written by Meg Miller, writer and editor
I’ve been an editor for five years and a writer for design and culture publications for longer. Editing is something that I love doing, and that I do daily, which is why it surprised me when my studiomate Zoe asked for tips on editing courses and I came up blank. I learned to edit by doing it and by getting edited by others, but it was never something I was explicitly taught. Copyediting is something that I’d kind of taught myself, mostly through trial and error, style sheets and The Chicago Manual of Style, the occasional online forum, or (if there was a budget) by hiring and working with a copyeditor, which is hands down the best of those options. I talked to a few editor and writer friends, and they basically had the same experience. Why is knowledge-sharing around editing so informal, especially when compared to, say, the abundance of writing workshops or coding courses? How might we benefit if copyediting education weren’t so informal?
As it turned out, there were a lot of people in our small circle of Berlin designers, artists, and writers who were interested in a copyediting workshop. Some of us wanted to brush up on grammar rules; others wanted to improve our own writing. Zoe had previously worked with Danielle on a book and knew she knew her stuff, so we asked if she would take us on, and I’m glad we did. I’m a big believer in the benefits of seeing how someone else does things, and the way that Danielle does things is incredibly considered (like a good copyeditor, she leaves no stone unturned). The thing I appreciated most was her approach and the framework she offered us.
No one is going to come away from a weekend workshop (or even a lifetime of editing) knowing all of the grammar rules or differences in British and American English by heart, and you don’t need to—there are plenty of resources for that. Instead, Danielle taught us how to be good editors: how to organize our process, how to find resources, how to look for things, and what things were worth looking for. She also demonstrated the best general outlook for editing: to question things, to be generous and thorough, to give a writer’s work the attention it deserves, and to be inclusive—to make sure to afford the subjects of your writing their humanity. And to ease up on the em dashes. Not everything sticks right away…
As an editor, I always encourage writers to be specific and to write out what they mean. In that spirit, here are some specific takeaways from the writing workshop.
Multiple passes, different lenses
I remember when my aunt, who is a book editor in academic publishing, told me this tip in college, because it completely changed how I thought about editing. And I was glad to hear it again from Danielle, because, in my haste to finish tasks, I often forget it or forgo it. The tip is this: read whatever you’re editing at least three times.
In your first pass, just focus on mechanical errors and punctuation, footnotes, and references. In your second pass, do a close read, make decisions based on context, and read for structure. The third time, skim through and check for consistency. Maybe your passes will look a little different depending on the task at hand. The point is not to try to do it all in one go and to keep the scope of your passes focused. Besides the fact that you’ll catch more with more passes, segmenting also just makes things less overwhelming.
Be damn concise
As someone who uses “very” very, very often, I appreciated this quote attributed to Mark Twain: “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” Danielle used this tip from Twain to complement her broader point about how concision makes a piece stronger. Empty and unnecessary words only serve to dilute your point. Honestly, I mostly think about the quote now when I’m writing emails—it really applies to every level of writing.
Powerful, simple, direct
When you’re editing, think of the reader. It’s something that’s so obvious but can be so easy to forget, especially when you are writing (I find this easier to remember when I’m editing other people’s work than when I’m editing my own). If the reader can’t understand what you’re saying, then what’s the point? I love that Danielle brought up plain language and encouraged us to write as we would speak. Plain spoken language isn’t just effective communication, it can also be beautiful. To quote Lauren Oya Olamina in Octavia Butler’s Earthseed series, “All I do is observe and take notes, trying to put things down in ways that are as powerful, as simple, and as direct as I feel them.” (For the record, I also think that’s what Octavia Butler does herself.)
This was probably my favorite part of the workshop. I’d never been taught how to make sure I’m editing for inclusivity before, and it’s something that I’m often nervous about getting wrong. The big takeaway here was to go to the community first when you have a question about inclusive language. Is “people-first” or “identity-first” language preferred? Should you capitalize Black and White when talking about race? Look up what people in the community that is being written about advise, or find someone you can ask.
Want to know more about my Copyediting Crash Courses? Or have more questions? I’d love to hear from you! If you want to stay tuned for my next blog post (or for my next Copyediting Crash Course), subscribe to my newsletter.