Thursday, January 12, 2012

Four Eyes Are Better Than Two: Editing What You Write

No matter how brilliant a writer you think you are, a good editor will make you look better. Even when I write something that seems clean and focused to my eye, editors always find small mistakes and ways to improve the delivery. In this post I'll discuss some typical editing experiences you might have as an author.

Copy Editing

If you're writing articles for print or online magazines, you'll be dealing with one or more editors. The copy editor's job is to improve the spelling, grammatical correctness, consistency, and clarity of expression of your work. The copy editor may ensure that your piece conforms to the magazine's house style standards for formatting and other conventions. The copy editor probably won't make substantial content adjustments or suggest structural changes, although a general editor might. The definitive reference for many editors is The Chicago Manual of Style. I keep a copy handy and refer to it when I'm not certain how to express something. For example, if you're referring to a time in the morning, which abbreviation do you use: AM, A.M., am, a.m., or something else? Should "20" be written as "20" or "twenty"? Chicago will tell you.

When writing a book, a commercial publisher generally will engage either an in-house or freelance copy editor (possibly along with an artist, a compositor, and an indexer). It's a good idea to build a collaborative relationship with your editor. You really have to learn to respect the editing process. Conversely, the editor needs to understand your preferences, respect your style, and deal thoughtfully with your hot buttons. A good editor will preserve your "voice" even as she hones your message. You're not obligated to accept every change the editor suggests. Nonetheless, you should look at each proposed change and consider it. Most of them are no-brainers: accept the change. Ultimately, though, the author’s name, not the editor's, goes on the byline, so you are the final authority on what gets published.

Good editing makes a big difference in how a sharp-eyed reader perceives a publication. For some reason, I'm very good at spotting typographical and word usage errors. When I find these in a published book, they annoy me. When I was writing my first book years ago and starting to think about finding a publisher, I realized that several computer books I had read from one publisher were replete with errors. Although that publisher offered me a contract for my book, I declined it for that very reason. One of the most common mistakes I’ve see in books in recent years is the incorrect use of homophones, words that sound alike but are spelled differently: write, right, rite. Whether these errors originate with the author or later in the production process doesn't matter to the reader. A published book with such mistakes is an indication of sloppy editing.

Development Editing

Your publisher might have a development editor work with you, particularly if you're not an experienced author. A development editor will propose more radical changes than will a copy editor. This is particularly helpful if your manuscript is not well structured or well organized, or if the manuscript has technical shortcomings that need to be addressed before it's ready to release.

The editors for my first book, Creating a Software Engineering Culture, added enormous value by performing two stages of editing. First, development editing helped me transform a poorly structured, flabby manuscript into a much more effective vehicle for telling my story. Second, copy editing greatly cleaned up and tightened my prose and presentation. I lost 20,000 words of text along the way—words I had spent many hours crafting to the best of my ability—but it was a far better book after the surgery. This experience gave me a better appreciation of the phrase "cutting-room floor."

With both magazine and book editors, be sure to read the edited version carefully to make sure that editing did not introduce inadvertent changes. This happens all the time. On one of my very earliest articles, more than thirty years ago, I was surprised to see an error in the published article that wasn’t in my manuscript. That opened my eyes to the realization that sometimes when you think the author has made a mistake, an editor actually introduced the mistake. For this reason, I always request to do a proofread of the final copy before it goes to press. Just as in software debugging, making corrections in text has the possibility of introducing additional errors.

My worst editing experience took place on a magazine article of about 4,000 words. The freelance copy editor told me he did a "light" edit. However, his modifications changed the meaning of what I was trying to say in no fewer than twenty-six places! For instance, I was presenting a case study, and I wrote, "We did A and then we did B." The editor thought it read more smoothly as, "We did B and then we did A." But it was a case study! That wasn't what we did. You have to proofread very carefully to catch those kinds of errors. The editor is not an expert in your domain—you are. So sometimes it's not obvious to the editor that a small change can radically alter the meaning of your message.

Rarely, you might find that you and the copy editor just aren't clicking. I experienced that problem on one of my books. The editor was introducing too many errors, changing my voice too much, and generally not adding much value. After giving it enough time to be sure I wasn’t overreacting, I shared my frustration with the overall project editor. He then took over the copy editing responsibility himself and did a great job. Nearly all of the editors I've worked with have been fine, though, and I’m grateful for the countless improvements they made in my writing.

A friend who's a highly experienced editor offered the following wisdom: "For new or first-time writers, working with any editor on staff can be touchy. If they don't like the editor and want him removed, they will need to be very tactful with the editor's supervisor. Another tip: be really nice to anyone you work with on the publishing team. Lowly copy editors sometimes become acquisitions editors and project editors, or they move on to bigger publishing houses and websites. Forming a good relationship with your editors can work to your advantage." This is excellent advice. When I met this editor, she had just started as a copy editor at a magazine. Within a few years, she had risen to the top position on the masthead, Editor in Chief. We worked together very well.


Editing isn't the end of the pre-publication process. You still need to proofread the final copy. This is a different type of activity than editing. You're not looking to further improve the piece, but rather to make sure it's in final form, free from errors, and ready to inflict on your loyal readers. Ideally, the proofreader and the editor will be different people. I always proofread the final copy myself, but of course, I'm already very close to it. The closer you are to the material, the harder it is to spot errors. If possible, try to line up an independent proofreader with a sharp eye, in addition to scrutinizing the piece yourself.

People use a variety of techniques to proofread their own text carefully. As I suggested in my previous post, setting it aside for a few days helps. You can read the copy line by line, turning off your brain and looking just at the words. Some people use a piece of paper to cover all of the text except for the one line they're proofreading. Some people read the copy backwards word by word or sentence by sentence. Others read it out loud. Find a trick that works for you. You'll be surprised how many errors you spot.

For years, I've done nearly all of my writing by voice, using Dragon NaturallySpeaking speech recognition software. This software does quite a good job of recognizing what I say and typing it out for me. Once I got the hang of writing verbally, I found it to be much faster than typing. It's also easier on my wrists and forearms, so I no longer suffer from repetitive motion injuries attributable to keyboarding. Speech recognition software will never make a typographical error. However, it will sometimes misinterpret what I say, which results in text other than what I intended. Therefore, I need to proofread anything I write by voice more carefully than usual because spell check doesn't do me any good.

When It's Your Responsibility

If you elect to self-publish a book or write an eBook, you're on your own for copy editing and proofreading. Don't think you can do this yourself or just hand it over to a friend—professional editors are much better than us amateurs. My latest book, a memoir of life lessons titled Pearls from Sand , was not self-published, but the publisher didn't provide editing or proofreading services. I was responsible for supplying the publisher with the final manuscript, ready to print. Therefore, I had to line up a copy editor and proofreader to make my manuscript as good as possible.

I began by hiring my old friend Barbara Hanscome, I worked with Barbara on many articles while she was an editor at Software Development magazine. Now she does freelance editing. Barbara is the best editor I've ever worked with. As I expected, she did a great job on my book manuscript. I also hired a local Portland firm called The Mighty Pen to do some of the copy editing and all of the proofreading. They, too, did an excellent job. I'd recommend both Barbara and The Mighty Pen to anyone who's in need of first-rate copy editing or proofreading services at a reasonable price. They were worth every penny.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)


  1. Karl, I really appreciate these tips you are posting. They are really helping me improve and do a better job with publishing 5 Minutes to Process Improvement Success and related blog. Your tips are concise, to the point and very effective. Thank you.

  2. Thank you, Karl, for sharing your thoughts about the need for editing. Everyone can benefit from a second pair of eyes reading their writing; it's good to know if other readers are taking away what we want them to take away from our work. Plus, we are all blind to our own typos!

    I'm so glad you found our editing helpful. Thanks for the thoughtful post and the kind words.

    Lead editor, the Mighty Pen