Editing – well uh, that’s just, like your opinion, man

Sometimes we’re asked whether we have editing qualifications – to justify why we make the changes we do to a given piece of content. “We can see it’s better,” we’re asked, “but why?”

The answer is not as simple as you’d think – it’s that editing is a matter of opinion. But then so is language.

The Big Lebowski - The Dude
Gratuitous use of a meme

Of course it depends on whose opinion, and we like to think our years of experience in the field helps us improve the content we work with, but it’s not really something you can learn at university.

Let’s start with language

In the old school world of print publishing, and especially before the internet took over, every publication had its house style.

New arrivals to the editorial floor would be handed a book which governed how everything should be written – for example to write June 26 instead of 26th June, or ‘more than’ instead of ‘over’ (when referring to numbers).

The idea was that everyone should write in a consistent way, to set the tone for the publication.

But style guides were maintained by senior members of the team, and inevitably individual prejudice crept in.

And in the end they are based on opinions.

Even style guides are based on opinions

The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson - essential reading for editors
The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson – essential reading for editors

In The Mother Tongue, his excellent examination of the English language, Bill Bryson, points out that even the style guides for major newspapers were based on opinions.

For example, the style guide at The Times – which, in the 1970s was a respectable newspaper – banned many words for being Americanisms, where their origin was really English.

The Mother Tongue, by the way, is highly recommended reading for anyone involved with writing or editing English content.

And it’s good for settling differences of opinion in our editorial office!

Language is a living thing

Many British people think that to use -ize on the end of a word like customize is American English. It isn’t (it’s called an Oxford Z).

Language is always evolving and it’s hard to pin down. There often isn’t a right or wrong way of doing it.

So if language is (broadly) a matter of opinion, then so is editing.

Editing is an art, not a science – our rules for editing

There’s no magic formula for producing written content, or for editing it. Two different editors may treat the same piece of content differently.

To us, editing means balancing the original text with the needs of its audience, and the need for it to flow and be clear and natural. It also means knowing where to stop.

All too often we hear about editors who have completely re-written the text they have been given, leaving no sense of the original.

Our aim is to help the writer learn by changing as little as possible and explaining the changes we make.

We’re not looking for perfection, we’re looking to preserve the writer’s voice as much as possible, working with the content, rather than struggling against it.

And we’re also careful not to change the sense or the meaning of the text we work with – so it helps to understand the subject matter.

These are our rules for editing content, based on our wide experience of writing and editing for the web and print in many different areas.

It means we’re always open to new ideas, so feel free to add yours in the comments.

In the meantime, here’s The Dude.

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