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Suzanne Bowness

Teaching Editing

Illustration of a young person with short curly hair, wearing a red shirt with a white collar and holding a huge life-sized pen.

Explaining your craft can help clarify editing for both newcomers and clients

Illustration of young man holding a huge life-sized pen.
yupiramos ©

It’s one thing to have fantastic editorial skills, to know through years of reading, then training, then working, when a sentence sounds right or a piece flows nicely. But if you’re looking to take your communications to the next level, challenge yourself to articulate exactly why that punctuation mark is the preferred choice or how a list sounds better with parallel verbs.

While I’m a full-time writer and editor, it wasn’t until I started teaching writing and editing part-time that I had to explain myself on a regular basis. The exercise not only made me sharpen my grammar terminology (some good YouTube channels out there), but also forced a reminder that not everyone beyond our inner circle of word nerds knows (or even cares) about our terms. With that in mind, here are a few tips to consider when teaching editing.

Triage the teaching

Having grown up in an era when primary and secondary schools didn’t teach much grammar, I have to admit that most of my learning came later. (A couple of rounds of the Editors Canada Copy Editing course were helpful.) Similarly, I find students need help if they are newcomers to the editing world. So, in writing courses where grammar is a sidebar, rather than trying to cover it all, I try to go over the most common mistakes: comma splices, subject-verb agreement and the proper use of the semicolon (students love semicolons regardless of their skill level in using them). For my more advanced writing students, I focus on teaching higher-level elements such as active voice and parallel structure.

Teach the stages of editing

Because they are training to be professionals, my writing students love to learn about the stages of editing, from substantive/structural to line/stylistic editing to copy editing to proofreading. But just as often, I find my clients are the ones who could use the education. As professional editors, we have a jargon too, and not everyone knows what level of editing is required. So, when a client requests copy editing, but we realize that they would really benefit from a substantive pass first, it’s up to us to gently steer them in that direction. Clients are counting on us to be advisers as well.

Pass along the feedback sandwich

Yet another aspect of teaching editing is to demonstrate the benefits of empathy for the writer. I still encourage new editors to think about their position as balancing between advocacy for the reader and empathy for the writer.

I also still use the term “feedback sandwich” to describe a process whereby constructive feedback comprises both positive and negative elements. I find it most helpful when an editor provides concrete suggestions, reminding students that they are not doing their writer any favours if they proclaim the piece perfect when it’s not — after all, part of an editor’s job is to help the writer look good to readers, and ultimately to help readers benefit.

Admit what you don’t know

A final part of teaching editing is finding the courage to admit what you don’t know, or need to look up. If I come across a stumper, I will tell students that I’ll get back to them after a closer look, or even crowdsource an answer from the class. It makes everyone feel like part of the learning process and helps to show that editing and even teaching editing is something we can all do together.


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About the author

Suzanne Bowness

Suzanne (Sue) Bowness is a long-time full-time freelancer who focuses on creating long-form content for a variety of clients at her business Codeword Communications. She recently launched a new brand to help other freelancers connect at The Feisty Freelancer.

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