Tag Archives: emilycapo

What Good Editors Do


There isn’t a writer in the world who hasn’t felt the pang of poorly edited work.

Whether it is a student paper declaring nebulously in red ink, “Be Clearer” (big help, thanks), or an essay that reads like someone else wrote it entirely, all writers endure unhelpful feedback from time to time.

The irony is that most writers are also guilty of dishing out unhelpful feedback. When we edit someone else’s work, the temptation is to see it through the lens of how we would do it, and this creates a hindrance to editing well. This is not to say that the writers are not talented; they might be able to turn a phrase prettier than a pansy, but that means very little when tasked with editing someone else’s product. It comes down to this:


Obviously, there is overlap between writers and editors. Many writers can be great editors and editors can be great because they understand the experience of writing. But we are talking about a Venn diagram here–two separate categories of thinkers who only occasionally overlap.

Why so little overlap? Let’s turn back time to two courses I took in college, the worst and the best. The worst class was taught by a professional writer-in-residence. I had read her books and they were awesome, so I arrived to the first class eager to learn. Twenty minutes in it was obvious she had no idea why she was an accomplished writer. She had very little to say about style, technique, research strategies, or successfully engaging an audience. What she achieved had been through blind instinct, and she therefore had little instruction to endow in spite of her considerable experience.

By contrast, the best course began its first day by illustrating how readers and writers think differently. Writers set out to organize ideas and get them down on paper in pretty arrangements. The difficulty is that ideas are nouns…things…stuff. Readers read for meaning; they want to know what’s happening, what’s moving, what’s changing. Readers watch for verbs. Given this, we were told that the key to great writing lies in the writer’s ability to write the way readers read best, i.e. through action and change.

Extrapolating from both of these experiences, I see two pillars of great editing: first, great editors understand why a piece of writing works or doesn’t work, and second, they successfully bridge the gap between how writers write and readers read.

For this first pillar, editors need to be aware simultaneously of the big picture points, the minutia, and the relationship between the two. It is this balance that allows them to make wise decisions about any changes they make to someone else’s work. It serves no purpose to change something at the sentence level unless it serves the paragraph’s aims. It makes no sense to delete or move a paragraph unless there are demonstrable reasons to do so. Good editing points to concrete reasons for why changes A, B, and C achieve the writer’s goals.

Notice: the writer’s goals. The writer most likely had good purpose in setting out to write, whether or not he executed his goals well. This brings me to the second pillar of good editing: the editor is the writer’s advocate, not his competitor. The editor stewards the writer’s voice. She is an ambassador of the writer’s words, making sure they resonate with the audience. Ambassadors say things their country’s president would say, not what they would say if they were president. They only tailor the message if and only if the audience will struggle to understand.

So how to become a good editor? There are several practical steps to take.

  1. When sitting down to edit someone else’s work, remember that you are not rewriting it, you are editing it. This is an entirely separate skill from writing, a completely different hat to wear. You will be using many of the similar tools of a writer, but you will NOT apply your own voice and you will NOT change things just because that is how you would do it. Instead, you will focus on strategy, reason, and resonance with the audience on the writers’ behalf. Make sure you know the reasons behind everything you change. If you don’t have a reason, don’t change it. 
  2. When you get a new piece to edit, refrain from making any changes until you’ve read the entire piece. Sit on your hands if you need to. But don’t touch it until you’ve read it as a reader would read it. Imagine it were already published, in a newspaper or magazine or book. Imagine you were simply consuming it…how would you take it? What confuses you? What made you slow down? Keep a mental–or physical–note of difficulties you experienced as a reader. Then on your second go through, return to these areas and ask yourself, “What might make it smoother or more persuasive?” Stick to Occam’s Razor as much as you can, as often times a simple move like cutting a word or rearranging some sentences will solve the problem much better than trying to rewrite it without the writer’s notes in front of you. 
  3. Ask the writer questions. Don’t think you need to solve his problems blindly. If you are having difficulty divining the writer’s intention with a sentence or concept, just ask him about it. You are partners, after all. Ask him to rephrase things, or to explain it as if to a novice. Often both you and the writer will stumble across simpler ways of communicating ideas than either of you thought of in the first place. 


To sum up, editing is not about passing the torch to another writer. It is an entirely different skillset. If you have a good editor in your life, go and give them a hug. And a cookie.


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Photo Fridays, #3

Continuing with the Chicago theme…

I have always had a love-hate relationship with Chicago. I think a lot of people do. There is a scene in The West Wing where President Bartlet asks Leo, “What is it with people from Chicago that they are always really proud to be from Chicago but when I see them they are anywhere BUT Chicago?” Leo just responds, “You wouldn’t understand. It’s a Chicago thing.” Many times Josh and I have discussed the paradox wherein we can be so ready to leave and yet so grateful for where we are. Even when I bring this up with my Dad, he says, “I know. Chicago is a strange place–the weather, the politics, the (as he loves to put it) ‘topographical wasteland apart from the lake’. But somehow, I was always happy there.”

On the one hand, Chicago is far from an ideal place to live. Spring usually refuses to start until May, the people keep voting crooks into office, and the potholes can swallow your car if you’re not careful. If you want to go shopping downtown, be prepared to pay a 12% sales tax. If you want to get out of the city, just give up because there is nowhere that interesting to go within a few hours drive, and certainly no hills to climb. If you want to go east and west in the city, brace yourself to wait for a bus for an hour in negative temperatures or, if you have a car, brace yourself to sit in traffic behind EVERY red light on your route. Come to expect that, whenever you see the word “Chicagoland” in the national news, it’s never a good thing.

Despite these setbacks, it is still very strange to think of leaving Chicago for a new home. My brother, a San Francisco resident, recently surprised me by saying he preferred Chicago to San Francisco. “Why?” I asked, incredulously. He said that people were nicer, the vibe was more chill, and the food is hard to beat. All of these things are definitely true. I have made such excellent friends in this city. So much of what you need is at your fingertips, so you don’t get stressed about finding ingredients for a recipe or getting the right book from the library. And the food. Oh the food. In Chicago, the food IS the entertainment. Josh already did a search for Ethiopian restaurants in Nashville. There is one. It better be good.

Chicago can also dress up nice for pictures.











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