Editing is a funny thing. People assume  all editors are writers, and all writers are editors. Not true. Not even a little bit true. Behind every great author, there’s a great editor. The very best of this rare breed of anal-retentive word nerds can elevate a piece of writing to heights the original author could never have dreamed of. Even a mediocre editor is likely to help prevent embarrassing typographic errors. Bottom line: everyone needs an editor. Everyone.

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of editing, both personally and professionally. In the past two months, I’ve edited a YA novel, a workbook on management styles from my good friend Randy Clark and a passel of client-related work on a set of professional reports.

It’s a shocking amount of fun, all of it. It lets my inner nitpicker (which is dangerously close to my outer nitpicker) out to play. When done right, editing engages the left and right sides of your brain at once, in a glorious mess of words, grammar, structure and ideas. Here’s some editing advice for helping the writers in your life shine:

  1. Focus. Editing isn’t something you can dip into and out of. If you’re doing a really deep dive on a mound of copy, you need to have tunnel vision. When I’m editing, I don’t answer the phone. I don’t get on Twitter (which is weird, because I’m always on Twitter). I don’t even talk to my coworkers. I edit. Any external stimulus, any external language breaks the flow and rhythm of what I’m working on, muddies the voice of the author and makes it harder to spot the tiny flaws–the extra space, the misplaced semicolon, the snarled syntax.
  2. Think. A good proof reader will tell you about those misplaced semicolons. A good editor will tell you about the semicolon and also leave a note in the margin asking what you were thinking when you wrote that statement, who your intended audience is, what the heck your thought process was when you wrote that sentence. It’s not about being a grammatical robot (though that stuff’s all important). No, a good editor acts as an advocate for the reader, pushing the writer to be clearer, funnier, smarter, more informative, more awesome. If all you’re doing is hunting for dangling prepositions and comma splices, you’re missing half the battle.
  3. Disappear. When you rewrite a sentence, it should still sound like the original author. It’s so tempting to slip in that hilarious turn of phrase or rewrite the meaning of the sentence. But that’s not the point. Your job is to help the writer sound more like herself, not more like you. Kill your ego. Ask questions, make suggestions, be ruthless. But let it be in service of the writer, not in an attempt to homogenize her voice.

Editing, either self-editing or external editing, is the key to almost all great writing. How do you go about making a piece really shine? Do you ever edit for others? Tell us your experiences!