The First Commandment of editing is the same as that for doctors: First, do no harm.
So says Daniel Sosnoski, aka @MedEditor on Twitter. Daniel writes, commissions, assigns, and edits articles about science, medicine, and the business of medical practice. (See his website.) He’s also a wellspring of editing advice and experience. I first talked to Daniel for a blog post I did for The Professor Is In back in 2014 when I was still getting my bearings after leaving academia. Since joining Twitter in 2013, I’ve learned a ton from him, Karen Conlin, Benjamin Dreyer, and others who’ve been editing for decades. Whether you’re new to editing or just want to grow your editorial network, follow these people. You’ll learn a ton.
His answers to my questions were so good that I’ll let him take the wheel for the rest of this post:
What kind of editing do you do? What is your ideal kind of project to edit? How do you handle this type of project differently compared to a more “basic” or utilitarian one?
Getting into the publishing business isn’t easy. The competition for editing desks is intense, and you’re up against the smartest people in the world. So my general advice to those wanting join the ranks is the same thing Philip Gove told his principal editors during the creation of Webster’s Third: Read everything. Nothing is beneath your attention. Romance novels, bus schedules, weather forecasts—study them all. Bottle labels, obituaries, tombstones, news articles, critiques, résumés, rejection letters, recipes, mysteries; if it’s in print, it’s your business to know what “the usual thing” is. Most of my career has been in general line editing. I don’t have a favorite kind of thing to work on in the sense that a surgeon doesn’t have a favorite type of injury to repair. When I sit down to edit something, whatever it is, I’ll draw on my experience of how this sort of thing normally looks and test it against that standard. This doesn’t mean bringing text to a baseline—far from it.
If it’s unusual, if it’s creative, if it shines…you don’t fiddle with it. The task is to spot problems in any shape or form in which they might arise.
After some 15 years working as a general editor, I moved to specialize in the medical space, which is a form of technical editing. Your mileage may vary, but I’ve found that if you can secure a foothold in a niche like medicine, pharmacology, computer science, governmental publications—anything where there is both a need for editorial expertise and a large amount of funding available for it—you can secure a good income and job security.
Bring us into your process. How do you start work on (1) a book (2) an article or essay and (3) an early- or mid-process draft vs. a near-final one? What are the first few things you do?
Whatever I’m given to work on, the first task is to understand the desired result. For the past decade, I’ve mostly worked on general medical articles, case studies, research reports, and clinical observations. Also, I’ve dealt with many texts about legal matters, finance, and human resource management. In most cases, I’ll look at the first paragraph or two and try to grasp what the lede is. Is the author establishing the subject matter immediately? If not, he or she is probably using up too much runway. The reader likely won’t have patience for extensive wind-up exhortatory. I’ll look to move the rationale for the text as close to the beginning as possible so the reader can decide whether to engage with it.
One fault common among many writers is what I call “the burnishing of credentials.” This is extended self-referential exposition to establish authority. For example, an article about English might begin with, “I’m a language expert. Authors fear me and my red pen because I’m ruthless about spotting stray commas and dangling modifiers. I’m a stickler for punctuation and….” This can go on for a long while. Excise it. The touchdown can also go on too long. And between the intro and conclusion, a great many “in order to” and “be sure that” types of phrases get clipped, so that in most cases a standard article will be trimmed around 20 percent.
After the tightening up, I’ll check facts, sources, and quotations and then correct anything that’s amiss. Redundancies, faults in idiom—all such are addressed. The final result should be a concise, clean read that invites the reader to delve in and absorb.
What kinds of editing tools do you use regularly?: Find and replace? Specific macros or software? Spellcheck and/or custom dictionaries?
The term “Cupertino effect” refers to a certain fault that existed in early versions of Microsoft Word. If you left autocorrect on, it had a tendency to change the word “cooperation” to “Cupertino,” and similar errors that you’ll see today if someone texts you something odd and then corrects it in a following message with the comment, “Damn autocorrect!” Global search-and-replace routines can introduce errors like that, so I move through a document viewing each change and approving or skipping it in turn. “Find and replace all” is uncomfortable for me, even with matters like changing two spaces after a period to one.
It isn’t easy, but I highly recommend setting up an exclusion dictionary for MS Word. The instructions are easy to find online. You use a text editor like Notepad and follow the path to C/Users/[your name]/AppData/Roaming/Microsoft/UProof. Then, you can set Notepad’s open file type to “all files” and you’ll see a file named “ExcludeDictionaryEN0409.lex” (for American English). Open it and add a list of paragraph-delineated words you want Word to flag as incorrect. Visit Twitter and search for the hashtag “#spellcheckcannotsaveyou” for common examples of why you want Word to point out instances of words like “pubic” and “massage.” Here’s what mine looks like:
Close and save the file. Now, if any of the words you added appear in a document, they’ll be flagged and you can approve them as-is or correct them. All the editors who failed to catch “pubic school” learned about this trick the hard way. Here’s how this looks on my screen:
MS Word’s macros are a powerful feature. You can learn the basics with Jack Lyon’s Macro Cookbook; you can also search online for Paul Beverley’s Macros for Editors. Some of the ones I’ve set up are “hyphenate all selected words” and “un-embed footnotes.” You can also turn on the macro recorder and create your own that way. Anything involving a series of menu selections and clicks is a candidate for automating. I have lots of hot-key assignments, and I keep a slip of paper beside my monitor with all of them listed.
SpellCheck and GrammarCheck are safety nets, and I think it’s unwise to turn them off. They occasionally make silly suggestions, but every now and then they’ll catch something you missed. Many editors I know love PerfectIt. I’m not in the novel editing game, but if I were I’d buy PerfectIt in a heartbeat.
I’m a big fan of learning from mistakes, so: What have you had to learn the hard way about the editing process and about yourself as an editor?
Editing is a difficult occupation, but one of its advantages is that, barring illness, you get better the longer you do it. Youth takes a back seat to the strict taskmaster of experience. You’ll make all sorts of mistakes as you learn the craft, so keep an editing checklist and add to it anything that slipped past you. Mine begins with “check author’s name.”
Somehow, even though I always wanted be an editor and studied hard for it from adolescence onward, I picked up an amazing number of bogus and spurious ideas about usage and style. Un-learning these is a lifetime project. The First Commandment of editing is the same as that for doctors: First, do no harm. If a writer has made an error of some sort and you don’t catch it, that’s a shame. But if the author wrote something correct and you meddled with it to create an error where none had existed, that’s the worst form of editorial malpractice imaginable.
Try to learn something new every day, and never stop honing your edge. No matter how good you are, you can be better.
If you want to participate and show off your editing methods, let me know via Twitter or email (firstname.lastname@example.org).