When to do, when to ask

Making the change, querying the change

Perhaps the hardest thing for beginning editors to feel confident about is when to make a change and when to instead query that change. Even experienced editors can lose sight of this distinction.

In the traditional editorial role, the editor intervenes only to correct. The writer owns the text. If something is not strictly speaking incorrect, then the editor is in the realm of suggestion.

In other words — 

The syntax misstep aligns with what your response should be

Another way of understanding the distinction is to think in terms of level of edit. Work at about the level of medium copyediting and lighter is the jurisdiction of the editor. Work at about that level and deeper is the jurisdiction of the writer. If you are marking hardcopy, the first set of changes you might mark in red. These are changes that ought not to be disputed, changes many of which the writer may not care much about. The second set of changes you might mark instead in blue. These are annotations that amount to suggestions. You’ve identified an issue and suggested one remedy. That remedy often helps the writer to better understand the issue. But she might have a different remedy she’d prefer to apply. That’s her prerogative.

Now, not every editorial role is defined in exactly the same way. This traditional role holds most clearly in the realm of book publishing. In other contexts, the editor may be given more leeway to make changes. But even in such contexts, it is good editorial discipline to have a solid reason for every change made.

As editors functioning in a traditional role, we need to guard against unnecessarily changing either the writer’s voice or the content of the writing. As editors given leave to intervene as needed, we need to remain aware of exactly what we are doing and why. The changes we make ought never to be unnecessary.

No matter the context, the best discipline is to — 

  • Make no change that you couldn’t defend

  • Make the most economical change that solves the problem you’ve identified

And when what’s needed is a heavy edit? Sometimes the problems are so deep and pervasive that going deep is the most economical change. If you’re in an environment where the editor takes the lead in shaping the text to suit situation and audience, then you’ve already been given license to do the work. If you’re in a different sort of environment, let the client (or your manager or the writer herself) — whoever you are working for — know about the issues you’ve identified before acting any further. You may need instead to return the piece to the writer for further work. The piece may not be ready for edit.

When to make a change and when to query that change can vary in different editing contexts. But if you make it a practice to always have a reason for the change you make or recommend, you’ll be prepared to function well in any editing environment.


Developing an editing process
UCSC Extension
First taught October 1996