5 things I learned from my editing courses

Like all other professionals, editors need training. While you may be great at grammar and have always been able to spot typos from afar, the editing process involves a lot more than simply correcting grammar and spelling mistakes (although this is an essential part of it!). In fact, I would argue that the majority of the work I do consists of other things:

  • I strengthen a text’s message and improve its clarity, flow, and coherence by changing words, phrases, and overly long sentences (depending on my mandate of course);
  • I improve a text’s accuracy by fact-checking names, dates, and titles;
  • I clarify a text’s structure by inserting and/or formatting headings to create a clear outline;
  • I ensure that citations and references are formatted correctly, that sources have been properly cited, and that any potential ethical or legal issues are flagged;
  • I ensure that author guidelines, spelling preferences, and style guides are applied consistently and correctly.

All this requires training because how does one, for example, improve a text’s clarity? This is a vague requirement that is made a lot more concrete with examples and exercises, of which I’ve had plenty in the past years. Since starting my editing training, I have completed three out of the five courses of Queen’s University’s Professional Editing Standards program (“Fundamentals of Editing Standards,” “Copyediting Standards I,” and “Copyediting Standards II”) and one SfEP course (“Brush Up Your Grammar“). I’m planning to take the remaining two Queen’s courses (“Proofreading Standards” and “Structural Editing Standards”) next year in order to obtain the certificate.

This is not where it ends, of course; any professional editor will engage in lifelong learning in order to stay up to date and hone their skills. I’m definitely planning to take more advanced copyediting and grammar courses and sharpen my MS Word skills in the future (especially concerning macros and wildcards).

For now, I’d like to share a few things that I have learned from my editing courses, thanks to fantastic instructors and colleagues. Of course, I learned much, much more than I can convey in one blog post, but I hope the selection below gives an idea (warning: long post!).

Grammar

First, I significantly strengthened my grammar skills. I especially improved my understanding of restrictive and non-restrictive clauses, subject/object cases of pronouns (“you and I” vs. “you and me,” “whom” vs. “who,” and “it is me” vs.  “it is I”), and number agreement (the majority of readers is or are?).

I practiced many of these at Peck’s English Pointers, a great, free resource with explanations and tests (I still refer to my notes on these whenever I am not sure about something!). I especially enjoyed the article “More Dubious Agreement.” Oh, to be able to write so clearly and understandably about grammar! Also, fun fact: did you know that 156 pages were devoted to the subjunctive in An Historical Syntax of the English Language, 1963–73, by F. Th. Visser? The stuff you learn!

Checklists

Second, I learned to approach editing projects in stages and work with checklists, because there are so many steps involved in an edit. I developed several checklists that help me make sure:

  • that I understand what the edit involves before I start: what is the preferred style and spelling? Are there style guidelines? To what extent is fact-checking involved? Do I check all elements? What is the intended audience of a text? What is its purpose? etc. This also helped me estimate how long a job would take and hence how much I should charge;
  • that a text is complete: are all references in the reference list present in the text and vice versa? Are all claims properly substantiated? Do the references contain all necessary elements (author, publication year/title, place of publication, and so on)? Are all abbreviations, tables, figures, etc. listed in the lists of abbreviations, tables, figures? Do all visual elements have captions? Etc.
  • that a text is consistent: Are all headings and captions styled in the same way? Are tenses used logically and consistently? Is language appropriately and consistently formal or informal? Are tables formatted consistently? Is capitalization and punctuation applied consistently? Etc.
  • that a text is correct: Do percentages in tables make sense? Do graphs and other visual elements show what the author says they show? Are there any spelling and grammar mistakes?

Querying

Third, I learned how to query authors effectively, politely, and clearly. Writers work hard to get their words on paper, and no one is served by unclear or harsh comments. I learned to clearly state what it is that I find problematic, why I suggest a certain change, and, if applicable, which options an author has if they want to rephrase a sentence. Depending on the context, I usually go ahead and change something myself, but whenever I feel that a change needs an explanation, I provide one. I always phrase my feedback citing the reader, in whose interest I work at the end. Some examples of diplomatic queries or comments:

  • “Can you insert a reference for this claim please?”
  • “Please make sure the citation is 100% accurately copied, as this seems to be a mistake.”
  • “The meaning of this sentence is unclear. Did you mean [insert interpretation 1] or [insert interpretation 2]. If you meant [interpretation 1], please write [suggestion 1]. If you meant [interpretation 2], please write [suggestion 2].”
  • “Could you add a time period or year to this event? The reader may not know when this occurred.”

Clarity, conciseness, coherence, and flow

Fourth, I learned a lot about effectively improving a text’s clarity, conciseness, coherence, and flow. Is there a less convoluted, more specific, clearer way of stating something? Through studying textbooks and practicing with countless examples, I learned about noun strings, parallel constructions, nominalizations, active/passive voice, paragraph/sentence structure/emphases/length, comma splices, run-on sentences, dangling modifiers, tone, mood, style, voice, needless words, and more. Some fun examples from my own editing work and course exercises:

  • As Foucault’s genealogical work and all those who followed him demonstrates -> As Foucault’s genealogical work and that of all those who followed him demonstrate …
  • beliefs that are at war with each other -> warring beliefs
  • may merely be the beginning -> may be merely the beginning
  • Scholars first placed under strict scrutiny -> Scholars first thoroughly scrutinized
  • either due to accidents or gross negligence -> due to either accidents or gross negligence
  • We conducted an analysis -> We analyzed
  • This paper is an investigation into information processing behavior involved in computer human cognition simulation -> This paper investigates how computers process information when they simulate human thought.

Ethics

Finally, while editors are not responsible for the final form in which a text is published, we have a duty to flag issues that can lead to claims of plagiarism, copyright violation, defamation, invasion of privacy, or libel. As a former academic, I was very well aware of what plagiarism is and how to avoid or detect it, but it was interesting to learn about what constitutes libel in different jurisdictions and what the deal is with using trademarks in fiction. However, ethics are not just about avoiding being sued by someone. They’re also about fairly representing people, avoiding racist, sexist, ableist, ageist, and other biased language. Is it necessary to mention someone’s gender, race, age, or hair color? Can we change a sentence like, “A good doctor will use his knowledge and experience when diagnosing his patients” into “A good doctor will use their knowledge and experience…”?

Some resources:

I hope this post has given you an idea of the depth and width of editing training. If you have any questions or want more examples, I’m happy to respond in the comments!

2 thoughts on “5 things I learned from my editing courses

  1. Judy

    Hello Marieke,
    I’m researching editing courses and programs. I want to study online and see that Queen’s and Simon Fraser both offer programs. Do you think the one at Queen’s is too advanced for a beginner? I’ve been writing a newsletter for four years and have edited my own work. Do you know anything about SFU’s program? I’d love to know your thoughts.

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    Reply
    1. Marieke Krijnen Post author

      Dear Judy,
      I think Queen’s is a good start for a beginner! It’s ok if you don’t know much about editing yet, and given your experience I think it’s definitely suitable! I have no idea about the SFU program but have heard good things about in. Perhaps you can join one of the Facebook groups for editors (Editors’ Association of Earth, EAE Backroom, Business + Professional Development for Editors) and search for “Simon Fraser” or SFU there?

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