Advice for Editors on Working With Writers

By Bill O’Sullivan

Editing is a collaboration and sometimes a negotiation. Call me biased, but I’ve found that the writer/editor interactions with the best outcomes are those in which the editor leads the way.

If you’re stumped about how to fix something in a piece of writing, ask the author to take a crack at it. But if you know how to fix the problem, fix it. (The writer should always have the chance to sign off on any editing you do anyway.) Think a sentence would be better without half the words? Cut the words. Asking the author to rewrite something when you know perfectly well how to do it just drags out the process. Be polite, respectful, and friendly—of course. But an editor on deadline can’t get anything done by asking “may I?” with every change.

A compliment goes a long way. After a session of questions, suggestions, and proposed fixes, an editor might expect to hear the writer say, “Was there anything you liked about the piece?” Maybe it’s the writer’s knack for catchy subheads or an overall strong structure. I’ve received heartfelt thank-yous for acknowledging something as simple as that. And because it’s easy to forget, I always make sure to lead with the compliment.

Leaving in one distinctive word of the author’s can make all your other edits go down more easily. Writers want to recognize what they wrote. They want to be comfortable having their byline on it. Sometimes retaining just a single word choice or a particular phrase of theirs in an otherwise heavily edited sentence is enough to keep them on your side—and they may not even care about the rest of what you did. When doing a lot of editing on a problem piece, I make sure to keep intact small elements of the writer’s voice—characteristics that make the article “theirs”—wherever I can.

Bill O’Sullivan is senior managing editor of the Washingtonian magazine.

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