Wednesday, April 6, 2011

How to edit someone else's work

Editing, editing, editing. If you don't do it, you've been the victim of it. As a professional grows in their career, the chances of having to do it increase, since you'll often be looking over your employees' work. As an editor, I'm constantly looking over others' work, and the last thing I want to do is discourage them

One of the biggest misconceptions about editing is that it's all about typos and punctuation. It isn't. A good editor will make your writing not just more correct, but also clearer, easier to read, and easier to understand.

When possible, I try to let the writer have at it in between each read, although sometimes the process does get squished together (then reads one and two usually blend together).  My editing process usually goes something like this.

First read
Don't pick up the pen just yet (I have to remind myself of this every time). Read it through once just to get a feel for the piece. How is the organization? Is the tone consistent with the type of writing you're doing (formal writing, marketing speak, journalistic, etc.)? If a writer is coming at it from the wrong angle, they've got bigger problems than comma use. Pick up a pen afterward if you need to note any major changes (usually arrows or short notes).

Second read
How is the flow? Is the main point high enough up in the document? Can wordy areas be cut? Where is more explanation needed?  During this second read, I also look for clarity and sentence structure. I prefer to make my comments using Word's track changes (rather than making direct edits in-line) because I want the writer to be able to do the changes instead of me touching the words at this point.

Last read
Typos, punctuations, word choices. This is where I get nitpicky. But if I don't have to edit something, I won't. Needless word changes or edits are just that: needless.

Sometimes you're only coming in at this last stage, and that's okay. Read with the pen (I do it often). But if you have a greater responsibility in shaping the work, I recommend taking a step back at first and honing it after all the pieces and tone are in place.

When you're being edited
One of the biggest things I try to convey to my writers is that my edits are not personal judgments on them or their writing. It's all about getting to that common goal of a well-written piece that conveys the message appropriately. I keep this in mind when I get my work edited as well (we all have an editor somewhere). Without it, I'd never grow as a writer. Yes, some of you will end up with editors that really do have an agenda (or pet peeve or other weird writing hangup), but just keep calm and learn to adjust a little for them if you can. Then find a writing project (like a journal or blog) to keep honing your own voice.

How do you edit others' work? How do you handle it when others edit your work?


  1. Great tips! I'm really bad about editing immediately and not reading the whole piece before touching it. I mostly edit PR, which is very formal and concise. I don't take it too personally when my work is critiqued, it just makes me a better writer.

  2. Such a helpful post, I wish I could share that last part about editing not being a personal attack with everyone. One thing I do, when it comes to things like word choice and sentence structure, is to offer two or three different options for the writer to choose from. This gives them a feeling of being involved in the editing process (which most people appreciate, rather than handing a document off and not seeing it again until it's covered in red ink), and helps me get a much better feel for their style based on the choices they make.

  3. I'm an editor by profession, so I've edited a huge variety of works & writers. One thing I always try to do is explain why I made a change (at least if it's more than adding a comma or fixing a typo). This is easy to do in MS Word's track changes - just add a "comment." Of course, if you're editing on paper, you can always add a sticky note for the same thing.

    Writing out the reason helps the writer learn, plus understand that you're not attacking them. Things like "company style is to use the serial comma" or "this phrase might not be understood to non-technical readers" will make your edits get a better reception & can help build a better relationship between editor & writer.

    Btw, my department published our own styleguide last June -- the Yahoo! Style Guide, available at & on if anyone is looking for more in-depth editing tips, specifically for the online world :-)

  4. This is so hard for me... especially since I work with blogging, I have to be careful not to edit our someone else's voice. Everyone has their own style, their own tone, and I have to make sure that comes through in their blog post. It's tough!

    The worst is when people are writing posts on behalf of the company (and not just editorial). I work at a design + marketing firm that's really casual, informal, likes to through in some humor here and there. Sometimes what people write is SO formal; SO newsy... it just doesn't fit. I've got a journalism background and took a lot of lit classes in college, so I've always been editing. It was never hard then, because at the end of the day it wasn't MY name (or now, my company name) going on it. I'm responsible for the overall tone of our company online... and sometimes when it doesn't work I wish I had just written it myself! (I know... that's bad!)

  5. I do a lot of editing for work as well, and my process is very similar to the one you describe. I will make word choice changes, though. Sometimes, my way just sounds better. :)

  6. This is a great post! I work in my day job as an editor, and really like what you said about the first read!

  7. I'm not sure how you do it but your posts always seem to match my life. I'm just finishing up a workterm report so I've had to get my report edited, and two friends of mine have asked me to look theirs over. Good advice that I will be following as I read them tonight!

  8. Great post! I think you seem to have a balanced approach to the editing process, instead a power trip! I always appreciate suggestions about wordy sections and word choice if they're given in a constructive way. I think sometimes you need a fresh pair of eyes to catch "little" mistakes. I just read through something I wrote a week ago and noticed several issues already. Thanks for the reminder!

  9. I don't think I'd ever be able to edit someone else's work! My writing is so erratic how am I supposed to help someone else? Eep..

  10. Your approach to editing sounds very much like how our campus tutors help students with their papers. they have a "hierarchy of concerns" and read first for the idea, then the organization, then the development and finally the mechanics.

  11. @rachel - I love your attitude. Being edited has definitely made me a better writer, too!

    @keisha - Yes! I feel like suggestions are much more constructive than just straight edits (in most cases). It also maintains the integrity of the work as the writer's rather than the editor's.

    @trystan - I completely agree! Editing is a learning process for the writer (or at least it should be). What's the sense in correcting the same things over and over if you don't explain why? I like the Yahoo style guide! (One of my first tasks at my job was to write the organization's style guide so I have a soft spot for these things).

    @danielle - I hear ya...a lot of people write in jargon and weird uppity language and it just doesn't work. I try to write like I talk, but with better grammar. I love your point about keeping the writer's voice, too...that's why I try to give back edits for the writer to do instead of doing them myself. I want them to do it in their own way so it fits naturally into the piece.

    @grace - sometimes it's necessary. :)

    @kelsey - thanks!

    @sam - that's crazy! we must have some supernatural connection. ;)

    @ashley - yes, that's one of my favorite parts about being edited by others is that they have a fresh take on things. Of course I know what I mean (heck, I wrote it), but if it doesn't come across that way, my words are useless.

    @elaine - it's definitely not a profession (or task) for everyone. but it's something I love.

    @terri - how interesting! funny...English was always my worst subject in school (and I'm now a writer and editor...go figure).

  12. This is very helpful to remember. I sometimes edit friends emails and internal documents for my department. I also write a voiceovers and sometimes scripts. It can be frustrating when someone wants to change something but I try to keep it positive if it's happening to me and pertinent if working on someone else's piece.

  13. @destrehan's daughter - I agree, it is definitely frustrating when other people change things without a good explanation. Voiceovers and scripts sound fun!

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