What is… editing?

September 18, 2017 6:00 am

Writers tend to be solitary creatures but bringing writing to life is more often a group effort. That’s especially true in B2B communication.

Whatever the business writing project—a blog post, a white paper, an e-book or a script for a video—there are usually at least a few other people, if not whole teams, who have a say on the final product. But, just as too many cooks can spoil the broth, too many editors can turn a promising written work into a mess.

To avoid that outcome, it helps to understand a bit more about what editing is and isn’t.

First off, it’s definitely an art and not a science. Unlike two chemists told to produce the same compound, two editors—no matter how skilled—aren’t ever likely to produce the same results. There’s no one way to correctly edit anything.

While the process of mechanical editing, also called copy-editing or sub-editing, corrects spelling, capitalisation errors, noun-verb disagreements and other fundamental language errors, substantive editing or line editing focuses on the content itself and how it can be fine-tuned to make messages clear and effective.

Here’s how The Chicago Manual of Style, one bible of the editing world, describes the substantive editing process:

The editor will know by instinct and learn from experience how much of this kind of editing to do on a particular manuscript. An experienced editor will recognize, and not tamper with, unusual figures of speech and idiomatic usage and will know when to make an editorial change or simply to suggest it, when to delete a repetition or simply to point it out to the author, and many other matters. Since every manuscript is unique in the amount and kind of substantive editing desirable, no rules can be devised for the editor to follow.

Despite the ‘no rules’ description, editing is not an invitation to a Mad Max-style attack on someone else’s words. Whether you’ve asked an in-house writer to craft a short statement for a press release or commissioned an agency to ghost-write a book for your CEO, it helps to remember some guidelines during the editing process:

  • Respect the writer’s unique voice—As the Chicago Manual notes above, it’s often best to preserve personal wording and phrasing choices if your alternative isn’t more accurate or more appropriate for in-house style. One person’s ‘hodge-podge’ is another’s ‘smorgasbord’… but either is OK.
  • Keep your focus—While suggesting changes to copy, keep your eye on the goal of the final piece. For example, a product brochure needs to provide brief, user-friendly reasons for a reader to place an order or contact your company for more information; editing here shouldn’t involve adding material that’s better included in a lengthy white paper.
  • Offer useful suggestions—“No query to an author should sound stupid, naïve, or pedantic,” the Chicago Manual advises. “Nor should a query be so phrased that it seems to reflect upon the author’s scholarly ability or powers or interpretation… Every author has a right to expect conscientious, intelligent help from an editor.”

Editing, as New York Book Editors says, “addresses the creative content, writing style, and language use at the sentence and paragraph level. But the purpose of a line edit is not to comb your manuscript for errors—rather, a line edit focuses on the way you use language to communicate your story to the reader. Is your language clear, fluid, and pleasurable to read? Does it convey a sense of atmosphere, emotion, and tone? Do the words you’ve chosen convey a precise meaning, or are you using broad generalizations and clichés?”

Consider all these things. And don’t feel shy about asking for expert help when you need it.

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