The Secret to Being a Better Editor (Plus 5 Essential Tips)

Be an editor, not a jerk

When you’re providing feedback on other people’s writing, do you ever get a nagging feeling that they’re angry or resentful? It may be because you’re being a jerk.

You can’t help it. You weren’t trained to be an editor. People who hold that title in media companies and publishing houses toil for years to perfect those skills.

Yet every day we’re called upon to review and comment on an employee or colleague’s memo, report, presentation or other document. Much of that feedback is done without a lot of thought — and it shows.

In The 7 Habits of Highly Incompetent Editors, I wrote about the ways editors routinely demoralize writers — which, of course, ultimately makes the work product suffer.

But here I’m going to flip that around and offer some positive things you can do to have a better, more constructive relationship with the people whose work you’re editing. First, though, I’m going to let you in on a little secret:

Being a good editor is about being a good human being.

That’s right, it’s deceptively simple to grasp and really difficult to execute. So here are five tips that will help you become not just a better editor, but a better person.

1. Let it Go — You Delegated for a Reason

I think the biggest source of stress in the editor/writer relationship is when the editor has a rigid vision of what the end product should look like. When the document fails to live up to that vision, there’s a tendency to lash out and blame the writer.

But there’s probably a reason you’re not writing this particular document — most likely you don’t have the time to do it. So step back and recognize that different people are going to approach a writing task in different ways. And the only way to get it 100% your way is to do it yourself. (Which I don’t recommend.)

2. Explain What You Want

If you think the writing is seriously off-track, you need to clearly explain what you want. Comments along the lines of “this is wrong” and “change this” aren’t very helpful.

So make liberal use of the comments function, and go see the writer in person if necessary. If you’re unable to articulate what you want, it’s not a just a writer you need — call a psychic. (Or a really intuitive writer.)

3. Take Responsibility

Want to earn some goodwill with a writer? (And you should want to.) Acknowledge when you’re at fault. This happens all the time with me. I’ve asked for something in a previous draft and when I see it on paper I realize it was a mistake — it just doesn’t work.

So I acknowledge that: “I know I asked for this, but on second look it was probably the wrong call.” Too often the instinct is to blame the writer for doing her best to make the most of our half-baked suggestions.

4. Be Nice

I hate the notion in business that kindness is somehow softness. It shouldn’t take a lot of effort to exercise a little common courtesy and treat the writer with respect. When a writer (or anyone) feels valued — like a partner and not a servant — you’ll get better work out of her.

5. Know When Enough is Enough

There comes a dangerous point in the editor/writer relationship when the writer becomes so demoralized by all the changes that she surrenders accountability. She feels like nothing she’s doing is right, so why bother anymore? “He’ll just change it again anyway. ”

Which, of course, creates a vicious circle of bad writing and careless editing that ends in mediocre, error-riddled work.

(By the way, these tips apply for any creative people you’re working with — graphic designers, video editors, web programmers.)

So be fair, be decent, keep the lines of communication open and, most of all, take emotion out of the equation. After all, your goal should be to give that person useful guidance and development so she can learn to be a better writer — which will ultimately make your job easier, and make everyone happier.