This is how it feels to be edited — and why it’s still essential

By Caitlin Kelly

OK, let’ s stipulate that it’s not always fun.revision1

OK, sometimes it’s really horrible.

Some people dread it. Some people fear it. Some people avoid the whole thing, by self-publishing or never submitting their ideas or work to an editor for their professional judgment.

But without an editor, your writing is stuck in neutral forever.

Even if they’re a butcher who adds errors to your copy (yes, that happens) or inserts words you’d never use (that, too) or asks asinine questions (hell, yes), you’re still learning how to write better as a result.

Few things can so quickly clarify your original intent more than having every word challenged.

Journalism, and commercial publishing, is a team sport. No matter what medium, that isn’t about to change.

Nor should it.

This delicious joke, how a women’s magazine editor would edit a BBC report was amusing every writer I know recently:

A bomb (TYPE???) attack (WHAT KIND OF ATTACK????) on a Syrian (ASSUMING SYRIANS ARE PEOPLE FROM SYRIA? EXPLAIN.) government building (WHAT KIND OF BUILDING?) near Damascus has killed 31 people, (WE WERE TALKING ABOUT EVERYONE, AND NOW WE’RE TALKING ABOUT 31 PEOPLE? CONFUSING.) according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. (ARE WE SUPPOSED TO KNOW WHO THEY ARE? EXPLAIN.)


The explosives are thought (BY WHOM?) to have been placed in the basement (IN WHICH BASEMENT???!!) meaning opposition fighters were able to breach security to get into the building. (SORRY SARAH, BUT I CAN’T PICTURE THIS AT ALL. SHOW DON’T TELL.)

There has been no confirmation of the attack by state media, or by government officials. (THIS IS GREAT.)

What do editors do?

At best:

— Clarify and direct the tone, length and content of your story or book

— Help you refine your thinking if the story changes as you’re reporting it

— Offer some helpful sources

— Read your story as the reader will, with fresh eyes and no prior knowledge of the subject

— Add their own questions to the material to yours and those of potential readers

— Brainstorm about the story’s larger context and how yours will be better/deeper/smarter than any other on the topic

— Point out errors in your thinking: assumptions, filters, pre-conceptions

— Help you target your copy toward the needs and interest of their niche readership

— Save your sorry ass from a lawsuit, or several, by noticing, questioning and (if they have staff counsel) getting your material reviewed by a lawyer before it hits print

— Make sure your facts (spelling, dates, attributions, statistics) are correct

— Question your logic and story structure

— Help shape the narrative so that it flows and reads smoothly from start to finish

It takes two challenging emotional states to accept the process of being edited — trust and humility. You have to trust that your editor(s) are smart and are going to help make your story/book better and stronger and you have to have the humility to listen to them.

But you also need enough spine, after a while, to say “No. That sentence/paragraph/wording/structure works just fine as it is.”

At its very (rare) best, the editor-writer relationship is just that, a relationship.

A great editor is a great gift for any ambitious writer to have in their life, even on just one story. I’m still friends, decades later, with some of mine, whose wisdom and tough love helped to improve my work.

If you want a glimpse into an editor’s brain, this is a classic, smart and helpful book for any would-be non-fiction author.

35 thoughts on “This is how it feels to be edited — and why it’s still essential

  1. This is great – I enjoyed reading about the editing process. I’d be so nervous to have something professionally edited, but I can see what you’re saying about how a writer’s work could remain stagnant without it.
    Feedback on anything can be so nerve-racking, but in the end it usually serves to strengthen the original vision. A useful nervousness inducer! 🙂
    Great post!

  2. Being well edited helped me gain confidence in my writing which, in turn, made being edited much more desirable. With a little confidence, those butcher marks were interesting ideas. Without confidence, I took them very personally.

  3. Where would I be without my editors/beta readers? Without them I wouldn’t have gotten six 5-star reviews and five 4-star reviews. I look forward to the editing process and getting suggestions and corrections from my editors. Otherwise, my books would be half as good as I would like them to be.

  4. Great post. The need for proper editing seems to be lacking a lot these days, especially within the self-publishing world. I’m appalled at how many writers forgo this essential step as if it were an embellishment to their book and not part of the back bone.

    Having been published in print first, in smaller publications, and exploring the digital world with a self-published ebook I released, I’m well aware that much of what we do traditionally should not be forgotten digitally. I had two professional editors go through my ebook several times. Yes, it’s horrifying but it’s what makes a final copy better than the rough draft.

    Great writing is great for a reason. And some things, like ethics and editing in writing, should not be discarded.

    1. Yay you!

      This is refreshing…as I agree…there is a bizarre nose-thumbing that seems to go with self-publishing, as if by rejecting the old model, it’s best to reject all of it. Like editing. Wrong. No one can afford to try to sell their work without an objective eye on it beforehand, unless they’re prepared for a lot of serious rejection.

  5. this was really interesting to read and to see. a good editor sounds like a good parent – smart, caring, working in your best interest, and with unflinching expectations that you do your best.

    1. At best, yes. I’ve been grateful as hell for very good editors…my analogy is a very good plastic surgeon…you look SO much better but the cuts are so subtle you can’t even see what they did. 🙂

  6. I laughed out loud at the spoof piece you included.

    As for the real subject matter – is this not obvious? Who in their right (or ‘write’) mind would try and publish without an editor on board? Yes, that is a rhetorical question, please don’t answer.

    I despair at the lack of discipline and respect for craft and tradition that afflicts so many seeking an audience for their unsullied greatness.

    Nice issue to raise, very timely.

  7. The best news writing advice I ever got from an editor was, “No one ever complained that something was too clear.” I think about that ALL THE TIME to this day whenever I write anything and am still surprised that I went through a whole BFA writing program without ever having anyone say that to me.

  8. As an editor, my goal is to bring added value to someone’s work. I edit fiction more often than nonfiction, but I hope that the writer and I can work together as a team, trying to make the piece the best it can be while maintaining the writer’s vision and style.

    I laughed at the clip of how a woman’s magazine editor would edit the BBC report. It reminded me of a similar clip from former presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan who surmised how a team of White House editors would have reworked the Gettysburg Address into oblivion. Funny but sad.

    1. It’s a delicate dance of ego — the editor, if decent, really has to step out of the way and allow the writer’s voice to be clearly heard — not smushed into some institiutional, dumbed-down version. It’s one reason (of several) I generally avoid writing for women’s magazines and always, always feel 100% at home in the hands of newspaper editors. We speak the same intellectual language.

  9. CRGardenJoe

    Spring semester has just started at the university where I teach, and my “News Processing” class (basically, editing 101) was just discussing the role of an editor this week. I e-mailed the students a link to your post. Nicely put.

  10. Sounds like every flute lesson I have ever taken or given. Perhaps more musicians should become writers – we certainly have the skills needed to deal with the constant critique. And, having it written on paper rather than said to your face when you are still out of breath from playing something gigantic (that you’ve worked on for weeks and thought you had nailed) seems a bit more civilized. Either way, the process keeps you on your toes!!

  11. Avery

    I never edit nothing either. I think I need to start, especially if I am asking for more per hour. I don’t think they will give me 150.00 an hour though. I think I will ask for 100 and see what happens. My friend Greg is an editor, he sometimes edits my stuff but he works as an amateur beekeeper. He has great English skills though.

    1. I can’t possibly answer your question. There is no “going market rate”. Writers’ pay rates depend on a variety of factors:

      1) your (perceived) talent
      2) your ideas
      3) your accuracy
      4) your reliability
      5) your consistency
      6) whether they like you personally
      7) your willingness and ability to negotiate a higher fee
      8) your skills and experience…no beginner is going to get $100/hr and will only annoy anyone they ask it of.

      I urge you to invest in one of my webinars or take a class somewhere, either in a classroom or online.

  12. I am a freelance editor. I have to explain my role to hopeful writers, many who fear that I will scribble all over their precious manuscript with my big red Crayola marker while making snide remarks about their writing.

    I want a good working relationship with my writers. Most of my clients are too far away to meet in person, so Skype has to suffice sometimes at horrid hours due to time differences.

    My job as editor is to better the writing of the author – not to belittle or fight with the author. I am also not the truth police. Nor am I omnipotent (although it would be nice) so I will make mistakes as well.

    The idea is to clarify the author’s work improving the overall product.

    Sometimes it can be just as nerve wracking for the editor with a cantankerous client as well.

  13. I’ve had experience of both writing and of editing. As you say, it’s a relationship; and there are authors who (try) to refuse to allow a word to be changed. One sign of a confident writer is that they will allow a competent editor to improve their work. I’ve had experience of editors who were not competent. But many are.

    That said, one of my pet gripes – a perennial problem with newspapers – is when changes are made without consultation…creating errors, with which I as author am then credited. I recall one time an amendment was made this way to a piece of mine that triggered an absolutely personal and abusive tirade from one irate reader. Quite uncalled for. But, of course, readers don’t know the processes of that industry. The worst of it is that a lot of that style of change is made purely for space. This isn’t an editing relationship – it’s product-to-deadline. Sigh…

    1. That would make me nuts.

      The edit process at The New York Times is exhausting and exhaustive…every story I produce will go through 3+ editors, each of whom will have their questions and comments. BUT…every time they send you a “playback” of your story so you can see what it reads like…and make sure it is still accurate. That’s invaluable, if very time-consuming for a freelancer budgeting their time.

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