11 best practices for working with an editor

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greeting card to editor says "thank you for making me suck less"

greeting card to editor says "thank you for making me suck less"My latest blog post for the Harvard Business Review makes the case for adding an editor to your content marketing team. As I note in that post,

Content marketing will only deliver on its promise if it’s good enough to deliver customers–that’s why improving the quality of content marketing is critical to business. But creating the kind of excellent original content that attracts, engages and retains an audience requires a mix of competencies that go well beyond what you find on a typical marketing team. At the top of that list of missing competencies is professional editing.

You’ll get the most value from adding an editor to your team if your contributors know how to work with an editor effectively. As a writer and blogger I’ve been lucky to work with a number of talented editors, and to develop a particularly close and collaborative working relationship with Ania Wieckowski, the editor of my Work Smarter with Social Media series for Harvard Business Review Press (and recently, my HBR blog posts, too). If you’ve read any of the books in the series, you’ve seen the impact of Ania’s work: she has an extraordinary ability to identify the most relevant content, to challenge techno-speak so that instructions are clear and accessible, and to tease out the underlying assumptions and argument that tie it all together.

But for an editor like Ania to do a great job, writers have to do theirs. And that job doesn’t consist merely of puking words onto a page and then hitting “send”. Just as important is the way writers engage in the editorial process — which means learning how to work with an editor. Here are my suggestions for how contributors can make that relationship successful:

  1. Start thinking in the plural. It’s not “my” work anymore…it’s ours. Yes, I’m the person with her name on the cover and on the Facebook page (how good a deal is that?) but Ania worked just as hard on the final product. Respecting your editor’s investment in each piece you produce together is key to every aspect of your working relationship.
  2. Seize the opportunity to improve. If you think of your editor as an incursion to defend against, you’re going to have a hard time collaborating. Instead, think of your editor as a therapist for your writing — someone who is actually going to help you think, argue and write better. You wouldn’t go to a therapist hoping to hold onto all your crazy issues…so bring the same attitude to your editor, and get excited about the idea that someone is going to pay real attention to your writing, and help make it better.
  3. Invest in the relationship. If you’re working with the same editor over time, invest in building a personal relationship — or at least, a very cordial professional relationship. The better your editor understands your core passions, views and goals, the better he will be able to guide your work so that it advances your particular perspective and your career. And hey! It’s not all about you. Yes, you’re mostly talking about your writing, but remember that your editor is a person, too — so ask her about what she’s working on, what she did this weekend and what she’s thinking about.
  4. Know your triggers. We all have vulnerabilities — areas where we find it hard to take criticism. The more direct you can be about where your editor needs to tread softly, and where she can give it to you straight, the better you will work together. If you are open to pushback on your logic, invite her to challenge you; but if you hate being nagged about misusing apostrophes, let her know she can just fix your errors — without pointing that out to you each time.
  5. Learn your editor’s strengths. Different editors bring different skills to the table. Ania is amazing at teasing out the underlying vision for a piece and driving the revision process towards that vision; Scott Berinato has an uncanny ability to add the pithy line or headline that takes the whole post to a new level; Michael Totty is fabulous at situating a story in a larger context, and identifying the missing pieces that will help it speak to a wider audience or make a greater impact. Figure out where your editor shines and make the most of their support in that area.
  6. Use phone for vision, emails for summaries, comments for discussion and in-line edits for wordsmithing. Your editorial process almost certainly includes the exchange of electronic documents, but that doesn’t mean your entire working relationship should take place online. Talk with your editor regularly by phone, particularly when you are establishing the initial vision for a report or story, and again if either of you are suggesting significant changes to a draft. When you do send a draft or revision, use the covering email to explain what you are trying to accomplish in that draft, and noting any big-picture questions you have about your overall approach. Use your word processor’s comment function to raise or address questions about specific sections of the text, or to explain the reasoning behind any significant changes; when Ania and I exchange drafts, the marginal comments turn into a very detailed conversation.  The only un-commented edits in the text itself should be confined to wordsmithing; anything else should be accompanied by a clarifying comment explaining why you added a paragraph or how you’re hoping your revisions addressed your editor’s last round of feedback.
  7. Focus on content, not flow. One of the things that has made me a much faster and less stressed writer is learning to trust my editors’ judgement about the order in which my arguments flow. I try to focus on getting everything I want to say out there, section by section, but then let my editor suggest the order in which the sections make the most sense. A third party usually has a better perspective on how your argument needs to build; since all the ideas are already in your head, it may not be as obvious to you which building blocks need to get laid down first.
  8. Ask for help. Part of what makes an editor so useful on a content marketing team is that a good editor can save a writer or contributor a lot of time — once the writer learns to trust in their editor’s guidance. So wherever you struggle in your writing, ask your editor for help, whether that is in figuring out your core argument, choosing the right kinds of supporting examples or articulating your main points in a memorable way.
  9. “This doesn’t feel like me.” This is one of the most important pieces of feedback you can give your editor, if you use it sparingly. It’s not a trump card you can play whenever you want to revert your editor’s changes; it’s best saved for those occasions when editing has somehow led to an argument or a point you actively disagree with. It’s also something to bring up if you need to make a modest revision that makes the way something is said (but not what is being said) sound more like the language you’d normally use. Just bear in mind that if your strength lies in your ideas rather than your writing style, it may be a good thing if your contributions end up sounding more articulate than you do.
  10. Hit your deadlines.  Even if you’re an unpaid contributor, treat your editorial relationship with the same courtesy you show your colleagues or clients: agree on deadlines for each work or draft, and then meet them. You may not succeed in meeting 100% of your deadlines (I’ve got an overdue piece right now myself!) but if you’re mostly on time, your editor will learn to set aside time to review your work the day after you promised to submit, and you’ll get faster feedback. And if you’re not going to meet your deadline, let your editor know as early as you see trouble, and offer a new deadline that you can actually meet.
  11. Say thank you. Once you start thinking about editing as something that is done for you rather than to you, you can feel grateful to the amazing person who is actually investing their time and brain power in making your work as good as it can possibly be. So say thank you every single time you get their revisions, and let them know the specific way you feel they improved your work. And then once in a blue moon, write a blog post that acknowledges that you couldn’t do what you do without them.

1 Comment on this site

  1. Wendy Ford

    Alexandra, you made my day! In an era when the role of the editor is often seen as nice but not necessary, your article makes me feel understood and appreciated for the value an editor brings. You hit all the right points about how a writer can best work with an editor. Thanks a million.

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