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The Editor-Writer, Part I

Posted on Thursday, September 28, 2017 at 2:49 PM

Lessons on making what you write and edit for others more useful and meaningful.

By Peter P. Jacobi

I know writing is more my beat for Editors Only, but I've been thinking a lot about editing. Those of us who primarily write also edit, and those of us who devote most of our time to editing also write.

My thoughts have reminded me about how much width there is to editing responsibilities. I'd like to discuss editing's various aspects with you, from my perspective.

Some of my thoughts were prompted by a book recently added to my collection: Spellbinding Sentences by Barbara Baig (Writers Digest Books) and also by some wisdoms that I heard at this summer's workshops given by the Highlights Foundation, happenings I've been involved with for about thirty summers and from which, often, I've brought you reflections.

Be Clear

We all know the basics that we must attend to, even in the most utilitarian form of editing; that is to get the copy right: to aim slavishly for accuracy, brevity, and -- of course -- clarity. That's demanding enough, but, at least some of the time, we get involved in more complicated forms, for literary or societal or academic or policy purposes, dealing with copy designed for special audiences and reasons.

No matter what we edit and for whom and why, we must work diligently to make copy grammatical and spelling-right and featuring punctuation that properly serves the English language. I repeat the word clarity because if the copy isn't made clear, nothing else matters. The battle is lost. The reader is lost. What you've gone through must make sense, immediately and completely so.


I believe if you are writing, while you do so, you should begin to edit yourself in the process of producing the copy. I trust you do some careful reading of that copy also when you've completed the draft. And I further trust that -- as I've recommended through our long years together -- that you read your copy out loud so that not only your eyes but your ears attend to the work together, a much more successful way to assure that the writing ends up correct and sounding natural. The eyes alone are less likely to do the thorough task that the eyes and ears can accomplish together.

I'd then suggest for whatever you're editing that, if you can, you set the copy aside, engage in other copy or other activities, and return to the story a day later, so to see and hear it with fresh eyes and ears (and mind). That will really help you catch matters that are wrong or just aren't working.

Leave No Questions

These days, more than ever, brevity is called for, but be very careful that the copy you have edited is complete, that you've done your mightiest to not have a reader later say, "There's something missing here," or "I'm confused. I guess I better go through that again," a decision he or she is not always going make.

Completeness comes in two forms: informational and journalistic.

The first is impossible to achieve; there's always more information available than you can possibly use. Besides, remember there's that iceberg theory to apply, meaning that while you have an entire informational iceberg at your disposal, use only the one-seventh portion above water.

Journalistic completeness is what the editor aims for: coming up with copy that makes the reader believe he or she is getting everything necessary; that no needed facts seemingly are missing. I call that atmospheric completeness. Leave no questions except those the writer has intended for reader contemplation.

Add Interest

When we get beyond utilitarian editing, we begin to deal with the beauty of our language, the colors and rhythms, the nuances and the music that leave more lasting impressions with the reader. This may be improper for your publication, but I wouldn't just automatically ignore the possibility of using artier aspects available from within the craft of writing. A touch of that here and there, craftily used, can add interest and pleasure to one's reading.

Next time we'll look into following policy, knowing your own limits, and visionary editing.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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