Top tips for editing other people's writing

Posted by s.hettrick on 10 May 2013 - 2:30pm
pen and paper
Photo by Lorenzo Cafaro.

By Simon Hettrick, Deputy Director.

If you run a website or a blog, or even if you just put together reports, you'll end up editing other people's writing. Imposing your grammatical style on others might be your personal idea of heaven, or it might be closer to hell. Either way, here's a few tips to help.

1. Set your style

Your life as an editor will get a lot easier if you are clear about what you want. When it comes to content, you need to describe exactly what you're looking for. That's the easy bit. When it comes to style, you should refer to a style guide.

A style guide lets you set the out the rules for how people should write. You can only really criticise someone else's grammar if they haven't stuck to the recommendations of your guide.

You can simply refer to a style guide (we recommend the Economist's Style Guide), you can write your own, or you can combine an existing style guide with tweaks of your own.

2. Maintain the author's voice

Unless you've been presented with an unreadable mess, you should always try to maintain the original author's voice. Make edits where necessary, and resist the urge to rewrite the article in your own style.

3. No one likes a grammar fiend

Always keep in mind that you are editing a work to make it clear and understandable to your audience. You are not trying to showcase your grasp of arcane grammatical rules.

It's the twenty first century, so maybe you can let someone off if they end a sentence with a preposition - especially since the sentence will probably make more sense that way. Similarly, there's no need to point out the obvious typos or accidental spelling mistakes you have removed. These mistakes happen to the best of us, and pointing them out only uses up your author's limited supply of editing tolerance.

4. Diplomacy, diplomacy, diplomacy. And then more diplomacy

The most important characteristic that an editor must possess is diplomacy. Writing is very personal. When you criticise someone's writing, apply the same level of tact as if you were criticising their face.

If you follow point three above, you'll avoid many of the pitfalls that cause arguments. When it comes to an edit that's necessary, then one excellent piece of advice is to shift to the third person and criticise the writing - not the person. For example, you can say "the article needed a more concise introduction" rather than "your article needed a more concise introduction". It's a simple change, but it takes a lot of the sting out of the criticism.

What's more, being diplomatic is a good insurance policy. If you take a gentle approach to discussing edits, you're less likely to end up a laughing stock if you turn out to be incorrect.

5. Stiff upper lip

If you're going to edit other people's work, make sure that you're robust enough to take their criticism. Once you've criticised someone, they have carte blanche to return the favour.