How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

What to Look for in an Editor

You’re a researcher. You’re looking to extend your impact by writing for decision makers and other non-specialists — maybe op-eds, maybe other kinds of pieces. You know you’d benefit from an editor.

What’s the most important skill or quality that person should have?

Domain expertise, so you won’t have to explain everything to them?

The ability to make your sometimes clumsy prose sing?

A keen sense of your audience?

All very helpful, yes.

But there’s something even more important. And rare.

During my nearly 20 years editing for research organizations (and newspapers), I used to be an occupying force. Imperialist, even.

I used to rewrite copy wholesale. We usually had deadlines, and I had a small window in which to short-rope a piece up to the mark. To get there, I was the avatar for quality, and what a non-specialist audience would respond to — the defender of their right to clarity, concision, force and (above all) interest. If you thought your draft had a voice, it had a strong one after I was done with it…whether it was yours or not.

I used to think this was good editing — and, indeed, many people I worked with told me I was a very good editor. And when you’re editing bad writers, occupying-force editing has its place. Bad writers who want to be clear and change minds need to have their drafts rewritten, full stop.

But heavy edits don’t turn bad writers into good ones. Heavy edits just make them dependent on the editor. Bad writers become good writers (if they do) by writing a lot, and reading a lot, and trying to emulate in their writing what they’re reading, and getting a lot of feedback, and eventually learning to walk and then run.

Another kind of editing might be called developmental, although I think the word consultative is more accurate.

Consultative editing is minimalist — from a line-editing perspective, anyway. It’s not about commas. It’s not even about flagging those passages that might derail the train and kill everyone aboard.

Consultative editing is about springing the biggest locks on a piece: the blockers keeping it from blooming, or blinding the writer from what they’re actually writing about.

The consultative editor asks the writer a few questions per document. Maybe just one. And that question might not even be sweeping — it might pertain to a sentence or two.

But the question always also addresses the piece at large: a fork in the road or rot in a bearing wall. The consultative editing question lays bare for the writer decisions that must be made for the piece to really work — decisions the draft currently avoids making.

The consultative edit is a conversation, not a dictation. The process empowers and educates you, the writer. That’s because the decision on how to go forward is yours as the writer — and so is the piece, even more so now for your having made the decision.

When I’m asked to edit now, I first give a consultative edit. Not just because I’m a consultant, and not just because I rarely have time to do more; but because my work now is to empower and create the conditions for my clients to make better decisions — not to make those decisions for them.

So: in looking for an editor, you want someone who can give you a line edit, and who knows (or can learn quickly) about your work and your audience. 

But above all, you want someone who can pick the locks.

If in doubt, ask people the editor has worked with if the editor can do that. And ask to see a sample edit.