A Few Tips to Editors

Say you’re working on someone else’s manuscript, either as an editor or as a peer reviewer, and you’re marking it up to give back to them. And let’s further say you’re using something like Track Changes in Word on InDesign, where your alterations & comments will be visible. Here are some things to consider when you’re doing so:

Establish yourself as the writer’s ally. You cannot predict the mood that the writer will be in, so don’t be a cockbite about your edits. Be clear, but also speak to the writer as if you were sitting right next to her. Make it clear you’re on their side.

When you point out confusion, try rephrasing. To highlight something and say “confusing” can work, especially if you have a working relationship where you expect that to start a conversation with the writer as she reads your comments. However, if you can, try to rephrase what’s being said. That makes the form of confuse more clear to the writer.

Point out the good stuff, too. This isn’t just to make the writer feel good (though that can help with the first point), but also to show your frame of mind and highlight things that you would like to see preserved during revision. Sometimes whole lines or paragraphs will get cut during revision because the writer is re-examining the text, and if you don’t call something that, that could get the axe.

Don’t be shy about changing text. Part of your gig, unless you’re just proofreading, is to rework things. It’s up to the writer to approve them, so don’t be shy. Maybe what you did is what the writer meant to say, or close enough and better enough to just need some tweaking. Maybe it’s off, but it shows where you were confused and didn’t realize it, pointing out a place where changes need to happen. And maybe it’ll be reverted — that’s part of why we use Track Changes.

Substantial changes should include comments. Did you move paragraphs around? Comment as to why. Are you adding in entire sentences? Comment as to why. Explain to the writer what was going on in your mind when you made these changes, and that helps show the writer where deficiencies lie, not just that something was clearly wrong to you.

Be open to dialogue. Edits are opportunities to learn & grow. Sometimes you’ll make a comment that confuses a writer because your understanding of the craft is different from hers.

Include high-level notes. At the end, at the very beginning, or separately in email, discuss the work as a whole. That’s a good place to talk about structure and things to consider throughout the entire process of revision (rather than just line-by-line processing).


These are some tips off the top of my head. If you have some to share, please comment!

– Ryan


3 Responses to A Few Tips to Editors

  1. My thoughts:

    1. You’re side-by-side, not on a pedestal. The editor-writer relationship is at its heart a partnership, with multiple people working at the same goal – getting the manuscript published. Writers are conditioned/scared into thinking editors are obstacles, and that the process is going to be difficult, but really, people are just working together (I wish I learned this earlier)

    2. How you explain is as critical as what you explain. When I edit something, I might write “Crunchier here please” and while that makes sense to me in my head (I’m asking for some more substantial description and variation in word choice….either evocatively or dynamically), it’s my ability to explain that to the writer (both what ‘crunchy’ means and what context-specifically that looks like) that will get those desired changes to the page. I can say “Be crunchier” all I want, but until I give better detail myself, I can’t expect it to be there.

    3. There’s no “right number” of edits per page. Okay, that’s sort of not true, because over time you learn that every writer has a style and that style lends itself to a routine of things to work on, but every manuscript is different, and sometimes you just take out the commas and some adverbs, and other times you’re chopping out half the chapter because it doesn’t move the story along. Don’t tea-total (tee-total? I never know), always serve the manuscript’s interests.

    4. You’re an amplifier and a clarifier, not the writer. If you come across a particularly messy, poorly written or flat out I-don’t-like-this manuscript, the temptation is to do it yourself, because after all, you’re the editor and you have the ability to change stuff, right? But you’re EDITING, not writing. It’s one thing to rewrite a sentence or two so that the point comes across, it’s another entirely different thing to write something else in its place. Your job is take what’s there (either the ideas, the exact text or the text buried and needing excavation) and bring it into its best state. You would do it totally differently? Then write your own.

    I’m sure I’ll have more….

  2. John Taber says:

    I’m a newbie editor but…

    Don’t be afraid to ask your writer questions. These could be about layout, structure, etc.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Yeah, layout discussions early one are always…interesting. We just had one on Fate Core pointing out that we need some constructions in order to promote different text flows. We’ve got the task of trying to imagine the rendered page, while not being the person who will render said page. (Which has turned into some short conversations with Fred Hicks about making sure we can do some layout bits in Core.)

      – Ryan