Editing as You Would Be Edited: Part I


This is the first in a series of essays on editing that is, on the job of helping writers to present their work in the most effective possible way. It is based on a lifetime's experience of editing and being edited, and only very little, if at all, on what others have written about either experience. I know that in ignoring almost everything already written on editing I may be depriving myself of many useful insights, and repeating what others have already said, and said well. But I am trying to serve myself as well as you here; I wanted to discover what I had learned from my own experience, whether or not it duplicated what others learned from theirs. So you may find some of what follows too familiar or too elementary to be useful; if so, just skip it. I will be dealing exclusively with the editing of nonfiction expository writing of various flavors since the editing of fiction is a rather different craft. I'll welcome, of course, any comments that you may have, and if you send useful suggestions in time, I will try to weave my response into future installments.

What the Writer Needs Although He May Not Know It

The job of editing a written document of any kind is one that is ideally and sometimes actually done by the writer of that document. He knows better than anyone else just what he was trying to say, who it is written for, and so on. But there is one qualification the writer can't have, except at a price he can seldom afford: distance. If a writer rereads a paper he has just written, he is likely either not to see his errors at all, or to see them without realizing that they're errors he is, after all, the person who just made those errors, and whatever quirks caused him to make them in the first place are probably still at work. If he had the luxury of putting his document aside for weeks or months, and then reading it critically, he would almost certainly see most or all of his errors; it's common, in fact, for writers who enjoy that rare luxury to see so many errors and other shortcomings in their own older work that they may rewrite it altogether.

But few writers enjoy the luxury of being able to put their work aside until they have achieved some psychological distance from it, and can read it with fresh eyes; most of us write against deadlines, and must submit our manuscripts well before we can look at them with some detachment. And for this reason if for no other, there is a need for the editor the reader who can read the document with fresh eyes, and do it right away, without delaying publication. So even if she were no more than a willing and independent reader, she would be performing a service for the writer by reading his work with the cool eyes that he would not be able to bring to bear for weeks or months after writing it.

What Is Needed from the Editor

Most of us have had at least once the humbling experience of having serious errors in our work pointed out to us by readers with no particular expertise in our subject or in writing in general observations they were able to make simply because they were looking at our work unencumbered with our assumptions, our prejudices, and our passions. But of course we expect a professional editor to do far more than just bring fresh eyes to her task; we expect her to know more about grammar than the writer, even in some cases to know more about some aspects of his subject than he does, or at least to be an experienced researcher, able to check many of his facts by expert use of reference material.

And we expect an editor to find the kinds of problems that could trouble the audience for whom the document is meant an audience that is usually far less expert in absorbing written information than she is. For this reason, the editor must never accept from the writer the Schoolboy's Excuse: "OK, maybe it's not perfect, but you know what I mean!" The editor knows that she is bringing to her reading of the document much more experience and aptitude than the average member of the document's likely audience, and the fact that she understands what the writer is trying to say is no assurance that that audience will understand it. She is there as, among other things, the representative of the least expert members of the intended audience, and cannot ignore faults that might trouble them, even if they didn't trouble her.

But even if the imperfections in his document aren't serious enough to prevent the writer's audience from understanding him, there is still another important objective that is likely to be lost if he is allowed to get by with noticeable faults in his work: the reader's respect. It's not enough that readers find no obstacles to immediate understanding of a document, they must also finish reading it with respect for the author. The editor's job is only half done, then, when the document she's working on cannot be misunderstood by its readers; it's also her job, and sometimes the harder part of it, to see to it that her author's message is not effectively canceled by the scorn readers will feel for him, and therefore for his message, if he writes clumsily, uses a word that's clearly not quite what he means, makes mistakes in grammar or spelling. A recent vice president of the United States may have lost his chance at the presidency because he publicly misspelled potato.

What the Editor Needs to Know and Be

What does the editor need to do her job? She should have several technical qualifications: a good grasp of grammar, for one thing not for finding problems, which she does on sight, and without reference to rules, but for explaining to the author why she's objecting to some element of his document without falling back on "Trust me; I can't explain why it's wrong, but it is!" (Every editor has to say that occasionally, but the occasions should be made as rare as possible.) She needs a feeling for logical organization: the ability to see where a piece of writing should begin, how it should progress, and how it should end. She should, as noted before, be highly familiar with the most authoritative sources of information, printed and web based. If the document she is editing is highly technical, she will almost certainly be unable to do a good job for the writer unless she is, or can quickly become, at least superficially familiar with the subject treated by the document. She will need to be proficient with all the standard editing tools and conventions of the computer age.

But the most important thing the foundation of all editing is an eye and an ear that catches problems that could trouble the ordinary reader, even if that reader would not recognize them as problems. Fundamentally, this is a matter of inborn aptitude which one either has or does not have, but given the aptitude, it is a matter of practice of constant critical reading. The good editor must be a voracious reader, the kind of person who never leaves the house without a book; who scans billboards while driving past at 60 miles an hour, and spots misuses of the subjunctive and errors in the sequence of tenses as they flash by; who sees misspellings of culinary terms in restaurant menus, and mentions them to the waiter; and who, at least figuratively, never reads without a red pencil in her hand.

The Editor's Bag of Tricks

You already know that the editor is responsible for ensuring that the author of the text entrusted to him is made aware of every fault in grammar, spelling, logic, fact, organization, and diction in that text, and for helping the author correct or avoid those errors. The editor may also be responsible for ensuring that the text conforms to an arbitrary publisher's house style or other style guide. Meeting these general requirements cannot be reduced to rule or algorithm; it calls for all the knowledge the editor has gathered in years of critical reading. But there are some specifics that can be made part of the editor's bag of tricks, and are not automatically acquired with experience; here are some of them. For convenience, I've divided them into "macro-tricks," which deal with higher-level considerations (such as the structure of entire documents or families of documents), and "micro-tricks," which deal with the details of a text (such as points of grammar, punctuation, and diction).


Check for blatant gaps and overlaps. In considering the organization of the text, ask yourself if each unit sentence, paragraph, section, and chapter picks up where the preceding one left off. A unit needs rewriting or reorganization if it largely repeats what its predecessor stated, or if it doesn't seem to connect directly with that predecessor. You want no big overlaps, no perceptible gaps.

When you've reached the end of a document, make sure that the beginning still holds. There are very few documents longer than three pages that wind up just the way the writer thought they would when he began. Writers of substantial documents commonly find their thoughts and plans developing in the process of writing, and by the time the end is reached, the original plan has almost always been modified often unconsciously modified. It is part of the editor's job to go back to the beginning, after reading the whole document, for the specific purpose of testing whether the introductory pages still describe what actually follows.

Strike an appropriate balance among the different aspects of a text: primer, reference book, maintenance headache. Many documents generated in industry serve a double purpose. A computer manual, for example, will have a how-to part that describes various procedures to the reader in the form of step-by-step instructions, and will also offer global information such as product specifications, lists of components, and tabular presentations of problems and their remedies. This double role makes for organizational difficulties; some of the global information may have to be given piecemeal to the reader as he follows the procedures, and is therefore scattered throughout the document, but it must also be gathered in one place where he can find it easily when he is using the document later as a reference book. You must consider, first, the user's convenience, which will vary greatly, depending on whether he is coming to the document to learn how to perform some procedure, and wants no information irrelevant to that purpose, or just to find some specific item of information in a table of like items; but you must also consider the difficulty that those who will be maintaining the document will have if information that has to be updated from time to time is repeated and scattered throughout the document. There is no general answer to these issues; just make sure that you and the author agree about the priorities for each particular document.

Make sure the writer's promises are kept. Almost every document makes promises, sometimes explicitly ("As will be shown later" or "First" or "As we have seen") or implicitly (as when a name or acronym is introduced in a context that does not allow immediate explanation). In each of your passes through the document you're editing, list all promises, cross them off the list when they're kept, and point out to the writer every one that was not kept.

Don't charge directly at a well-entrenched enemy. If you find yourself uncomfortable with a passage, but unable to specify exactly what's wrong with it, don't wrestle endlessly with it; tell the author what's bothering you, and get him to rewrite it (you can make suggestions, but don't rewrite it yourself; you're not the author).

Use "editing notes." When you spot a recurring error in the documents you're editing, issue an editing note to correct it. Each note should deal with one problem, and deal with it clearly and fully in one page, if at all possible. If you serve a fixed group of writers, such as a Technical Documentation department in industry, have your clients retain these notes, and refer them to the appropriate note when they commit the error it covers. If you're a freelance editor who seldom faces the same writer twice, you can copy a note, or the appropriate part of one, as a comment to any text exhibiting the error.

The editing note shown below is an actual one, reproduced exactly as issued to a group of writers whose work I edited, except for removal of the name of the company and product involved.

A Sample Editing Note

Editing Note 1: Avoiding ambiguous only (and other modifiers)

In ordinary writing, as in speech, we commonly put modifiers where they feel most comfortable, with little attention to strict logic; we know that there are many other cues that will tell our listener or reader what we mean. In more formal writing, and especially in procedure-oriented technical writing, it's more important sometimes vital to make the scope of a modifier absolutely clear.

"You can only type five characters into that field" is easier to say than "You can type only five characters," and usually it's not likely to be misinterpreted. But when we're writing a manual on how to install a piece of software, it can be so costly to the user to misunderstand, or even to have to wonder, what's meant that we writers have to discipline ourselves to say it the right, if harder, way.

Do we mean "You can only type five characters into that field (but if you use cut-and-paste, you can enter as many as eight)," or "You can only type five characters into that field (but a system administrator can type eight into it)," or "The field holds only five characters (no matter how or by whom entered)," or ...?

(The second interpretation of the three just listed shows, incidentally, why the second person is not always appropriate. Does "you" here mean "you, the reader, whoever you may be," or can it mean "you, the end user (as I assume you are), as opposed to the system administrator whose powers are different"? If our real message is "This field holds no more than five characters," then that's what we should say, not something that begins with a "friendly" but ambiguous "you.")

Here's a real-life example of how misleading a misplaced only can be, taken from an actual computer software manual: "the responsibilities feature restricts this person to only seeing the View entitled My Accounts."

The context shows that this was not intended to mean that "this person" can see the View, but can't change it; it means that "this person" can see only this View, and no others.

The unforgivable sin in technical writing is ambiguity, and it is caused by misplacement of modifiers more than by any other fault.


Check grammatical basics. First, if a sentence or clause troubles you in any way, the first thing to do is to identify its subject. I don't mean its conceptual or intended subject the subject that the author was thinking of I mean its actual syntactic subject, as determined by the words before you. When you've done that, check that the verbs and pronouns that depend on it agree with it in person and number. Then check for phrases and other syntactic units attached to the wrong subject. Probably not a week goes by that you don't receive a piece of junk mail starting "As one of our most valued customers, we want to reward you by ...." As written, the subject of the initial phrase is "we"; the writer meant "you," but was in such a hurry to say what "we" wanted to do for you that he neglected to actually mention "you." A possible correction: "As one of our most valued customers, you have been selected to receive a reward."

Example of omission of real subject, with consequent attachment of predicate to the wrong subject: "Liberal theories of national behavior have, like Realist ones, changed and grown with the times. Some have argued that peace can be maintained by the spread of democracy, as they are unlikely to go to war with one another" (Eric Alterman, "What's the big idea?" MSNBC home page). The grammatical antecedent of "they" can only be "Some," or by stretching a little "Liberal theories"; the real antecedent, of course, is "democratic nations," but the writer hasn't mentioned them, he's just thinking about them.

Check for proper use of participles. Make sure that the participle forms of verbs (the ones that end "-ing") actually apply to the subject stated in the sentence, and not merely to a subject present in the writer's mind, but not in the text. But recall that a word that looks like a participle may actually be a gerund to distinguish, ask yourself whether it's functioning as a verb or a noun. Here are examples of each:

(a) Growing flowers are a joy to see
(b) Growing flowers is a pleasant hobby

In (a), growing is the participle form of the verb to grow. The sentence asserts that the flowers it's talking about are growing; it can be thought of as a variant of "Flowers that are growing are a joy to see"

In (b), growing is a gerund, a noun formed from the verb to grow. The sentence doesn't assert that anything is growing; it can be thought of as a variant of "The growing of flowers is a pleasant hobby" or "Flower-growing is a pleasant hobby."

Make sure that every pronoun's antecedent is clear. If it's not perfectly clear what each pronoun represents, make the author revise the sentence. Either replace an ambiguous pronoun with the noun or noun phrase it stands for or — if that makes for an ungraceful sentence — have him rewrite it completely so as to avoid the problem.

Check the scope of modifiers as appropriate for the document. In serious expository writing, especially in giving directions on how to do something, make sure that the scope of modifiers particularly, but not only, only and even is clear (see Editing Note 1).

Highway sign: "Right Lane Only San Francisco"; does the "only" modify "right lane" or "San Francisco"; does it mean "only the right lane goes to San Francisco, so if you want to go there, get into that lane now," or "San Francisco is the only place the right lane goes, so if you don't want to go there, move out of that lane now"? In short, must I risk my life by changing lanes in heavy traffic, or can I safely stay in my present lane? At 65 miles per hour, ambiguity can kill.

Another example: "Wheeled C-141s could only land on the nearby Pegasus blue-ice runway early or late in the season." This is a potentially lethal misstatement; there are indeed weather and surface conditions in the Antarctic that would allow a large transport plane to land but not take off, and this sentence, strictly read, asserts that such conditions obtain at Pegasus. But the rest of the story (Bruce D. Nordwall, "Antarctica's First Year-Round Runway," Aviation Week & Space Technology, January 21, 2002, page 47) makes it clear that what the only applies to is the season of the year; it should read "Wheeled C-141s could land on the nearby Pegasus blue-ice runway only early or late in the season." Good thing pilots weren't relying on this story while in flight; if ambiguity at 65 MPH on the approach to the Bay Bridge is dangerous, at 500 MPH over Antarctica it can be downright disturbing.

Because is another word that is frequently misplaced; the misplacing usually doesn't cause trouble because context resolves any ambiguity but where such context is lacking, beware of constructions like "He didn't steal the money from the donation box because it was meant for the poor"; does this mean "He didn't steal the money, and the reason he didn't was that it was meant for the poor" or "He did steal the money, but not because it was meant for the poor"?

If a sentence is confusingly complex, eliminate the details to see its structure. If a sentence is so long and cluttered with modifiers and subordinate clauses and rhetorical flourishes that its structure is hard to see, simplify it by eliminating all, or some of, those nonstructural elements.

Here's a little exercise to show how stripping away verbal dressing exposes the bare structure of a statement. Most people are bewildered the first time they read "If there are more people in the village than there are hairs on the head of anyone in the village, there must be at least two people in the village with the same number of hairs on their heads." The verbal details "people," "hairs," "village" becloud what is actually a very simple statement, as is evident if you eliminate them and substitute abstract symbols: let the number of people in the village be P, and imagine a P-item list, giving for each of the P inhabitants the number H of hairs on his head, ranging in value from 0 (the bald guy) to Hp (the hairiest guy). The statement then tells us simply that if P > Hp, and you try to pair off each P with a unique value of H, you will run out of unique H values before you run out of P's hence at least two P's will have to share an H value that is, have the same number of hairs. In fact, it's the same obvious truth that if you have more overnight guests than you have guest rooms, at least two guests will have to share a room.

Know that punctuation exists to help readers understand what they're reading. If there is no clear rule that applies to some punctuation problem, ask yourself what solution will best help the reader, and adopt it. Consistency is good, but even consistency must be rejected if it would interfere in some special case with ease of understanding. For example, you may be operating with a style guide that rejects the serial comma; and it is indeed often unnecessary, but sometimes vital as in the (possibly apocryphal) book dedication, "To my parents, Ayn Rand and God."

Pin down the time of the action. Problems with tenses are almost always the result of vagueness in the writer's mind about where he or his narrator stands in time with respect to what he's talking about. The writer must be clear about when the action he's describing takes place with respect to some fixed point in time; that point can be past, present, or future, but it must not wander around within one sentence or other syntactic unit.

Don't propagate grammatical superstitions. These include the supposed sins of splitting infinitives, using the passive voice, and starting a sentence with And or Or. A good rule of thumb: if a usage neither obstructs the reader's understanding of the text nor detracts from his respect for the writer, there's nothing wrong with it. Exception: if your author is writing for a special audience with strong feelings about, say, initial And and Or, then you and your author may well agree to ban these usages for the duration of the present task but this is a political decision, not an esthetic or grammatical one.