Points I keep in mind while editing

February 8, 2017

My first two editing jobs were at encyclopedia publishers—Standard Education Corporation, where I began to work in 1993, and World Book Publishing, where I worked from 1997 to 2003. I subsequently did freelance work for World Book for many additional years. Educational writing and editing require a strict adherence to verified facts combined with an ability to present those facts in an interesting and engaging manner that can be easily understood by the intended readership.

My training and experience at both of those educational companies taught me to keep certain points in mind while writing my own manuscripts, editing other authors' manuscripts, and communicating with authors during the editing process. These points have stayed with me and served me well in all the diverse types of writing and editing projects I have been involved with over the years. Although many of the points may seem as obvious as simple common sense, I have been amazed at the number of editors who do not follow them and are seemingly unaware of them.

Leave no question unanswered

An editor must remember to review an author's manuscript from the perspective of the intended reader. At World Book, for example, the targeted reader was an eighth-grade student for some products and an average American adult for others. Although there are reference texts available that categorize words by their typical age of familiarity, I usually use my instincts, based on personal experience, to guide me as I decide whether a reader will know the meaning of a word. If I suspect that the word might be problematic, I will use an alternate word or provide a definition.

Reader familiarity with subject matter is crucial to gauge. For the relatively complex topics that I normally deal with, such as science and medicine, it is safest to assume that the reader will not be familiar with much. Thus, the manuscript should not raise any questions that are left unanswered. Everything should be presented in a clear, logically flowing, and understandable manner. If any questions arise in the editor's head as to the meaning of the text, such questions are sure to arise in the heads of many readers. It is the editor's responsibility to adjust the text to eliminate any ambiguity of meaning and to achieve as much clarify as possible. Do not sacrifice clarity and comprehension for the sake of a flashy style or a catchy phrase (as the mass media often does, resulting in misleading reporting). After all, the main goal, at least in educational writing and editing, is to educate and inform the reader, not to show the reader how clever or witty you are.

To achieve easy understandability, step-by-step, sentence-by-sentence explanations of complex subject matter are necessary. The writer and editor should never assume that the reader will fill in the gaps in explanation. So explain as much as possible—but without becoming boring. For example, in an article I wrote about the Human Microbiome Project (HMP) and the microbiome of the human body (the microbial communities that live in and on the human body), I stated that these microbes are identified by researchers who use "advanced analytical techniques of genetics to study the microbiome. These techniques primarily involve sequencing the microbial DNA in laboratory machines."

That statement will be meaningless to the average reader without further explanation. So I added the following, starting at the most basic level (explaining DNA):

DNA, the chainlike molecule that determines heredity in living things, consists, in part, of varied patterns of four compounds, called bases. The way in which the patterns of bases are combined in the DNA chain is known as the DNA sequence. It is this pattern that codes for (contains the instructions for constructing) specific proteins in a living organism. Using various tools and technologies, geneticists sequence the DNA to determine the unique order of patterns in a species.

One such technology is 16S ribosomal RNA (16S rRNA) sequencing. Ribosomes are cellular structures that use RNA, a chainlike molecule somewhat similar to DNA, to produce proteins. 16S rRNA genes are segments of DNA that code for the synthesis of certain parts of ribosomes in bacteria and other microbes. Each species of microbe has its own unique variation of these genes, with slightly different subunits. However, humans do not have any 16S rRNA genes. As a result, the HMP scientists were able to separate out and identify individual microbe species and determine relative proportions of these species—without the possibility of contamination by human DNA.

If the author does not include such step-by-step explanations in her manuscript, the editor should add them, in consultation with the author.

Graphic elements and examples

In some cases, even the most carefully crafted paragraphs alone are insufficient to clearly convey a scientific topic. That's when the use of a diagram, chart, or other graphic element is called for. My previously mentioned microbiome article included two images of the human body showing the internal organs with lines connecting the organs to microscope photos of the associated microbes, as well as a three-column chart (or table) listing beneficial microbes by scientific name, function, and organ location.

The use of concrete, real-world examples, rather than simply abstract explanations, is usually a good idea to help the reader develop a more personal connection to the conveyed information. That's why I started my microbiome article with a story about a relatable individual, rather than a general discussion of microbes that live in the human body:

The alarming red splotches on Kyle's leg were driving him crazy with itching. Kyle knew that his blood glucose (sugar) level had been unusually high lately, and he wondered if the skin problem was somehow related to his diabetes. A visit to the doctor and a few tests revealed that Kyle had contracted a fungal infection. "These fungal spores," said the doctor, "are always present on our skin. But they gain a foothold when the normal mix of microscopic organisms on the skin gets out of whack. I think that happened because your skin chemistry was disturbed by high glucose levels."

Kyle's experience illustrates a fundamental reality of human health and disease—that the proper functioning of our bodies is strongly influenced by the microbes (microscopic organisms) that inhabit us.

Show the author respect

An extremely important point for the editor to keep in mind is to make sure that he understands the author's intended meaning before editing her words. If you are not sure that you understand what the author is trying to say in any particular part of a manuscript, query her about it first with an email, text, or phone call. If the author is known to be difficult to reach or slow to respond, type a bold-font query within the text of the manuscript (or add a comment in the margin) asking the author about her intended meaning, allowing her to reply when she reviews the edited manuscript. That approach can save time.

Depending on how easy the author is to communicate with, it is best to involve her as much as possible throughout the editing process, asking her questions, offering suggestions, and developing a friendly dialogue over email, text, or phone. Let the author know that you respect her and want to help her tell her story better—not impose your own story over her words.

Finally, when the initial round of editing is complete and you submit the edited manuscript to the author, include a detailed explanation of why you edited as you did. In addition, point out things that she might consider for future improvement in her writing. The more heavily edited the manuscript is, the more explanations will be required. Never return a highly edited manuscript back to an author with no warning and no explanations. It will totally freak her out, and she may cancel the project, refuse to pay, or complain about you to your superiors. Such negative outcomes happened to me a couple times early in my career, but, fortunately, my employers at the time stuck up for me

The fact is that certain authors are simply difficult to deal with, even if you act in a totally professional and appropriate manner. Nevertheless, I have found that negative incidents can be minimized—and positive results can be maximized—by adhering to the points discussed in this post.