How to Become a Better Editor

How to improve your editing skills

It isn’t hard to be successful as an editor or proofreader, as long as you know what you’re doing. If you plan to apply to agencies as a freelance editor, hope to retain and gain more clients, or simply want to get better at editing, you may find these tips useful.

1. Know your stuff.

Be an expert on grammar. Learn about the writing styles preferred in different fields. What makes a modifier dangle? Is data singular or plural? When should a semicolon be used? What are the rules of capitalization? The Chicago Manual of Style has a section on grammar and style many editors find indispensable. Another great, free resource is the Purdue Online Writing Lab, as of course, is the Editor’s Manual itself.

2. Be familiar with style manuals.

To become an expert editor, you must become familiar with the major style manuals. For instance, if you wish to edit for clients based in the United States, familiarity with the Chicago Manual of Style and AP Stylebook will help you deliver quality work. To work in academic editing, consider investing in the APA Publication Manual. Also, editing agencies prefer freelancers familiar with at least one major style manual.

3. Create a style sheet.

As the editor, you will have to make decisions on behalf of your client. Should you suggest using an em dash or a spaced en dash? Serial commas throughout? Single or double quotation marks? Sometimes, clients will specify a style guide they want you to follow. However, if your client has used a mix of styles (British punctuation but American spelling, for example), your best bet is to edit consistently. While editing long documents, I create a style sheet where I note down my choices. I then refer to these notes while reviewing my work.

4. Edit in Simple Markup mode.

As an editor, you probably use “Track Changes” in Microsoft Word. One of the easiest ways to prevent sloppy editing is to edit in “Simple Markup” view (the “Final” view in earlier versions of Microsoft Word) rather than in “All Markup.” It’s just harder to properly edit a text littered with crossed-out words.

5. Review your work.

If you edit in a hurry and don’t leave yourself time to review your changes, you may overlook common errors (subject-verb disagreement, for example). Even worse, you could introduce errors into the text, which will make you want to crawl into a hole and live the rest of your editorial life out as a gnome. (I speak, unfortunately, from experience.)

6. Be kind to yourself.

Reading pages and pages of text word by word, line by line, while maintaining focus isn’t easy. No matter how hard you work and how carefully you review your edits, you are bound to miss a minor error or two. As long as you have considerably improved the quality of the text, don’t beat yourself up about missing the odd plural form.

7. Don’t obsess (too much) over the small stuff.

When I first started editing, I would spend hours agonizing over every word (important or importantly?). While it’s good to be careful, don’t forget that you edit to earn a living. The longer you take to edit a document, the less you’ll earn. As long as you edit consistently and considerably improve the quality of the text, you are doing a good job.

8. Respect the client.

The most patient of editors may find themselves exasperated by a client’s poor writing skills. Remember that someone has hired you because you are the expert on grammar and style, while they aren’t. If the meaning of a text is unclear, instead of disparaging your client’s writing skills (“This makes no sense at all; please rephrase!”), respectfully insert suggestions seeking clarification. (“The meaning of this sentence is not quite clear. Please consider revising. Perhaps you mean, ‘Nations often pass laws . . .’”) You’ll be astonished by how many clients not only return to you but also recommend you to their friends and colleagues.

9. Be honest.

Sometimes, you will receive a document that is too poor to edit. If you find yourself struggling to understand the meaning of entire sentences, contact your client and explain why you cannot edit the document and that you will provide a full refund. You can also (with kindness) provide specific feedback about what the client can focus on to improve their writing skills.

10. Don’t mess with meaning or tone.

Make sure that in editing a document, you don’t change meaning. If you are unsure, leave a comment for the client. (“This sentence was unclear. I have edited it; however, please check this is what you meant to convey.”) Also, if you are editing a piece of creative nonfiction, don’t make it sound like a business proposal.

11. Leave your pet peeves at home.

As an editor, it’s tempting to believe you always know what’s best. But do respect your client’s choices. A friend switched editors because the first one insisted on inserting a serial comma throughout her novel, regardless of semantic necessity. A senior editor I worked with would not allow the passive voice, even in creative nonfiction. Be flexible. Try not to get hung up on your own pet peeves. (Mine involved using impact as a verb.)

12. Meet deadlines.

It is tempting to take on as many projects as you can find; however, if you miss deadlines, you’ll soon find yourself out of work. Be organized. Draft a quick style sheet or keep notes while editing long documents. Also, if you believe that a document might take longer than expected to edit, immediately inform your client or agency. (Don’t wait till the last minute to let them know, hoping you’ll still meet the deadline.)

13. Keep the reader in mind.

As you review your edits, examine the flow of the text. Are sentences too long? Would a reader have to reread a paragraph to understand its meaning? Are sentences so short, they make the writing sound juvenile? Is the text monotonous? Has the writer used legalese, unsuitable for business writing?

14. Keep the writer in mind.

Never forget that the writing on your desk is not your own. Somebody else wrote it, is invested in it, and has probably worked hard to get it all down. Respect their voice, their intent, and their style choices. Your job is to make the work grammatically correct and more readable, not change it entirely to sound like something you yourself would have written.

Finally, if you’re interested, here are links to articles that discuss some of the grammar and style issues mentioned in this post:

Did You Know?

Some and any are used differently in questions.
Know more:“Some” vs. “Any”