An American Editor

July 13, 2015

The Keys to High-Quality Editing

The one thing every professional editor strives to produce is a high-quality edit. This is more difficult today than it was 30 years ago; client demands have made production of high-quality editing increasingly difficult.

Yet there are “keys” to producing high-quality editing.

Accept or reject a project

The keys begin with the decision whether to take on a particular project. A few days ago, I turned on my computer to find five job offers waiting for me. I only accepted one. The one I accepted came with much less onerous demands than the others, which means that I will be able to provide a high-quality edit.

The job I accepted asked me to suggest a schedule based on what the client wanted and the manuscript needed; the others gave me a fixed schedule. After reviewing the manuscript for the accepted job, I suggested that a nine-week schedule was reasonable. The other jobs were for much shorter manuscripts but still required at least a two-week and more likely a three-week schedule; the schedule on offer was one week with no flexibility.

However, there were still problems that had to be addressed with what ultimately became the accepted job. For example, the references and how they were to be formatted. The author used what is for me a rarely seen style for the references: American Chemical Society style. If the manuscript had a handful of references, changing them to Harvard style would not be a problem, but the manuscript has a lot of references and there are a lot of stylistic differences between Harvard and ACS. The client wants the manuscript sooner rather than later, and so it was decided that because the author was consistent, we would use ACS style for the references.

In contrast, a couple of the manuscripts that I rejected didn’t have a single reference style, but the predominant style would have required many hours of work to restyle to conform to the client’s style. Yet the client was unwilling to compromise.

The keys to high-quality editing begin with the decision whether to take on a project or not. Many editors are simply thankful to be offered work and accept jobs without vetting them. This approach leads to a low effective hourly rate and questionable editing quality because it can be a struggle to meet short schedules — especially if the manuscript is not well written.

Effective hourly rate

Another key is ensuring that a project leads to a decent effective hourly rate and a profit. I have noted over the years that many colleagues take on a new project expecting it to go smoothly only to find that it does not. And when it does not, they are faced with the dilemma of ensuring a decent effective hourly rate versus the high quality of editing they prefer to provide. This is the eternal struggle — what to do when the compensation is inadequate.

Of course, it is difficult to know in advance, even if you sample a manuscript, how easy or hard a manuscript will be to edit. But there are certain things one can look for as clues. I have found that authors who very inconsistent and sloppy with references are often the same with the main text, which means more editing work. I have also found that if I see a lot of Word’s squiggly red lines, which indicate possible misspellings, that a manuscript may be problematic. In this case, however, because much of what I edit is medical, I recognize that the built-in spellchecker will mischaracterize a word, indicating it is misspelled when it isn’t. This clue requires familiarity with the subject matter.

Subject-matter familiarity

Which brings us to yet another key: knowledge of the subject matter. It is not that the editor needs to be an expert in the subject matter, it is that the editor needs to be comfortable with the subject matter. In my case, for example, I stopped editing fiction after about 6 months of editing — more than 31 years ago. I stopped for several reasons, including to provide a high-quality edit I had to be able to keep a sharp focus on the novel’s text. What I found was that when faced with a poorly written manuscript, my focus would begin drifting and I would have to reread the same paragraphs perhaps multiple times. I also discovered that for me, nonfiction was both more interesting and more profitable.

Fiction editing is difficult because it requires familiarity with a wide range of topics that I am not normally either interested in nor familiar with. I have never been particularly interested, for example, whether Bucharest’s weather is closer to that of London or New York City, but that could bin important in a novel whose action takes place in Bucharest. As a fiction editor, it was my responsibility to know whether or not the author’s description of Bucharest was plausible (actually, accurate). My fiction reading has always been limited; I tend to read vast amounts of nonfiction. Consequently, I was better “educated” about things that the nonfiction I was editing was concerned with than the fiction editing needed.

Pattern recognition

The ability to recognize writing patterns is another key. Every author has a writing pattern and in a group of collaborating authors, one pattern dominates. Identifying early in the editing process this pattern leads to greater consistency and accuracy in editing, which can lead to higher-quality editing. When you can identify these patterns, you can take advantage of tools such as EditTools. These types of tools, if properly used, lead to higher-quality editing.


The final key to be discussed in this essay is resources. Having the right resources available is important. For example, knowing that Garner’s Modern American Usage is the leading usage guide for American English is not enough; you need to have it available. Similarly, being told to follow a particular style manual by the client is of little use is you are not familiar with it and have it readily available. It does no good for a client to ask you to follow AMA style if the only style guide you can access and are familiar with is Chicago.

It should be clear that many things go into producing a high-quality edit; consequently, a lot of things need to come together. Yet an editor’s skill is not just objective things such as available resources; the skillset an editor needs to meet client limitations and still produce high-quality editing is sharpened over years of education and editing. Knowing one’s current limitations is an important part of providing high-quality editing. The professional editor works diligently to minimize those limitations, and one way to do so is to knowingly evaluate an offered job by the keys to high-quality editing.

What do you think?

Rich Adin, An American Editor


  1. […] Many things go into producing a high-quality edit; consequently, lot of things need to come together. Yet an editor’s skill is not just objective things such as available resources; the skillset a…  […]


    Pingback by The Keys to High-Quality Editing | Editorial ti... — July 13, 2015 @ 7:06 am | Reply

  2. Being a good writer is also vitally important. This article, while including some good points, is let down by some errors and awkward constructions (perhaps the worst being ‘Identifying early in the editing process this pattern leads…’) and that undermines the credibility of the entire piece.


    Comment by kj — July 13, 2015 @ 11:46 am | Reply

    • Rich has a great wealth of professional wisdom and experience that he is generous enough to share for free with any editor who has an open mind. Years ago I came to the conclusion that people who are quick to criticize, while ignoring positive things, are often insecure and seek to bolster their confidence by finding fault with others. Rich, I always enjoy your essays. You have helped me to be a more thoughtful editor and to have more pride in our profession. Thank you (and your guest writers) for providing this blog and helping us all to be better editors.


      Comment by Christina — July 13, 2015 @ 1:23 pm | Reply

    • I thought I would take this opportunity to make a few observations about the An American Editor blog.

      Over the years, I and some contributors have occasionally received criticism about our essays not being letter-perfect. I am aware that the essays often are not sterling examples of the finest writing available — but the essays are not intended to be literary examples.

      No one writing for AAE, including myself, is paid for their contributions. The essays are all voluntarily done. The intent is to share our experience and knowledge about editing with our readers. We are not teaching you how to write and, speaking for myself, I am not ever going to claim that writing is my greatest skill.

      I do not know how the other contributors work, but for myself, AAE is a great burden. I have been writing these essays for more than 5 years and I have dedicated Saturdays to doing the writing. Sometimes I have the luxury of being able to review my essays repeatedly so I can correct the writing; most of the time, I do not.

      I not only have a life outside editing, but my editing life is usually overwhelmed with work. I spend an average of 8 hours a week just evaluating whether to take on new projects I have been offered, let alone the time I spend on doing my own editing work and managing others who work with me; I have a full load just with my editing business.

      My point is this: I, and the other contributors, appreciate when you, our readers, email us and point out obvious errors. We do try to fix them. But I, on behalf of my contributors, do not appreciate being told that I or they could have written a better article. If writing essays for the AAE blog was my or their livelihood, I would consider the criticism fair and warranted, but writing these essays is not my or their livelihood — in fact, not a week doesn’t go by when I don’t want to end the blog because it takes up too much of my time.

      So I ask for your forbearance. If my writing style bothers you, unsubscribe; no one forces you to read these essays. If you see a grievous error, please let us know by private email. Please remember that these essays take a lot of our time to write, that we do have other lives, and that these essays are intended to give you another viewpoint, not to be candidates for literary prizes.

      Rich Adin, An American Editor


      Comment by americaneditor — July 14, 2015 @ 3:23 pm | Reply

  3. Excellent article, Rich. Personally, I’ve started paying more attention to the first point you mentioned: vetting projects. It’s also useful to understand that a high quality edit can be compromised by the project’s decision makers … Such cases can be disappointing, but as long as we’ve done our best, that’s all we can really do!


    Comment by Sophie Playle — July 14, 2015 @ 10:03 am | Reply

  4. I don’t give a lot of credence to criticisms from people who don’t provide their names.

    As for the elements of a high-quality edit, I agree with Rich’s perspectives. (There may be additional factors; certainly the editor’s training, skill and experience are important, but maybe those can be assumed in this context.) Vetting or “pre-qualifying” a project is a biggie. I very rarely turn down work, but I will say “Thanks, but no thanks” to projects that will involve a lot more effort and time than the client wants to invest.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — July 14, 2015 @ 3:23 pm | Reply

  5. By the way, I enjoy writing for An American Editor and writing is my first love anyhow, so my contributions to this blog aren’t a huge burden. Most of us realize that it’s difficult to edit/proof our own work, so the occasional typo or convoluted sentence is going to sneak in here and there.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — July 14, 2015 @ 4:21 pm | Reply

  6. > For example, knowing that Garner’s Modern American Usage is the leading usage guide for American English is not enough;

    I know it’s not. You’re thinking of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.


    Comment by amandachen24 — July 18, 2015 @ 2:42 am | Reply

    • No, I am thinking of Garner’s. The MW hasn’t been updated since 1994 and WAS the leading usage guide at that time. But Garner has taken over. Garner is now in its third edition (2009). In fact, the usage material in The Chicago Manual of Style is from Garner (see 16th ed., chapter 5, p. 201. Even the TOC for Chicago specifically states that the grammar and usage material is written by Garner (see Chicago 16 TOC). For American usage, Garner is definitely the authority today.


      Comment by americaneditor — July 18, 2015 @ 3:31 am | Reply

      • Oh, I’m aware he wrote that part of CMOS. Here’s what Geoff Pullum (the real authority on English grammar today) says about it:

        The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) is an unparalleled resource for those engaged in publishing, particularly of academic material. But the Press decided to farm out the topic of grammar and usage, and the writer they selected was Bryan A. Garner, a former associate editor of the Texas Law Review who now teaches at Southern Methodist University School of Law and has written several popular books on usage and style. His chapter is unfortunately full of repetitions of stupidities of the past tradition in English grammar — more of them than you could shake a stick at.

        Read more here:


        Comment by amandachen24 — July 19, 2015 @ 4:52 pm | Reply

        • You demonstrate the beauty of editing and language — the disagreement. All I can tell you is that I would not hire an editor who did not have Garner on her bookshelf and who didn’t consider Garner’s view before making her own decision. Do I think that Garner (the book) cannot be bettered (or even better itself)? No. I have several disagreements with it. But compared to its competition, I think Garner is the far better, currently available resource. As for Pullum, I don’t find it impressive to be told something is “utter nonsense” without demonstration that it is. That Pullum thinks it is “utter nonsense” does not make it so; it is but one person’s opinion in a jungle of opinions, and it is an opinion to which I give little weight because it reminds me of a parent talking to a child: “Because I say so.” That isn’t good enough for me.


          Comment by americaneditor — July 20, 2015 @ 8:11 am | Reply

  7. Geoff Pullum is *an* but not the only authority on usage and grammar.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — July 19, 2015 @ 5:03 pm | Reply

  8. […] If you’re like most editors, you want to do your absolute best with every project that comes your way, but that’s sometimes easier said than done. Rich Adin discusses some keys to high-quality editing, starting with the decision whether to accept a project or not. (An American Editor) […]


    Pingback by The Nitpicker’s Nook: July’s linguistic links roundup « BoldFace — July 29, 2015 @ 9:13 am | Reply

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