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. Though there is no official “right” way to edit, sometimes, we can benefit from seeing how other professionals work. Here, Love for Words 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 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 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 about new ways of using words and phrases. A prescriptivist attitude to editing suppresses creativity.

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. We will never know everything, but there will always be room for improvement. Invest in professional development. 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 canhave the authority to 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.  

Andrae D. Smith 

Editor  Years editing: 3 Specialty: Primarily non-fiction 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 that 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. Cynthia Williams is manager of the Business and Technical Editing Team at Dragonfly Editorial and interviews editors of color at             CaTyra Polland, M.A. is the CEO of Love for Words, an editing boutique. She is also a 9x published author, and the hostess/creator of Editor Knows Best Podcast.