How to Edit Someone Else’s Writing

Editor's proofreading marks on a page

Editing is what turns tortured text into polished prose. It’s editing that undangles our participles, shortens interminable sentences, levels out bumpy writing, and keeps us from confusing principal with principle. Editing someone else’s writing is often easier than editing your own because you can be more objective than when you personally fussed over every word.

If colleagues ask you to edit their work, don’t take on the task unless you’re willing to be honest with your comments. You won’t be helping by being mealy-mouthed about the material rather than forthright about changes you recommend.

It’s a good idea not to do any editing your first time through the material. Read it start to finish to get a general sense of it. If you find nits to pick during this first reading, try to refrain from commenting. Then read it again, this time paying close attention to whatever aspect of the piece the writer wants you to focus on. It could be the overall flow, instances of ambiguity, grammatical goofs, punctuation and spelling, misuse of terminology, or almost anything else.

In other words, focus on what the writer wants from you; editing for overuse of semicolons when the writer wants feedback about the readability wastes both your time. Still, if the writer is requesting grammatical-level editing and you find the writing incomprehensible, it would be unkind not to let the writer know.

I recently heard the suggestion to review material on a smartphone because the tiny window of text is what many readers will see as they read. It’s also a good idea to print out the material before editing it so that you can get the big picture and see the flow from paragraph to paragraph and page to page. If possible, include comments to explain your edits so the writer understands your intent.

And be positive. This means more than using cheery words to propose changes. It means also noting things you find good about the writing. For one of my books, I had an editor who provided extensive edits (sort of like this). Every edit was valid, but chapter after chapter of focusing on what needs changing was demoralizing. I’d have greatly appreciated an occasional “great idea!” or “well said”!

I wrote this article knowing that my TechWell editor will take her editing pen (or online equivalent) to it and what you read will be much better than what I submitted. Thanks, Beth!

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