On the Basics: A Love of Editing
by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter
I love editing! That always surprises me a bit, because I think of myself as a writer first and foremost, and I certainly started my professional life as a writer. If I had to choose between being a writer and being an editor, I’d probably choose writing — after all, my slogan is “I can write about anything!”® and my website is writerruth.com — but I’m glad that I don’t have to choose.
Writing is creating. When I write something, I’m making something new — a new product, a new piece of information. What I write is unique, because no one else has exactly the same experiences, perspectives, research input, and voice as I do. I can put myself into what I write, as well as the essence of whoever or whatever I’m writing about, either invisibly through my writing voice or more obviously through — when and where appropriate — by including my opinions or experiences.
Editing is fixing, revising, changing, (ideally) improving, correcting, (sometimes) enhancing. It isn’t creating something new, although it is adding new elements to someone else’s written creation. It’s a partnership. There is something fulfilling, on a different level, in helping a colleague or client hone a piece of writing work until it communicates clearly and concisely what that person had in mind. Even if all I do is catch one egregious typo or dangling modifier, I contribute as an editor to the quality of other people’s work and to their ability to get messages across effectively. That feels great.
Editing and proofreading the works of other people has had a positive effect on my writing, by making me more careful and thorough in what I create and how it reaches a client. Being a writer has made me a better editor and proofreader, by making me more sensitive to how a client might respond to my changes or comments, and sometimes by understanding how someone might have come up with something I suggest changing.
I absorbed the essentials of grammar, usage, punctuation, and spelling through being an avid reader from a very young age; growing up in a bilingual (German and English) household; having an excellent early education that emphasized the basics; and learning three other languages — French, Spanish and the formal aspects of German as opposed to what I had picked up at home. A sixth-grade teacher inculcated more of the formal guidelines, using diagramming sentences and frequent drills to an extent that pushed the information into my subconscious. Thanks to her training, I know how to fix clunky writing, although without always being able to quote a specific grammar rule to defend the fix. (I do know how to use the appropriate style manuals, but there’s a built-in grounding that is part of my core being.)
I learned to be fairly objective about my writing work and to appreciate being edited from a tough, demanding, but very fair high school English teacher, first in her “Critical Reading and Writing” class and then in her Advanced Placement English class. Through her teaching and critiquing approaches, I developed stronger skills in recognizing and fixing structural problems, inconsistency, disorganization, and basic errors. Even though I didn’t think of becoming an editor at that stage of life, I started realizing that writing, even writing well, isn’t enough; editing is essential to crafting work that readers will understand, appreciate, even act upon.
I started editing informally, noticing and fixing errors as I typed papers for classmates in college. When I joined the newspaper staff at my second college, I became part of a small group of colleagues who were passionate about writing and cared about quality in what we published, but had little training in editing. We were at a school that didn’t have a journalism program, so we were pretty much on our own for all aspects of putting the newspaper together. I learned about hands-on editing by being named editor of the arts page, even though I still thought of myself primarily as a writer.
I managed to incorporate writing and editing into early jobs in community relations until I fell into a wonderful reporting job with a weekly newspaper — wonderful because of the variety and scope of what I could write about, and because of the additional responsibilities I could take on. No one had any real professional training, so I got involved with editing and proofreading as well as writing because I was the one who cared the most about quality as well as content and who had the best editing or proofreading skills.
I found that I enjoyed all three activities. Being able to do all of them meant I had more future opportunities, even if at primarily smaller organizations. Bigger companies and publications tend to “compartmentalize” activities more than smaller ones — a writer is a writer, an editor is an editor, a proofreader is a proofreader, and ne’er the three shall combine.
Time has brought me to a point where my freelance work is a satisfying combination of writing, editing, and proofreading, along with the occasional presentation. If I weren’t doing the editing and proofreading, I’d have to work harder at finding more writing work, so developing my editing and proofreading skills may have reduced the amount of writing I do, but I can live with that tradeoff.
Going from in-house to freelance has meant even greater opportunities to apply writing, editing, and proofreading skills to an increasingly wide range of projects, topics, and clients. And to continually develop and improve those skills as well — over the years, I’ve found ways to enhance my editing instincts and skills more formally.
As I embark on the new year, I’ll be looking for new projects in both writing and editing. Oh, and proofreading, too. The prospect of continuing to combine these communications skills is an exciting one. I’m very lucky to still feel such excitement about my work after all these years — which may well be a topic for another column here.
Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, desktop publisher, and speaker whose motto is “I can write about anything!”® She is also the owner of Communication Central, author of the Freelance Basics blog for the Society for Technical Communication, and a regular contributor to An American Editor.