklers who strip away a writer’s creativity and voice, for one). 

Because I specialize in conscious language use and representation, I write about it on social media and in my blog. There have been ongoing discussions about how editors can play a role in working with writers, publishers, and businesses to push for language change, especially around inclusive and representative language. I believe editors can and should be at the forefront of these conversations.

How might we get buy-in during the editing process from the non-editor colleagues with whom we work?
I’m fortunate that I haven’t had to deal with much pushback from non-editors. I mostly work directly with writers or other editors, and the writers have all valued how I and other editors help them improve their content.

If I was working with a non-editor and needed to get buy-in, I’d frame how editing benefits readers, which then benefits them in whatever measure is important (profits, reviews, increased site traffic, etc.).

BUILDING DIVERSITY

Have you faced any hurdles in getting into/advancing in the copyediting profession because you are a person of color? (These can be systemic, personal, environmental.) Or have you observed such barriers for others? Tell us about that.
I haven’t faced any hurdles because I’m a person of color, but I’ve seen conversations from editors about whether to anglicize their names for business purposes because clients may question their English proficiency otherwise. It’s an unfortunate reality that I haven’t experienced because my married name is of English origin. 

I have, however, experienced microaggressions in person, where I’ve been asked if I understood a phrase or idiom just used, which usually then leads to questions about my ethnicity and comments about how well I speak English. 

THE PERSONAL

Tell us about a project that you’re proud of.
Because I work directly with writers, I’m proud anytime they’re able to get their writing out into the world. Most of the developers and engineers I work with aren’t writers, but they’re experts in their fields. Many of them are also English language learners. I’m glad to be able to help them share their knowledge with readers in a clear and concise manner.

Any hobbies you’d like to share with us?I enjoy playing video games, reading, watching TV shows and movies, and spending time with my dog. I’ve also started writing a novel, which is a bit scary but also fun. I’m not sure what will come of it, but it’s a story I’m excited to tell.

RESOURCES

What resources would you share with fellow editors?
I know previous interviewees have mentioned Conscious Style Guide, but I want to reiterate its importance, especially when thinking about how we can help writing be more inclusive and empowering. The Editing Podcast with Louise Harnby and Denise Cowle is a great resource for editors of all types. Great to listen to if you’re going for a #StetWalk!