The Ten Commandments for Editors

I’ve come a long way from copy editing my college newspaper for coffee money, when my main rule was don’t let another “recieve” go to print (yeah, that happened). I possess more technique now, thank God, and editing copy from novels to law books to financial articles feels like home. In many ways, I’m finally living my dream: I make my entire living by editing and writing, and no, I don’t need to wear orange hats on the weekends. When people ask how to be a successful editor, I recite this creed.

Thou shalt slow down. It’s easy to read and read quickly, but that’s not editing. Look at every word and element and question the hell out of them.

Thou shalt cut. All—and I mean all—writing is better with a few casualties. Tighten up copy by killing deadwood and being concise. Using the most direct presentation is the difference between being an amateur and being a pro.

Thou shalt love Merriam-Webster. “Jackanapes” isn’t spelled how you’d expect, “efficacy” is a noun, and you can learn a lot about hyphens by using the dictionary.

Thou shalt love your style book. And I mean love. Your style book is your lifeline, your bible, your guide. Life has no meaning without it.

Thou shalt advocate for readers. You’re the gatekeeper between authors and their readers. Adjust your editing to specific audiences, and represent them with honor.

Thou shalt look up everything. (Like “shalt.”) Check facts, proper names, spelling, homophones, treatments of elements like titles and ranges, and tricky spots. Don’t assume anything. Big revelations for me this month: According to the Chicago Manual of Style, writers need to follow “etc” with periods, identify ranges of years like 2014–15, and not join words like “ticket taker” with hyphens.

Thou shalt always complete more than one pass. No editor produces a clean product after only one read, and sometimes we insert errors with our tweaking. Be thorough and read that business again.

Thou shalt know your weaknesses. I’m the Comma Mama, but I’m actually not the best speller or ever quite sure about “whom.” Put in the extra time and research to make up the difference.

Thou shalt query with love. Authors receive critiques better when editors also demonstrate knowledge of what’s working, so pair bad news with some good. Be likeable but smart, forgiving but helpful, diplomatic but not pandering. Use language like “I would love to see…” or “Readers may misunderstand…” A spoonful of sugar helps our edits go down productively.

Thou shalt embrace comma drama. There is much bloodletting over these wily marks. No one understands them, and many good editors have died battling independent and dependent clauses, comma splices, and it-looks-better attitudes. Fight the good fight, troops.

Editing may seem tedious to others, but editors—true editors—love it as much as some people love their kids. Luckily, editing technical experts are also necessary for clean, intelligent, and consistent copy. Editing helps authors and publications be their best selves—and it also helps editors be ours.

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