Let it go – five tips for editors

The editor’s job is a hard one, and often unappreciated. Here’s a list of five things that every editor should remember. I’m guilty of forgetting these sometimes myself. How about you?

 Listen and talk

We all tend to fall into one of two camps – we’re either talkers or listeners. As an editor, if I talk and don’t listen, I miss what my author, supplier or colleague is trying to tell me. If I’m all about the listening then there’s a danger that I’ll never mention my own reservations or the issues I’ve spotted with a product. (Some of you will know that I bias strongly in one direction myself…)

We all need to learn to do both jobs as well as we can. We must let people know what needs to change in the book, or why a certain approach won’t work, or when they need to deliver their comments by. But we must also hear when we’re told what’s important to them about a project, or how large the budget is, or when we need to deliver!

 Sales and marketing are right

This is similar to the first tip, but is important enough to get its own heading.

As editors, we’re used to being the experts on our products. And we do (or certainly should!) know more than anyone else about the product itself – what it is, how it’s constructed, its strengths and weaknesses. The problem is that we’re not usually the experts on our readers. The people who spend more time with our customers than anyone else is the Sales team and, to a lesser extent, the Marketing team.

So, when Sales tell us what readers are looking for, it’s probably a good idea to listen to them. Whether that’s price, covers or content, Sales ought to have a better handle on it than the editors. (Of course, if they don’t, that’s a whole different problem!).

 The author’s voice is key

It’s the editor’s job to eliminate mistakes from a book. We’re all trained to spot ambiguity and extraneous words and factual errors. But it’s always important to remember that it’s not our book (not even if we commissioned it ourselves). In almost all cases, there’s an author behind it and they’ve done the actual writing. And so we need to make sure that it’s their voice coming through to the reader, not our own.

Unfortunately, ‘voice’ is a strange and hard-to-define thing that is easily damaged by unsympathetic editing. Sometimes, less is more when it comes to editing!

 Step back

We should admit it proudly – as editors, we’re detail people. Control oriented. Pedants. And it’s glorious!

The only way to get a product to a high standard is to put people like us in charge of making it so. Sometimes, though, the way to make something better is to stop looking at the details and step back to see the bigger picture. When you’re bogged down by an author’s tortured grammar and spelling, it can be difficult to think of anything else. But don’t forget to think about what the author hasn’t said and should have. To consider whether the overall structure of the chapter is right or whether you need to insert a new section. Get perspective.

 Let it go (to print)

Once you’ve got that perspective, there does come a point in every project when it’s time to stop fiddling and just let the book out into the world. Because it might not be perfect but it is ‘good enough’. It’s well worth trying to agree a standard for what ‘good enough’ means for your team, though, because other people will be swift to blame the editors if there are complaints.

Posted on 20 Jul 2015
Written by John Pettigrew

Hat wearer, recovering editor and now CEO & Founder of We Are Futureproofs, John Pettigrew has 20 years of experience in educational, illustrated and academic publishing, and a history of successful print and digital product development.