Ask the TEC Editors: What Is the Best Editing Advice You’ve Received?

by TEC Editors

Published at 2021-03-24

Spring is here, and as the trees start to bud, and the snowdrops and crocuses start to poke their green tips out of the dirt, it’s hard not to think about growth, in all senses of the word. At TEC, this got us thinking – as we’ve grown as editors, picking up knowledge and tips along the way, what is the most important piece of advice we’ve kept in our back pockets? What is that one thing that changed the way we viewed editing, or changed our practice in some way?


Well, read on to learn what the TEC editors view as their very best bits of advice – maybe you’ll pick up something that you can put in your own back pocket!


Clarity Matters!

Lesley-Anne Longo


There are so many different bits of advice that I’ve gotten over the years, and from various sources, such as colleagues, professors, books, blogs, and, of course, TEC Senior Editor Beth. I think the one that I always try to keep at the forefront, however, is fairly simple: The importance of clarity in editing.


Now, I apply this word, “clarity,” in a few different ways. The first is when discussing the project with the author, and this includes the author’s expectations. Be as absolutely clear and straightforward as possible when discussing what the author expects you to do, what you will be doing, and what the parameters of the project will be. Many first-time authors don’t know what to expect from working with an editor, so being as clear as possible can help put them at ease, and reduce any opportunities for miscommunication.


The second way I apply the concept of clarity is during the editing itself. Now, there’s not really any good reason to add a comment explaining every single change an editor makes, such as “This is wrong” or “This is spelled wrong,” as this can put the author on the defensive. But for more complicated changes, it’s good to explain, even a little, why you’ve made the change the way you did, so the author can understand your reasoning. If you worked really hard on a project, and someone came in and started rephrasing or deleting things, you’d want to know why, right? Illuminating your reasoning for the author helps them feel like they’re included in what you’re doing, and shines a light on what many writers consider a somewhat mysterious process. 


Keep a Closed Book Closed

Samantha Rohrig


As someone just starting out in the field of professional editing, I assumed it would be a relatively simple task to narrow down the best piece of editing advice I have received thus far. Surely I haven’t been doing this long enough to have accumulated more than a few nuggets of wisdom generously passed down by those who have been at it for a lot longer, right? Wrong! Every day, whether it’s here at TEC or through my ongoing coursework in the Ryerson publishing program, I find myself gaining some wonderful new insight from my instructors, classmates, or colleagues. 


Still, if pressed to choose just one thing that has really struck me, it would have to be something the instructor of my proofreading class said a few weeks ago: “Never open a finished project.”  


Being something of a perfectionist this is hard for me to admit, but…even the best proofreader or copyeditor is liable to miss one or two things! You may gasp, I know. But editors are only human, after all. You may be working at an exceptional standard of editing (one study found that 91% was the average error rate among professional proofreaders), but you will still not be able to catch everything, every time. And that last remaining error is sure to jump off the page and torture you if you reopen a finished project once it’s already out of your hands. 


So for the sake of my sanity (and the quality of my sleep), this is one piece of advice that I will really be trying to live by as I continue to learn about the profession, and develop my skills, and move forward with a career in editing.  


For more about how editors deal with the expectation of perfection, check out the TEC blog “Perfection: A Perfect Trap.”


An Editing Tip from a Writer

Michael Bedford


The best editorial advice I've received as a writer, I can't remember who drove the point home, was to reread my work at least twice, doing one reread out loud.


The rereads help me spot errors and awkward constructions, and reading out loud helps highlight any repetition. Of course, it's possible to miss things even after two rereads so I also make sure I have another person read my work after I've completed my rereads. If there aren’t any other editors around, I generally ask whoever’s on hand to take a look at my work before I submit or publish it. Professional editorial qualifications or not, different eyes tend to pick out different errors.


Style Sheets Matter!

Debbie MacDonald


I was first introduced to style sheets through an editing course I was taking at the University of Waterloo. While at first the concept of creating a style sheet seemed a little tedious, it is actually one of the most essential items in my editor’s tool kit.


In simple terms, a style sheet is a “playbook.” As a reference document for anyone creating or editing content, style sheets guide the treatment of specific items such as style standards, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, hyphenation and more.


Nothing detracts more from a document than inconsistencies and errors. These seemingly minor distractions become “noise” to the reader and run the risk of taking focus away from your content. Style sheets save time (and money) by minimizing questions and chasing down answers. In today’s environment of collaboration, a style sheet ensures that everyone is playing by the same rules and your documents have a unified voice.


For compelling and engaging documents and content, try adding a style sheet to your tool kit!


Honour the Author’s Voice

Ronnie Morris


One of the best pieces of editing advice I ever received actually went unheeded for far too long: “Remember, it’s not your book.” I first came across the injunction to lighten up when I read Amy Einsohn’s The Copyeditor’s Handbook, and I must have subsequently read variations at least a dozen times. Yet, I still sometimes found myself employing too heavy a hand, often rewriting things that were grammatically correct but not written in what I considered to be the most effective way. I think it showed a lack of confidence: I was constantly trying to show that I was thorough but was overdoing it in the process, making changes to suit my own preferences and inadvertently altering the writer’s voice.


 It was really only recently, when I read Lesley-Anne’s blog post on editing with empathy in our own blog, that I really understood that I wasn’t necessarily working in service of the writer and the reader. I realized how frustrated an author might feel reading words come back that weren’t what they actually wrote or meant. I try to keep that foremost in my mind when I do edits now, and my work is better — and faster — for it.


Accumulate Knowledgeable Facts

Beth McAuley


The one piece of advice that has travelled with me over these many years is to stay up to date with current events. I know this doesn’t refer to working with words on the page, but it does refer to being aware of what is going on in the world around you – your local community and the wider world. Today, we are all well aware of the global pandemic swirling around us. But are we also aware of the struggle in Myanmar or the trial of the Two Michaels in China? Do we know which teams are in this year’s hockey playoffs? Are we reading our Quill & Quire regularly to stay in touch with the Canadian publishing industry? Is our city raising taxes in this year’s budget?


We need to know a lot as editors. In addition to the art of editing, we need have a wide array of knowledgeable facts. The more we read, the more we listen to the news, the more we are up to date on current events, the better we edit. Why? Because we can catch things that are out of place or out of date, or the name of a country that is misspelled, or the name of a book title that is incorrect. Did you know that it is The Catcher in the Rye and not Catcher in the Rye? These small details come into play more often that we think. And the better equipped we are to spot them, the better our overall editing will be. You might say this is the fact-checking side of our editing work. If you spot something that doesn’t quite look right, take a moment to double-check it.


And who shared this advice? Douglas Gibson, of McClelland & Stewart and Douglas Gibson Books, when he came to speak at a meeting of the Freelance Editors’ Association of Canada (now Editors Canada). When asked what he looked for in an editor, he responded by saying he wanted them to know what was going on in the world around them.


Take Note!

Well, there you have it – a great collection of the best editorial tips the TEC editors have received. We hope some of it will help you improve your editing best practices, or change the way you edit for the better.


And remember to give us a call if you need an editor on your project!