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Berna Ozunal

Letter to Non-Editors

Illustration of a group of miniature people modifying blocks of text on a computer screen by hand.

This post is part of a series of case studies by and for in-house editors. The focus of this series is on the personal experiences and various roles of in-house editors. A post will appear on the Editors’ Weekly every other month. If you’re interested in writing a post for this series, please email the Member Services Committee.

Core editorial skills
Boiko Ilia © 123RF.com

After about 20 years of working as an in-house editor in mostly non-traditional environments, like advertising and design, I am now happily an independent contractor working on- and off-site.

Here I’d like to focus on four issues that I’ve observed repeatedly over the years. I believe these have to do with a limited view of what editors do.

If you hire editors or work with them in-house, this is for you.

  1. Know what you want and want what you have.
    Editors Canada defines four core editorial skills. A proofreader, for example, should not work on unedited material. Proofreading happens after editing and after layout. Maybe you want a copy editor. But do you want them to flag things like biased language, potentially libellous or misleading claims and faulty structure or logic? In my experience, the answer is often yes. If so, you want an editor who can do all four stages of editing. This work is more intensive, and therefore more expensive, than proofreading or copy editing.

  2. Editors are all different.
    Give 100 editors a file and you’ll get back 100 different sets of revisions. This perplexes non-editors. Most people expect that Editor 2, Editor 3 and so on will not have anything to add to Editor 1’s work. Not true. You should find overlap, of course, and the amount of overlap will depend on the editors, the type of editing and the material being edited. Each editor brings their experience, knowledge and perspectives to their work. This is good. Ideally, you want multiple editors looking at a file for the same reason you want 12 people looking at evidence on a jury.

  3. Think twice before bypassing an editor.
    Your editors are too busy, or you have no editors, so you’ll just go ahead and do the work yourself. Of course you can. But should you? It depends on the audience, medium and purpose — among other things. If it’s an important piece, I would think twice about this. The same goes for leaving it to artificial intelligence, which can be a helpful tool but in no way replaces a warm-blooded, nuance-oriented editor.

  4. Think of editors as partners, not programs.
    Editing is intellectually complex work that requires time. Editors have multiple checklists, guides, references, manuals and compliance requirements. There are legal, ethical and reputational dimensions to the work we do. Often we’re working on multiple projects, and each one has a different set of all of these things.

    When editors are treated like human grammar-and-spelling checkers instead of as equal partners in the process, that is to your organization’s detriment. Editing is as important as writing and design. None of the editing stages should be scheduled when the deliverable is on its way out the door. My advice is to include your editors in briefs and discussions, make sure they are seen and heard, and above all, give them time to do their work.

Bring back the editors

We live in a post-truth world of deep fakes and fake news, junk science and science denial… Dishonesty is everywhere, and editors are needed more than ever.

If you’re producing written material of any kind, you need editors. But before you hire them, take the time to understand what your editorial needs — and wants — are. The Editors Canada website is a good place to start.

Editors are some of the most thoughtful and conscientious people you’re likely to meet. These qualities are required to do the job well. Giving editors the time to do their jobs well will always pay off in countable and uncountable ways.

Editors, do you have any tips to add? Non-editors, do you have any anecdotes about working with editors to share?

Previous post from this series: Alone at the Intersection of Editing and Engineering

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5 Comments on “Letter to Non-Editors”

  • Understanding the different types of editing is so important!

    As for point #2, I think it’s really important that editorial teams work very hard at providing a consistent level of service. Organizations can make this easier by having a clear style guide. Editorial differences should really only appear at the structural and (to a lesser degree) stylistic editing level, where there’s often more than one way to solve a problem. But at the copy editing level, hopefully clients are getting the same errors fixed essentially the same way regardless of which editor ends up on their file.a

    That said, having multiple editors is a real boon. It’s absolutely true that what trips one editor up may not cause another one to even blink. Working in a team has really opened my eyes and made me a better editor.

  • Great post, Berna! I’ve worked both in-house and as a contractor and I fully concur with these points. I’ll depart a bit from what Aaron said, which in my view reflects too mechanistic a perspective on copy editing. Certainly style sheet items should be marked the same way, but copy editors do much more than that. My experience has been that the copy editor almost always finds a number of issues missed in substantive editing, and then the proofreader finds a few more things yet (I’m thinking of books here, but I think this applies to other types of materials). I think no matter what the type of editing, having multiple sets of eyes is crucial. I love the jury analogy!

  • Anita Jenkins

    says:

    Wonderful article. Clients in the business and government world will never know what kind of editing they need. We used to laugh about them constantly saying, “It is all ready for the printer but we just want you to take a quick look.”

    Also, many feel they can save money and time by skipping the editing phase – unless they are acquainted by previous experience with the wonders an editor can do. I regularly got called in to rescue civil servants after the “final” document had landed on the minister’s desk, where the audience said they couldn’t understand it, it was too long, the focus was missing, and so forth.

    • Some people can only learn by hard experience. I’ll never forget a manager I worked for who typed up a letter for all the guests in the hotel and didn’t even think it might be a good idea for even one other person to quickly scan it before slipping it under the doors of each and every room. Right there in black and white, obvious to apparently everyone but him, were the words “Avoid all pubic areas while repairs are underway.” Sometimes you just don’t know what you don’t know 🙂

  • Berna Ozunal

    says:

    Thank you for your comments. You’ve made excellent points. Even though I agree that copy editing should have more overlap than structural editing, for example, Aaron, I don’t think editing at any stage is ever going to be an exact science. I don’t think we’ll ever see two editors providing identical feedback. That even includes the same editor at different points in time. That’s why multiple passes are required. Unfortunately, many places think only one pass is sufficient, and as Anita said, often while it’s on its way out the door, if they think it needs to be reviewed at all.

    But I don’t want anyone to think I’m saying you need a team of editors to look at everything. One professional editor doing a thorough job is fine in many cases. But more editors and more time will always yield more. This is just how it is. If you look at a painting, for example, you’ll always notice more the longer you look at it, and on repeat viewings and further reflection, you’ll notice even more. Other people will see things differently. This is true for people who are knowledgeable about art and those who aren’t.

    I use the jury analogy because I was on a jury. There was a clear methodology and purpose in what we were doing, and the level of care we took in examining material from every possible angle was painfully necessary. That’s what editing is, isn’t it? But it’s all happening in one person’s head. Understandably, not everyone wants this level of editing, and the stakes are rarely so high. But I think it’s important to let people know that’s what we’re trying to do when we look at written material. And depending on what is being edited and so on, editing is not something that should be skipped, rushed, or otherwise devalued.

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