An American Editor

September 23, 2013

The Twin Pillars of Editing

The twin pillars of editing are the thinking and the mechanical. Every editing assignment includes these twin pillars; they are fundamental as well as foundational.

The thinking pillar is what attracts people to the profession. Should it be who or whom? Does the sentence, paragraph, chapter make any sense? Does the author’s point come through clearly or have the author’s word choices obfuscated the message? The thinking pillar is what professional editors live for; it is often why we became editors. The semantic debates thrill us; the ability to rework prose to make it flow better is like an opiate.

Alas, the thinking pillar alone is insufficient to provide us with an income. Every manuscript requires the mechanical pillar and, to earn our wage, editors need to tackle that mechanical pillar.

The mechanical pillar includes many different functions, such as cleaning up extra spaces, changing incorrect dashes to correct dashes, incorrect punctuation to correct punctuation, and, perhaps most importantly, incorrect words to correct words and inconsistencies to consistencies. Many of these things can be, should be, and are done using macros.

Since 1984, I have earned my living as an editor; since the early 1990s, freelance editing has been my only source of income. I am pleased to say that I have made (and continue to make) an excellent income as an editor. The reason I have done well financially is that I have looked at the mechanical pillar of editing as a puzzle to be solved. Essentially, to be profitable and to make editing enjoyable, I want to minimize the time I need to spend on the mechanical aspects of editing and maximize the time I spend on thinking about what I am editing, while minimizing the time I need to spend on any single project.

The professional editor is part philosopher and part engineer. In our case, the engineer makes possible the philosopher. The mechanical pillar, which is the engineer’s role to tackle, often is the part of editing that most slows us down. It is the most difficult part of our work in the sense that it is difficult to find efficient, productive ways to speed the mechanical aspects. That is the function that macro tools try to fulfill, but we still end up doing individual searches and replaces to fix the rote things that the macros we use fail to fix.

The more financially successful an editor is, the more likely it is that the editor has mastered techniques that quickly eliminate some, if not most or all, of the tasks that fall under the mechanical pillar of editing. As I have stated many times before, mastering the mechanical aspects is why I created EditTools and why I use PerfectIt and Editorium macro programs. It is not that these programs eliminate the mechanical aspects of editing; rather, they reduce those tasks.

The remaining task is generally the applying of styles or codes to elements of the manuscripts. Unfortunately, this cannot be done automatically; I must read the manuscript to know whether something should be coded as a quote, a bulleted item, or something else. This is where, were we to apply a Venn diagram, the thinking and the mechanical pillars overlap.

The smaller I can make the overlap and mechanical areas of the Venn diagram, the larger the remaining area for the thinking pillar. The larger the thinking pillar, the more enjoyable the project. But this area is also the area in which I can best control my time.

Professional editors soon learn that there are some editorial questions that could be debated for hours and when the debate halts, still have not achieved a nondebatable resolution. In other words, many more hours could be spent on the point in question. Consequently, as we have honed our skills via the grindstone of experience, we have also developed a sense of how to best spend our time on the thinking pillar of editing.

We learn to stop debating endlessly whether to use serial commas or not, or whether which can be used if not preceded by a comma, or whether about is a true equivalent of approximately, or, my favorite, whether since and because are wholly interchangeable in all circumstances. (Another of my favorites is whether it is permissible to use due to in lieu of all its possible contextual meanings expanded.) Once we stop debating these issues, we begin to edge their resolution closer to the mechanical pillar.

If we decide that since can only be used in the sense of time, it becomes mechanical to change since to because or as in nontime usage. This becomes one more thing that liberates the thinking pillar to spend more time on those issues that require thinking skills. It also means that a little less time needs to be spent on the manuscript, unless we devote that time savings to the thinking pillar.

The point is that what editors need to seek to do, ultimately, is to increase what belongs as part of the mechanical pillar, lessen what falls within the overlap, and increase the time available for the thinking pillar. The more items that fall under the mechanical pillar and that can be macroized, the more income and profit an editor can make (assuming the editor is charging by a method other than the hourly method), because we can control the time we devote to the thinking pillar better than we can the time we devote to the mechanical pillar. The thinking pillar is like a bubble that can expand and contract as needed or as conditions warrant. The mechanical pillar lacks similar flexibility because there is a set amount of time required to accomplish all of the mechanical and overlap tasks. We reduce the time by using tools like macros, but then we increase the time when we add additional tasks or tasks that cannot be macroized.

If we think of editing as built on these twin pillars, we can make strides toward increasing our productivity, efficiency, and profitability.


  1. What if “since” sounds better than “because”? What if it’s in dialogue? Or are you writing only about nonfiction editing?


    Comment by Alison Parker — September 23, 2013 @ 8:54 am | Reply

    • I didn’t realize that “sounds better” was an editorial decision-making standard. But if it is, then I suppose that would be the basis upon which any decision would be made. Dialogue is always an exception to any grammatical rule.


      Comment by americaneditor — September 23, 2013 @ 9:58 am | Reply

  2. In my experience, whether to use “since” only in its time sense is a stylistic decision that depends on the client and project (and sometimes the subject matter). Same with which/that, due to, series comma, and the like. I think this is the point Rich was making. Once you (or your client) decide on these sorts of stylistic preferences, you don’t have to stop and think about them each time. There is some thinking involved, of course, to determine whether the case you’re looking at falls under the particular style rule, but once you’ve decided on the style rule, you will follow it throughout the project. This is different from hard-and-fast grammar rules like subject-verb agreement or how to spell the word it’s/its, which have already been decided by authoritative sources that we’ve agreed to follow.

    And of course dialogue in fiction is an exception, though you’d want the characters to talk in a way that is appropriate to who they are.


    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — September 23, 2013 @ 11:09 am | Reply

  3. I have no experience with macros, and I’ve looked at EditTools and find it extremely intimidating. Basically, I don’t understand how to use it even after reading about it. I would love to take advantage of the time savings that macros offer. Is there a very basic online tutorial you can recommend?


    Comment by Ruth — September 23, 2013 @ 1:11 pm | Reply

    • Don’t be intimidated; EditTools macros are really easy to use. The best place to learn about them is at where most of the macros are explained. I suggest that while looking at the information there, you also have the trial version available. Then play with the macros. Except for the information at wordsnSync, there is no other tutorial available.

      Most importantly, you need to meet macros head on if you want to increase your editing efficiency. A good source for information about macros is Jack Lyon’s Editorium ( and Jack’s books on macros that are available at his website. If you are coming to this year’s Communication Central conference in Rochester, Jack and I will both be there and would be happy to take a little bit of time to help you out.


      Comment by americaneditor — September 23, 2013 @ 1:22 pm | Reply

  4. For an excellent account of editing as thinking, see Helen Hazen’s essay in The American Scholar: “Endless Rewriting,” an account of how an editor who both thinks and teaches (Jacques Barzun) forces his author to learn how to think:


    Comment by Pat McNees — September 23, 2013 @ 4:51 pm | Reply

  5. As a young editor, I’m constantly plagued by the ‘thinking’ part of the job. It seems almost every error I come accross I must debate and come to a conclusion on how best to resolve the issue and, of course, there seems to be multiple solutions to every problem. I’d love to start getting some items on the ‘mechanical’ side of that diagram. Are there any ‘Authorities’ that you trust which I might piggyback some XP off of?

    I’ve started reading a bit of Amy Einsohn’s ‘Copyeditor’s Handbook’. Any other suggestions? Thank you in advance 🙂


    Comment by James Weber — October 2, 2013 @ 4:06 pm | Reply

  6. […] a far better job at this than I ever could, so I will direct you to his excellent posts here and here. His characterization of the twin pillars of editing–mechanics and thinking–really […]


    Pingback by What I do | Grasp the subject, the words will follow — October 10, 2013 @ 11:03 am | Reply

  7. […] John McIntyre shares “the secrets” to editing quickly and decisively. Rich Adin suggests reducing time spent on the mechanical pillar to have more time on the thinking pillar. Here, we gathered other tips to improve productivity. […]


    Pingback by Ditto: How can we be more productive? | PROJECT CHIRON (BETA) — April 25, 2014 @ 1:10 pm | Reply

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