Editor No-Nos

I naturally talk a lot about editing, the benefit of editors, the healing power their hands provide against the sickness that is unclear and troubled writing. But it’s not all sunshine and happiness. There are editor comments I’ve seen that have driven me up the wall as either a writer or product developer. Here are some things to not do as an editor.

These first two come from a couple friends who game me some notes on the Mythender Character Creation draft.[1] I really appreciate their comments[2], because they’ve made me see what was in my head and what I was poorly explaining. That said, these two comments sparked the idea of this post.

From the fourth page of the first revision, under Loremaster:

You are intellect and experience made manifest. There is no such thing as chance to you; when you walk onto the field of battle, you already know how it will end. And you will demonstrate violently that fact to Norden. You are philosopher, scholar, tactician, warrior-poet. As a Mythender, you understand that your true power comes from confidence and sharpness of mind.

Comment #1: Yuck. “violently demonstrate” or “demonstrate that fact to Norden violently.”

Comment #2: *cough* knowledge? *cough*

At this point, I was in hour three or four of revising, having worked through comments from several people. (Some of whom also flagged those spots as needing work.) My mind was a bit tired, and I was pressing on with coffee in hand.

Then I got to that first comment. “Yuck” set me off. It might not have in the first hour, when my brain was fresh and my spirits high. And this is from a friend, who I know isn’t an asshole. But right then and there, I had to take a few-minute break. I went back, saw that I had already changed it in a previous pass, so I moved onto the next comment.

Again, I was set off. This reminded me of another project that I helped develop, where the editor was coy to his and our detriment. This comment, “*cough* knowledge? *cough*” doesn’t tell me shit. It doesn’t tell me why “knowledge” is a better replacement than the text I had there, “confidence and sharpness of mind.” The way it was delivered made it an antagonistic comment. I muttered “fuck you” and moved on, because my gut reaction was to see that as a weak suggestion (which, a day later, I think still is).

Luckily, the rest of the edits didn’t have this snark, but it did make me a hostile reader. That’s a very shitty place to be when reading someone’s edits. When that happens, you have to take breaks from reading the redlines more often, and the ability to read charitably goes out the window. And it could have been avoided with:

  • “violently demonstrate” or “demonstrate that fact to Norden violently.”
  • “knowledge”?
My revisions would have been the same, because I did take the time to calm down and reconsider. But I wouldn’t have wasted time being frustrated.

Like I said, this reminded me of some other editor no-nos. These ones will have to be constructed from memory, though.

From a project some years ago:


Comment: huh?

My writer was exceedingly pissed off at this, and called me up to rant. I commented later in the draft, as well as in email, the following: “An editor’s job is to give clear comments.”

“Huh?” doesn’t tell us a damned thing. It doesn’t tell me why you think something’s unclear or what you think it might mean to a reader. And it’s presented in a way that just makes you look like a half-assed fuck. Even “This is unclear” is miles better, even if you don’t follow it up with “Do you mean XXX?” or some other query or actionable comment.

The last no-no on my mind comes from a project a bit ago where the editor was giving notes about the game’s design, referencing other games he had read for rules changes. Others of us on staff were getting annoyed, because the comments were unhelpful; the editor was decent at rules language editing, but didn’t know the game well enough to comment on its design nor was hired for that. It was grating to read poor, unplaytested comments. The damage to the rapport was lost as we kept dealing with that, as the writer response to returned drafts was “how much of this will be a waste of my time?” So we eventually let that editor go.

As a game editor, it’s easy to get into a space where you become a backseat designer. But unless you’re asked to do that, check that shit at the door. There’s a blurry middle ground where you’re involved in the language design, but when you’re commenting about how a rule may or may not work, that isn’t the damned time to do so. There’s a different mental process between rules revision and language/text revision, so having to deal with both at the same time, when it’s not asked for, is a detriment to the process.

I’m not saying to be utterly sterile in your comments, but watch when you’re adding words that make your comment something far easier to be frustrated with.

Editor, edit thyself.

– Ryan

[1] Which I’m in the middle of revising.

[2] And perhaps have a funny way of showing it by pointing out what I’m about to, but he’s cool with it.


10 Responses to Editor No-Nos

  1. Logan Bonner says:

    I find myself writing snarky comments when I’m tired or I’ve been going through particularly rough text. I find with editing it’s especially important to take breaks or work on other tasks to keep from getting in that mindset.

    It’s especially dangerous when I see the same error over and over, because for me it piles up the frustration. The problem is that the author really needs the mistake corrected just the once, with pretty simple “Same problem as [first instance]” to make corrections.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Totally. I hear you there. It’s similarly perilous to write & revise when tired.

      When I see the same error over and over, I bite my tongue and am glad I have copy and paste. “Repeated error: ERROR. See XXX note on page YY.” Or something like that.

      When I know the author isn’t going to read the comments, because it’s going to a developer to be reworked, I have been known to say things like “The author does not understand how XXX rules work.” I don’t like saying that, but it’s the clearest way I can communicate why sections need heavy revision by someone who does understand whatever XXX is.

      – Ryan

  2. Ben Kessler says:

    Ryan, that’s an interesting point of view. Usually, people who edit my writing know I edit for a living and seem to avoid being snarky. I also try to keep snark out of my comments, even when the writer’s words are almost nonsensical (if for no other reason than that it’s hypocritical to expect people to accept they need an editor if you expect them to be able to flawlessly self-edit).
    I am, however, guilty of some of the other things you mentioned. I have dropped a few “huh” bombs on people and maybe even a lone question mark. Thanks for giving us this perspective from a writer/editor. I’ll be making my comments a bit less vague from now on, methinks.
    On a related note, it bugs the heck out of me when people hypercorrect split infinitives and sentence-ending prepositions. Sometimes they are ok. That’s just the way it is.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Most of them do, but as Logan points out above, people can be prone to it due to fatigue. I also tend to see it when people thing a sense of familiarity with the person they’re editing means they should be a bit looser. (Though, familiarity in conversation doesn’t mean familiarity in the work process, of course.)

      Being on both sides of the fence has been illuminating, as has being a manager dealing with writers and editors on a project. I’ve only been doing this for a few years, but the books I’ve worked on have given me a hell of an education — one that keeps happening. So I’m happy to keep blogging about this stuff. :)

      – Ryan

  3. Tom Cadorette says:

    The one thing I learned early on as an editor is diplomacy and consideration: always remember that the text in question is more often than not as important to the author as their own children, and you should therefore treat it as if you were talking to a parent about their child. You wouldn’t be vague about feedback or insult a parent about their child… well, you might, but you won’t engender cooperation and good feeling from them about it, that’s for sure.

  4. Max Baskin says:

    You make some excellent points, Ryan. I’m snarky as hell given the slightest opportunity, but that has no place in editing. After all, I’m going to be pissing off the author enough with my anal retentive attention to the language without being an ass on top of that.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Totally. I’m snarky as hell too, which is part of why I still hold a high ranking if you google “mouthy fuck”. But there’s a time & place for snark — both involving booze. :)

      – Ryan

  5. JDCorley says:

    To me, “huh?” is way worse than “Yuck”. “Yuck” expresses something pretty clearly to me: The phrase does not taste good in the mouth. It means I didn’t do anything wrong but it doesn’t hit the mark. (It also means it’s a matter of taste, so if I don’t change it, it’s fine.) Of course if the editor didn’t mean that the phrase doesn’t “taste” right, then it wouldn’t get across the point, so it’s probably best to avoid it even if I wouldn’t get POed at “Yuck.”

    “huh?” I might get POed at.

    Good post.

  6. I find that I’m much more snarky when I’m not dealing with the actual writers – if I know my comments are only going back to a PM, I don’t always make a huge effort to be polite (although I always try to be clear about why something bothers me). This is, as has been mentioned above, often a result of being tired and of encountering the same issues over and over again.

    I much prefer actually working with the writers, though. And in that case, as Ryan’s mentioned before, editing is part of a conversation. If you’re discussing something and you say “You’re a total idiot and make no sense” then you can’t be surprised when the person you’re talking to dismisses you as a jerk, even if you had a good point to make.

    Like discussions on the internet, if you imagine saying it to someone’s face, you’re much more likely to say things politely and constructively. Ideally edits are your side of a conversation and you need to remember you’re talking to a person who’s very personally invested in the topic.

    • JDCorley says:

      A conversation is sooooo much better for a lot (not all) of editing. Yet you would not believe how many people simply don’t want to invest the time to sit down and talk to me for the 30-45 minutes or so a normal project takes to discuss. (No smart remarks from the peanut gallery.)