One of my mentors once shared a story about a time when she thought she’d been particularly heavy-handed with an edit. The piece was weak on organization, and she’d had to do a fair amount of rearranging. When she sent the piece back to the writer for review, he enthusiastically thanked her for not changing much at all.
How did he not notice that she’d completely revamped his article? Because she had an incredible talent for the Golden Rule of editing: Preserve the writer’s voice.
Taking a fresh look at your own copy is one thing. Editing someone else’s writing is an entirely different experience. Your job as an editor is to help the writer communicate clearly, effectively and eloquently. Your job is not to make the writer sound like you.
Editors often succumb to the trap of thinking their own approach is always preferable to another writer’s. In fact, it takes considerable skill and restraint to improve a writer’s article without removing him from the soul of the piece.
Here’s how it’s done:
Fix the problems—leave the rest alone.
As an editor, you’re looking for all the places where an article doesn’t work. Does the lead anecdote match the point of the story? Does the body of the piece answer all our questions? Were the right people interviewed for the story, and is anyone obviously missing who should have been called? Did the writer make grammatical mistakes? Does the ending bring it all home?
So, what should you leave alone? Sentences that are perfectly clear but are phrased differently than you would have phrased them. Anecdotes that are totally on point, but not quite as entertaining as something similar that happened to you.
Bottom line, if you aren’t fixing a bona fide problem—a confusing passage, a structural problem, a grammatical error—you don’t need to make a change. Never change something solely because you would have said it differently.
Retain the writer’s language.
Editing is not rewriting. The best editors work with the key phrases, adjectives, anecdotes and expressions they’re given. They rearrange, they add transitions, they flip phrases around. They don’t add 1980s adjectives that a Millennial never would use. They don’t introduce sarcasm or attitude that wasn’t originally intended. They don’t insert phrases in jarring contrast to the rest of the piece. In the end, the finished piece will feel a lot like the original, except that now it works.
Give the writer a second chance.
Let’s say the writer took the piece in a direction that deviated from your original intent as an assigning editor. If your approach really would have been better, now is the time for coaching, not rewriting.
The best editors will restructure the piece, then send it back to the writer with clear notes to guide him or her on a rewrite, such as:
Please describe the scene for us here.
This would work better as a more humorous article. Do you have a more light-hearted anecdote you could use for the lead?
Sure, sometimes it would be easier to rewrite an unacceptable piece from a writer. But it’s much more rewarding to work together on something of which you both will be proud.
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