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5 Tips for Editing When You’re Not Face to Face

A few days ago, I came across this tweet and it had me cracking up.

As a writer, I relate all too well.

But in all seriousness, edits hurt. While I’m no social scientist with special insight as to why, I’d imagine it’s because our writing – whether poetry, journals or mundane reports – is such a personal expression of self.

A critique of your intro can come across as brashly as an attack on your hairstyle. Your sentence structure is a reflection of how you speak. Even misplaced commas and grammatical errors are nothing less than your battle scars and bruises. Those represent you too.

The truth is, receiving edits is difficult, and let me tell you, it always will be. Right now, for so many of us who are physically isolated, edits feel more accusatory than ever, with none of the “nice job on that article” passing compliments in hallways and at desks.

But the show must go on – and people must still write. Under current circumstances, it’s crucial that we help each other out, and one way we can do so is by becoming better editors and stewards of colleagues’ work. From my experience writing and editing, these lessons have helped shape me into a more sensitive, instructive and effective editor.

  1. Track and explain changes.

We all like knowing what was changed in our work. Tracking changes – instead of just incorporating them – helps writers establish a rapport and dialogue with the editor, where they can recognize patterns and style in editing.

For typos, editors can just make and track a change. But if the edit is something slightly more involved, let’s say awkward phrasing or a trend of incorrect usages, editors should also explain their reasoning – even if just in a few words. That way, the writer doesn’t think the edit is arbitrary.

  1. Ask yourself an honest question.

Before making any change that’s not straightforward, editors need to ask themselves: “Does this need to be changed or am I changing this to sound like me?”

Many times, changes do need to be made. But when I started editing, looking back, I also made a good bit of edits where my version was something I’d prefer – but other readers may not.

If something’s wrong, fix it. If something’s right, let it stand. And if – as often is the case – something’s in the middle, where it’s OK but could be better, defer to tip No. 3.

  1. Let the writer fix it when possible.

There’s another important question to ask when editing: Do you trust your writer?

If you don’t, fix the problems, and leave explicit instructions when a needed change is more severe. But if you do trust the writer, good news: You have less work to do, and the writer will be more comfortable with you as an editor.

When dealing with a good writer, err on the side of comments instead of edits. Chances are, there will be fewer grammatical fixes to be made and more notes about perfecting the piece for the reader.

As an editor, pay attention to and comment when:

  • A part of their writing unintentionally makes you pause for a second as a reader – even if there’s nothing technically wrong with the wording or phrasing
  • There’s a chance to creatively convey a message
  • A theme or point needs to be stated explicitly, highlighted further up or referenced throughout the piece

By commenting in these cases, your feedback will be from the perspective of a caring reader, not just an editor, and it will help the writer critically improve the piece. In return, the writer will likely be appreciative that you’ve provided them the freedom to have the final say and ensure that their voice and style are consistent in the revised version.

  1. Emphasize brevity.

Whatever work you’re editing is too long. I’m not kidding.

College students are told to meet 5,000-word and or 25-page minimums, so they wrote to reach those. And those habits carry over into professional life for years — unchecked.

So when editing, look for words to cut to make writing punchier and more direct. For example, replace “in order to” with “to.” Look for “utilize” and make that “use.” Take out extraneous qualifiers like “really” or “very.” And keep an eye out for TMI – too much information – when it gets in the way.

Cut down what you’re given; don’t add to the weeds of the read. When more information is needed, make a comment, and then it’s the writer’s job to elaborate. But as an editor, you shouldn’t be the one adding a bunch of words – only asking for clarification or detail when needed.

  1. Leave on a good note.

Whenever I’m done with a thorough round of edits, I always leave a note. Usually, it’s at the bottom of the document, set off and bolded, but it can also sit in another place or work as an email. The goal of the note is to address the writer in a personalized, considerate way and let them know you care.

I always, always start off with a message about what I liked about their piece. It’s as important for writers to know their strengths as their weaknesses, and there’s something to appreciate about every piece. Make sure to be especially specific and effusive in your praise for exceptional work.

After a few nice words, go into the overall theme of your edits. Doing so will help the writer notice trends in their style that they might never have been aware of.

Writers tend to carefully pay attention to these notes, as opposed to tracked changes that they can breeze through. The note is your time to address what will really improve the piece and their writing – not just an additional comma but overarching ideas.

Hopefully, we’ll be able to safely share our thoughts in person soon enough. But until then, these tips should help you read, write and edit more effectively from afar.

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