The Most Important Thing an Editor Should Know

Photo of Apple Inc HQ in Cupertino, by Carles Rabada on Unsplash

One of my greatest lessons in editing happened years ago when I was working for a small think tank in the UK, the Fabian Society, editing their publications. We had agreed to publish a piece by the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and I was going through it before publication. One word kept appearing again and again — Cupertino. Sentences would include phrases like ‘in the spirit of Cupertino’ and ‘working alongside x with Cupertino’.

A google told me just one thing — that Cupertino was a city in Silicon Valley, known for being the headquarters of Apple Inc (pictured). I asked my colleagues, the ones with big brains working in policy, and none of them knew what it meant in the context of the Prime Minister’s essay either. My boss had told me that the editing process for this piece was not really an editing process at all — you can’t just make changes to the Prime Minister’s words without sending any changes back to his advisers for multiple checks and comments. Even changing a comma would delay the publication, while we waited for approval.

So, after some agonising, eventually I got the courage to email the Prime Minister’s adviser we had been dealing with. What was meant by ‘Cupertino’ throughout the piece, I asked. The adviser said he would get back to me.

As a writer, the relationship with your editor is a tricky one. It is often easy to fall into the trap of thinking it is you versus them, and that when they change your beautifully crafted sentence or replace a word, it is a personal slight.

But when you have an experience with a good editor, you start to realise that you are on the same team, working together to make an article or book as good as it can possibly be. The editor, usually thanklessly, as their name is not the one on the byline, helps the writer to ensure their words and thoughts are as clear as possible. Sometimes this is as simple as tidying up the grammar, but sometimes it involves talking to the writer to ask what they actually mean by a sentence. A bad editor will assume they know this. A good editor will check. But it is always with the same goal in mind, to make the piece read as well as possible in order to serve the reader.

Working for the good of the reader is the key point here. I once edited a piece filled with so many exclamation marks that the sense of the piece was completely lost in the excitement of the publication. I removed them all, thinking that the words should be allowed to speak for themselves. The writer complained about me to my boss, worried I had changed the tone of the piece. But I was not serving the writer, I was serving the reader. The writer benefited too of course — through my work he appeared to be someone with coherent thoughts and the ability to get them across in writing.

A few hours after my email, the Prime Minister’s adviser got back to me. Cupertino was an error, he said. Someone had accidentally pressed a button that found every use of the word cooperation, and changed it to Cupertino. I had been right that the only meaning of the word was a city in Silicon Valley, and I had been right that it was not the word that was meant to be there.

It was a good lesson in editing. If something does not make sense, always query it, even if the writer is the Prime Minister, even if you are the most junior person in the organisation, even if you are scared. Because if it does not make sense to you, how will it make sense to anyone else?

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