Grace Aldridge Foster is unique among my How We Edit(ors): she’s the only one I’ve met in person. Over coffee a few weeks ago at an indie bookstore in NW DC, we chatted about writing, our different kinds of editing work, teaching, and our shared ties to Georgetown University. (I taught English there from 2006-2012 and now work as a social media strategist and consultant for their Connected Academics project; Grace did her Master’s in the English Department.) Soon after, I happily did a Q&A for her blog, Bold Type. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter—she’s still under 200 followers, and she deserves more.
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?
I enjoy working on personal essays, and I’m good at it. But that process is very different than the way I edit professional documents like proposals, web sites, instructional guides, etc. Both are satisfying in different ways.
With essays and articles, there’s a lot of creativity involved. It feels like you’re creating a puzzle and figuring out how to solve it simultaneously. (Hmm…where have we heard that before?) The options are endless, and that’s exciting; working with a writer to unlock the most perfect, most engaging version of their piece is fun and energizing. I like it.
But, there’s a lot of uncertainty involved in that process, too. What you like and what a writer likes might be different; and what both of you like might be different from what readers like. What one reader likes is different from what another reader likes. So, writing and editing essays, blogs, articles, and think pieces also feels risky.
On the other hand, it is so certain, so supremely satisfying, to work on professional documents that might typically be considered dry or uninteresting. Using white space, bolding, reading level analysis, headings, and paragraph breaks to make a document instantly more usable is so much less subjective; you know you’re improving a document, you don’t just feel like you are. There are absolute, measurable standards for effectiveness in business and technical writing, and that feels good. It is more science than art, and I approach it accordingly.
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?
First, I read the whole thing straight through. If it’s a really long document with multiple sections, I skim the whole thing instead, paying special attention to items like the table of contents, an executive summary or introduction, headings, and the beginning and end of each section. It’s essential to figure out what you’re working with before you do any work. As I do my first read-through, I make a list of any patterns I notice and any questions I have. Sometimes I need to ask my POC or the writer about those patterns before I change anything.
What kinds of editing tools do you use regularly? Find and replace? Specific macros or software? Spellcheck and/or custom dictionaries? How do these tools help with your plain language approach to editing?
I use find and replace frequently, and I run the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics often. You can enable F-K in Microsoft Word, but I also often paste sentences, paragraphs, or entire texts into external programs like Hemingway Editor and the Difficult & Extraneous Word Finder. These tools give me a quick diagnostic overview of what I’m working with at the outset, and they help me measure my progress toward my goals and my client’s goals for a document. They’re also useful because I don’t always use Microsoft Word for editing projects; in fact, I usually use Google Docs. I find it really valuable to see previous versions of the document with my edit history, and I think Suggest mode in Google Docs is a lot more user-friendly than Track Changes in Word.
I almost always have a browser window open to the Plain Language Guidelines as I edit, too.
You’re unique compared to my previous How We Edit(ors) in that you actively teach editing too. How do you go about it? What are your strategies for teaching editing from a plain-language perspective?
Audience above anything. Every document has a job to do—even if that job is bringing joy or sparking a love of learning in a young person! While great fiction expands minds, though, professional writing does the opposite. I like to tell my clients I’m in the business of “mind control.” It’s creepy, but true.
So, when I’m teaching other people how to self-edit, I’m constantly reminding them to put themselves in the shoes of the person who will be reading or using the document—whether it’s an email, a proposal, a newsletter, or a statement of work. Sometimes I even make them draw their audience! If every document has a job to do, then every document can succeed or fail at its job. I teach my students to identify the job of each document and then make the document work.
I also teach clarity over grammar. Very few people write in “perfect” English. And very many people feel self-conscious about that. They overcompensate by writing overly formal, awkward, hard-to-understand sentences. Get over it! If you can write clear sentences that your reader is sure to understand, you’re on the right track. Don’t worry so much about how you come across; worry about whether your audience can do what they need to do—or what you want them to do—with your documents.
I’m a big fan of learning from mistakes, so: What have you had to learn the hard way about the editing process, about yourself as an editor, and about yourself as a teacher of editors?
Well, for one thing, I’m a perfectionist. And not always in an admirable way. Sometimes in a neurotic, grumpy way. I’ve realized that I tend to get distracted by things that don’t really matter—like perfect symmetry in tables or the exact shade of grey in a text box—or at least not to the extent that I want them to matter. And I really latch onto those things, forgetting for a time what my actual project is.
I tell my students all the time that they need to keep an eye on the big picture, focus on the audience, prioritize usability…but I have a hard time following my own advice. I hope this makes me a more compassionate teacher, overall. But sometimes it just means I spend many more hours on a project than I can bill my client for.
Other times, I’m super loosey-goosey about editing. (See above: “Get over it!”) I need to find a comfortable, solid middle ground. I’m working on it.
If you want to participate and show off your editing methods, let me know via Twitter or email (firstname.lastname@example.org).