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How to Distinguish A Conscientious Editor

from An Insensitive Butcher


We live in a time when the simple act of writing makes a person a writer. Because many writers consider their writing complete when it pleases them, they might wonder what’s wrong with readers who do not recognize the merits that they see in their own writing. They might even feel offended by the suggestion that their writing ought to be edited by a third party. Even so, the competence of a writer lies in the perception of the reader.


agent for improved communication

If you make changes to another’s writing, that makes you an editor. Yet, the value of an editor's work comes from improving the reader’s experience of the writer’s work. A conscientious editor knowingly acts as an intermediary, facilitating good communication between writer and reader. Still, many who play the role of an editor do not see it this way.


when an editor is most needed

The work of an editor is particularly important on multi-author documents. Even when they are long-time colleagues, co-authors often differ in their practices regarding style, spelling, grammar, punctuation, capitalization, and level of detail.

Sometimes, even single-author documents present these inconsistencies, as when the writer's mood or perspective varies. Such documents typically require editorial revision so that the reader experience may be uniformly positive.


critical distinction

Many editors edit simply to please themselves. Then, they often wonder why writers do not recognize the changes that they make as improvements. Herein lies the difference between a professional wordsmith intentionally acting as a conscientious editor and a less competent editor unknowingly acting like an insensitive butcher.


of drunken sailors

To some, editing provides an opportunity to convert the writer’s work more into their own. For example, some editors replace expressions that do not align with their personal preferences with expressions that they do prefer. An assertive editor thus becomes a co-author, translating the writer’s work to reflect his or her own biases.

Editors who do this go through the writer’s work with the grace of a drunken sailor. Serving a possibly-diverse readership might at best be an afterthought. The document might emerge more accessible and understandable to the editor, but any gains in serving the intended readers would arise incidentally. The writer's own communication to the reader might at best just be an afterthought.


of well-intentioned bumblers

Rarely do editors approach the role with malice. “Seems better to me” is typically their standard as they remain unaware of how their own subjectivity determines their judgment of a revised document’s merits. Objective edicotial standards may be applied capriciously, if at all.


of serving the writer

The chief task of a conscientious editor is to render documents:

  • efficient by expressing ideas, sentiments, or facts accurately
  • effective by:
    • informing with objectivity and balance
    • persuading with clear logic and compelling emotion
    • instructing with clarity, completeness, and precision.

a principle of efficiency

The shorter a document, the more likely it is to be read in full. Yet, writing that seems terse often fails readers who need more help to understand, who want to enjoy good reading, or who feel offended by abruptness. Brevity is good. Brevity comes in degrees. Focusing on relevance to the reader helps to avoid extreme brevity.

what effectiveness means

To draw in its intended readers, a document must promptly appeal to their interests. Then, it must deliver on its promise. An editor can enhance effectiveness by suggesting alternative titles and the inclusion of subtitles. Likewise, when the writer includes sentences, paragraphs, or sections that do not serve the fundamental purpose of the document, the editor must excise them, no matter how satisfying their inclusion might be to the writer. Efficiency can complement effectiveness.


of serving the reader

Moreover, a conscientious editor improves a document’s effectiveness according to standards defined by the reader profile. For example, if the intended readership includes experts in the topic, then the editor should eliminate unnecessary explanations and help to emphasize the relevance and originality of the main concept. There are often clever ways to do this without the editor becoming a co-author.


of serving the message

Good editing includes increasing the clarity of the document’s message while attending to the collective needs of the readership. For example, a metaphor used to illustrate a point might distract some readers and need replacement with something better fitting the context. Alternatively, the writer might repeatedly use expressions that reflect a visual bias (e.g. to see means to understand). These could be balanced with kinesthetic terms (e.g. to grasp is to comprehend) or auditory terms (e.g. what sounds right is understandable). In making or suggesting such changes, the editor should aim for both subtlety and improved reader experience.


separate wheat from chaff

The simple act of strumming a guitar can make you a guitarist. It takes more to be a true musician. The simple act of jumping into water can make you a diver. It takes more to qualify as a diving instructor. It takes savvy expertise to advance from being an editor by the simple act of altering text to adding value as a conscientious, professional wordsmith.


maximize value

It can be difficult to find somebody who makes your writing serve your readers better. Documents that do this serve the writer also. A conscientious editor can play an essential role in making documents fulfil their potential in service to writer and to reader.

May it now be easier to identify and avoid an insensitive butcher and to recognize and get value from a conscientious editor.


- Glenn R Harrington, Articulate Consultants Inc.


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