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.

Rahul D’souza

Years editing: 11
Job title: Senior editor at Packt
Job description: Development editor for IT books
Location: Bangalore and Mumbai, India

EXPERIENCE

How did you get your current job?
I had stayed in touch with the manager of a previous company I worked for. When I began looking for a change from editing scholarly papers, I got in touch with him. He had a book publishing role that was exactly what I was looking for, so I took it.

What copyediting training have you had?
When I was just out of graduate school, I was lucky to find a job at a publishing house that specialized in art history, archaeology, and other subjects (my degree was in the history of art and archaeology). The average work experience in the editing room was 25 years, so I benefited from working there. I learned copyediting from a group of very experienced mentors. The publishing house was still transitioning away from editing on paper, so I learned to do things the old way for the first three and a half years, and while computers have made my job more convenient, that experience helped me develop instincts about how editing and proofreading changes affect the final product. 

What positions have you held?
I was an editorial intern at my first publishing job, and after six months, I transitioned to a full-time role in the editing room. After that, I tried freelancing for about a year and a half but missed editing as part of a team. So I took a job as a copyeditor at an e-learning firm. This was a change of pace from the academic editing I was used to, and I learned the ins and outs of what we called “instructional writing” (which was a fancy name for writing instructional material in a conversational tone). 

I felt the pull of academic publishing again and joined a copyediting company that specialized in editing articles meant to be published in scholarly journals. I was a part of the Quality and Training Team, evaluating editor work quality and providing feedback and training based on my evaluations. After this, I transitioned back to my publishing roots by joining Packt, where I now work as a senior editor, looking after the editorial quality of books and training junior editors.

DOING THE JOB

Are there any complementary skills that are important in your job?
At Packt, I work with authors on much longer time scales than I did at my previous job; this makes communication very important. You can edit a book perfectly and be left with an angry author if you forget that there’s a human being behind all the words. Communication is necessary for all forms of editing but is especially important when working with authors on long-term projects. 

Also, given how the content world is quickly moving away from mono-specialization to multi-specialization, I find it important to develop basic photo-editing and page-layout skills. The dynamic nature of our field values the ability to perform more than one role. 

Do you use any editing tools to get the job done (e.g., PerfectIt, Adobe stamps)? 
In the past, I’ve used PerfectIt and MEROPS. These days, I use Grammarly. What I’d really like is something that combines PerfectIt’s ability to customize how it runs based on wildcards with Grammarly’s interface and grammar tips. 

Ultimately, these tools take away a lot of mechanical work from our workflow, but you need to be vigilant. They can often come up with incorrect suggestions, because English is quite a weird, abstract language.

COMMUNICATING WITH OTHERS

How do you and your colleagues talk about editing with each other?
Talking to other editors on my team is one of the most important aspects of the job. There’s an endless number of hurdles that come up when you publish books, and being able to draw on the experience of a big team gives all of us a better chance of solving these issues quickly. When I first began working, all the editors sat in the same room and spoke face-to-face everyday. These days, we rarely see each other (especially because of the pandemic), but tools like Microsoft Teams and Slack make collaboration and discussion quite easy. 

Do you participate in a community (or communities) that supports editors?
I’m a part of a few editor groups on Facebook, such as Indian Copyeditors Forum and Editors’ Association of Earth. I learn a lot of important culturally specific information that becomes useful when editing books by authors who are from different parts of the world and who write in different types of English.

Do you have any thoughts on the need for editors to network and talk about what they do?
Networking is quite important for editors. Being able to build relationships in different companies and across different countries allows editors to find new opportunities and learn important lessons that are essential for staying up to date and keeping our editing relevant. Content work has become so dynamic that being able to connect to new people, new ways of working, and new applications for our skill sets makes networking one of the most important parts about being an editor.

How might we get buy-in during the editing process from authors who may not be receptive to changes?
It’s important to understand where your author’s reluctance is coming from. You have to approach with boundaries in mind. The author will always be protective about their writing, even when they accept our changes.

Once you have that mindset, you need to begin thinking about what compromises you can make to ease the author into the more important changes. Very often, when you demonstrate to the author that you are willing to meet them where they are, they become more inclined to listen to your reasoning for proposing changes. 

For example, if you are editing a book that’s supposed to be in a conversational style, but your author likes their writing to be very formal, you can compromise on aspects like contractions. Instead, focus on getting the author to tone down the word choice, to use less jargon, and to use active voice.

BUILDING DIVERSITY

How diverse is your office? 
Our company has offices in Birmingham (UK) and Mumbai, so we have a substantial Indian workforce. Even our Birmingham office has people from different parts of the world, as Birmingham is quite a diverse city. In my time here, I’ve found that besides having a diverse workforce, the management is open minded and always ready to make changes to fix any issues that crop up. 

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? 
Whenever I have tried to work as a freelance editor, I’ve faced reluctance from clients and scholarly editing companies to give high-paying editorial work to editors who don’t come from “native” English–speaking countries. While I’ve always been an L1 speaker of English, as a freelance editor from India, I feel like there’s a higher standard applied to my language skills than to editors who come from the Anglophone world.

What lessons would you have liked to learn at the beginning of your career?
Because I began working at a publishing house that edited and proofread on paper, I learned to use macros and wildcards much later in my career than I should have. 

Any suggestions on what offices/employers could do to increase diversity in your field of editing?
I’m a big supporter of companies getting involved in the communities based around them. Editorial companies and publishers have the ability to mentor young people who wouldn’t otherwise think about working in our field. These companies can also provide paid internships (unpaid internships tend to exclude people who do not come from privileged backgrounds) and ultimately help young people transition into full-time jobs. 

THE PERSONAL

Tell us about a project that you’re proud of.
I worked on a project to bring on board a very important economics journal as a client. We needed to carefully select the editors who worked on the project. Besides delivering high-quality edits, we were also expected to provide quick turnarounds. As the quality manager for the project, I was expected to monitor the quality of all the edited articles and to make sure that the editors working on them had all of the editorial support they needed. 

Ultimately, we managed not only to get the project but also to keep the quality and speed of our edits to the standards we set for the client. It felt good to know that some important academic work out there had been my responsibility.

Any hobbies you’d like to share with us?
I like reading, karaoke, and cooking for friends.

RESOURCES

What resources would you share with fellow editors?
Right at the start of my journey as an editor, I read The Mother Tongue, by Bill Bryson. It is a quick, fun history of the English language and one that helped me get rid of a lot of biases that I carried about “proper” English. I like to keep a copy of the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors. I also like to follow a few linguists on Twitter, especially Nicole Holliday. I like to think of linguists as people who are continuously questioning my perception of language and pushing me to reinvent the way I look at editing.  

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about you or about diversity in the profession?
There are a few personal beliefs that I always try to live by. Firstly, we need to build healthy diversity. This means not just ticking numbers but making sure that everyone is empowered and that nobody’s privilege gives them an unfair advantage over others. We can only do this as a collective, so it’s important to establish solidarity across all organizations and build from that foundation. 

Secondly, it’s important for each individual to understand their privilege to ensure that they aren’t standing in the way of someone else and to ensure that they don’t deny people a platform. 

Finally — and this goes beyond the physical community around us — as editors, we must fight to normalize inclusive, humanizing language. Whether that’s something as simple as inclusive pronouns or something as complex as getting rid of oppressive words, phrases, literary characters, and so on. 

Are you an editor of color who would like to be featured on Outside-the-Book.com? Email Info@StyleSheetsEditorial.com