It doesn’t take greatness to edit the copy of inexperienced writers. Goodness will do.

I work almost exclusively with the copy of people who do not write for a  living. Publishers want to tap their expertise, readers want to learn what they know. I recognize from the get-go that we live on opposite shores, and that my editing is the bridge between their insight and my readers’ curiosity.

bridgeAlong the way I’ve figured out five base requirements for working with writers who work in other professions:

  • Respect
  • Empathy
  • Patience
  • Wisdom
  • Openness

Note the absence of editorial acumen and abundance of qualities we apply to nice people.

Let’s look at these bullet points in detail.

1. Respect: acknowledging the value of what they do

When I take on an inexperienced writer, I picture somebody who might never have even had an editor before. Content marketing projects in particular crave the insights of subject matter experts who are very good at things other than writing.

I introduce myself in casual language laced with a bit of self-deprecating humor. I want them relaxed and reassured that I know what I’m doing.

Then I remind them why we’re working together: we respect their skills, and our readers want to tap into them. Their job is to share their expertise; my job is to get their copy into the right shape to keep people reading.

2. Empathy: making my edits as painless as possible

I like to use Microsoft Word’s track-changes feature as a teaching tool, but I recognize that it pours a hemorrhage of revisions into an inexperienced writer’s copy.

I prepare my writers for the shock of seeing these revisions for the first time, and I reassure them that the essence of their story is still in there — it’s just been rearranged.

As I’m editing their copy, I’m keeping a sharp eye for evidence of deft writing or original insight. Whatever I find, I keep.

3. Patience: accepting them for who they are

Professional writers and editors know a thousand tricks for rearranging, economizing, turning passive sentences to active and so forth. Inexperienced writers simply do not know these tricks, nor have they developed the intuitive knack for employing them. And sometimes they never will.

They also might not share our deadline-driven view of the world. That means adapting to the realities of their profession. They have lives which require them to put their jobs first, and that means we have to be more flexible than we’d be with a professional writer.

4. Wisdom: teaching things that are teachable

Inexperienced writers usually don’t have that remarkable show-don’t-tell quality we see in great writers, and I probably cannot teach them how to acquire it.

But I can teach them how to avoid cliches, mixed metaphors and gross grammatical goofs like dangling modifiers. And I can school them on matters of taste and judgment, and on how to avoid loaded language and legal entanglements.

With any luck I can teach them to put the most compelling point in their article at the top and remind them to sprinkle SEO-friendly keywords throughout their copy.

I teach what I can and accept that they can’t learn everything I’ve learned. They’re too busy having a life.

5. Openness: explaining why I’m changing their copy

I can’t go through and point out why I made every change in an article, but anytime I do a fundamental rewrite, I explain the main points.

I don’t do this because I think the writer will internalize my knowledge and do better the next time. Their skills may improve over a span of months, but that’s more of a bonus than a realistic expectation.

Explaining myself is the decent thing to do, and that’s enough.