30 Things I Learned in 30 Days As a New Editor

After being a writer for about a year, I recently started to work as a Technical Editor for Hongkiat.com (HKDC) as well. As this is my first editorial role, I’m learning on the job guided by an experienced and professional editorial team.

I’d like to share my experiences and observations with readers, writers and aspiring editors, hoping I can give an inside look on this transition period from writer to editor. Before we jump in, let me show you the HKDC editorial process (if you are only interested in my practical experience, just jump to the next section).

Our Publishing Route

Here is a simplified look into the editorial process in 10 steps:

  1. We get the raw articles from our writers.
  2. The article goes through an initial review in which we decide whether the post is publishable or not. We check for plagiarism and relevance (design, development, technology, entrepreneurship).
  3. The technical editing follows, in which we check facts, test code (if there is any in the article), recommended software, apps or tips. We also review the outgoing links our writers added to the article.
  4. The other part of technical editing is structural checkup, as each article needs to follow a logical structure that can be easily followed.
  5. If there are any technical problems or uncertainties we send the post back to the author for revision and modifications. The back and forth can happen more than once.
  6. When the technical and structural problems are cleared, the language editing follows in which we fix the stylistic and grammatical errors, and we do an initial SEO check-up as well.
  7. We put the post into proper HTML (in fact, HTML editing doesn’t have a fixed place, it happens in parallel with the technical and language editing, all of us add our own part to it).
  8. A final proofreading comes next.
  9. Graphics are checked, added, or modified (as it’s necessary).
  10. Finally the post gets scheduled.

From start to finish, we are looking at weeks of work and the posts bounce from one editor to the next, and understandably back to the writer as well.

What I’ve Learned as Editor

Editing Workflow

1. The Road to Publishing Is Longer Than I’d Expected

Usually a tremendous amount of work goes into a post before it can be published. To be fair, until you are involved in editing, you can’t really see this. Before, I thought a writer was the most important person at a magazine. Now, I’m more and more sure that an editor is almost as important. Bear with me to find out why I say this.

2. You Need to Meet the Deadlines, Whatever Happens

The editors’ deadlines are much tighter than a writer’s. If a writer is late by one or two days, nothing really serious happens, as posts are given their publish-by date weeks in advance. If an editor misses a deadline (due to sickness or not being able to show up for work), the schedule gets really messed up.

This is why it helps to have several editors in a publishing organization to keep the publication going smoothly.

3. Always Follow Editing with a Version Control Tool

During editing, you might realize at any point of the editorial process that a previous mid-edited version has a better outcome. When that happens, version control tools are a life saver.

It’s also important to keep the original post, as it can come handy as a reference, if you have any disagreement with the writer later.

4. First Editions Sometimes Turn Yellow

There’s no universal rule how we mark points of concerns in the first edition that we sometimes send back to writers. Some editors use the <del> tag that can result in a file full of deletions. I rather use the <mark> tag that give a bit of color to an article. For me, I figure highlighting frustrates writers less than deletions, so I’d rather stick to them.

5. You Need to Decide which Style Errors to Weed Out

It’s easy to decide whether to fix bigger style errors that make the text hard to read, but what about more subtle ones, such as exaggerations, word repetitions, tautologies, clichés, and the kind?

I’ve found it’s better to set up your own stylistic rules once and for all, as this way you don’t have to think about it again and again while you’re busy editing. At the end of the day, consistency is key.

6. It Can Be Hard to Tell What to Edit and What to Send Back

You also need to draw the line between the things you change in a post as an editor (sometimes that’s faster), and things you send back to your writers for modification (i.e. they make the changes themselves).

I found it’s better to send back additions and bigger changes, as it may upset certain writers if they can’t recognize the published version. After all, at the end of the day the post will be published under their name.

7. Editing is Basically Like Housework

If you are an editor, you do your best job if no one can notice any problems with the published articles.

Editors only get "recognized" when readers bump into a messy article. They get annoyed, then, editors (or the lack of them) will be mentioned, you can be sure. As editor, if you worked hard, it’s the writer who reaps the laurels – just like it needs to be. Of course, we are lucky here at HKDC, as we have great writers who put a great amount of work into their posts.

8. However Hard You Work, There Still Can Be Errors

This is probably the most frustrating part of an editor’s job. I haven’t yet figured the science out behind it, but there are always errors that no one notices (despite a sophisticated editorial process) left in a published article. Luckily, our readers usually recognize them at once, and let us know immediately.

The Technical Checkup

9. Your Computer Will Freeze, A Lot

When you are the technical editor, you need to manage numerous testing environments at the same time. Each article requires different software stack and configuration in the testing process. You also need to keep a clean browser you only use for testing, as browser extensions can sometimes interact with the code you test.

Also, you always need to freshly install software like WordPress, as each testing modifies the database a little bit, and not all plugins clean up after themselves when you uninstall them.

In short, your computer will freeze a lot, and it’s better to prepare for a shorter life cycle as well.

10. It’s Hard to Decide Whether To Fix Someone Else’s Code

In more technical articles, you will find that writers sometimes submit buggy code, and in some cases they don’t even completely understand the logic behind their own code (which makes it a mystery how they could have written it in the first place).

One possible reason, copy-paste programming is unfortunately not something that’s easy to prove as the code usually comes from more than one place, and the names of the variables and functions get changed as well.

But the main point here is that it’s hard to decide whether to fix someone else’s code or not. Writers should know the code they submit. Plus, at the end of the day, it’s not our job or our place to teach people how to code.

11. Fact Checking is a Neverending Task

Fact checking is probably the most tedious task of an editor. There are articles in which you’ll find a new fact to check in every other sentence. Of course, for fact checking you need to use authentic sources; personal blogs (unless they belong to credible professionals) and forum threads won’t be enough to prove the claims the article make.

You also need to check outgoing links, and the source of submitted graphics. And when you think you’ve already checked all facts, I promise, you, or someone else, will still find minor things you haven’t noticed.

12. Emmet is Now My Best Office Friend

In our line, editors write and fix a lot of HTML, so increasing the pace of your typing will speed up your workflow as well. Productivity tools like Emmet will come as a helping hand, and soon you’ll notice you can’t imagine your life without them.

Editors’ Skills

13. Editing Requires Different Skills Than Writing

Editing requires an unseemly huge different skillset than writing. Being a good writer doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be a good editor as well, and yes, being a good editor doesn’t necessarily mean you will be a good writer (in case you were an editor at first).

For myself, 30 days haven’t yet been enough to decide whether I deem myself a good or bad editor, although I consider myself a tolerable writer. Being an introvert also doesn’t help me, as this job surely requires a lot of communication.

For now, I’m just saying that if you want to be an editor, know that the skills that helped you in writing, won’t necessarily help you here.

14. You Can Never Have Enough Empathy

As an editor, you will be in contact with many people from different backgrounds, with their own individual strengths and weaknesses, each of them needing understanding and fair treatment. I assure you, you will bump into issues you haven’t really thought of before: articles lacking basic structure, repeatedly missed deadlines, writers who disappear after you worked a lot on their posts, technical mistakes you won’t want to believe, and many others.

In short, empathy will be an important skill to have; if you don’t have enough, you will surely have a hard time in this job. And yet, while you need to be empathetic and understanding, you also can’t be very soft or you will end up doing their (writing) job for them.

For me, being a writer helps a lot in understanding the needs of my fellow writers when I interact with them as an editor, and it’s also easier to see the line between acceptable and unacceptable things.

15. Breadth of Knowledge Will Be More Important than Depth

In coding and writing, the depth of your knowledge is usually more important than the breadth; in editing it’s the other way around.

You need to be secure with a broad range of topics, the latest industry trends, and also follow what your competitors are up to. Staying informed in a fast-changing field like technology will take a significant amount of your time, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing if you are really interested in your field.

16. You Need to Give Respectful Criticism

If you are an editor, you need to know how to give respectful criticism, in a professional, unbiased manner. It takes for a while to know what should be said and what’s better left unsaid.

I think if you are a novice editor like myself, the best you can do is to ask the opinion of your more experienced colleagues in cases you’re uncertain about. I do that as well, and I’ve got many useful advice on what to do, so far.

17. You Can Always Learn New Things about Grammar

If you are a grammar enthusiast, I promise, you will frequently stumble across weird grammar structures you’ve probably never seen before. The methodological question of whether to fix the error or send it back pops up here again. In most cases where it’s relatively easy to fix these problems, I do. Other times, sentences that are redundant or long-winded are better reworded or rephrased.

If however you can’t really figure out what the poet wanted to say, that’s when you need to ask them for clarification.

18. Multitasking Doesn’t Work Here

I don’t know whether it’s universal or just a personal thing, but I’ve found multitasking doesn’t work well with editing. I admit I hate multitasking by default, so other editors may have a different experience.

I think it’s just impossible to edit an article, while you are chatting with a writer on Slack, and answering to the email of another, and discussing editorial questions with your colleagues, and testing someone else’s code, etc.

Nevertheless, I’ve tried multitasking on some occasions during my first month… and ended up exhausted by the end of the day. When I perform these tasks one by one, I could keep calm and cheerful the whole day. To each its own, I suppose.

Writers’ Skills

19. Behind Conversational Writing Lies Hidden Hard Work

At HKDC, we use a conversational tone in our writings, just like most online publishers do. While it’s good for our writers to present things in a light, accessible manner, it can create the false impression that all this easy-going wording doesn’t require hard work.

As a result, we get a lot of balloon posts: great English, a lot of trendy buzzwords, but lacking in hard facts and research.

Our experienced, regular writers always perform a thorough research. Balloon posts are more frequent with new writers, who eventually snap out of it after guidance and some direction. In any case, I can learn a lot from every new occurrence, and use this to fine-tune my communication skills accordingly.

20. Writers Need Deep Knowledge on the Topic They Write On

For some reason, you don’t appreciate writers’ knowledge until you are an editor. It could be because once you’ve been exposed to the various skillsets and level of knowledge of multiple writers do you understand how varied everyone’s grasp of a skill (or subject or interest) is.

Writers need deep knowledge on the topics they write on. I understood this the best when I bumped into articles that lacked it. One way to test it is to make them rewrite it in a different angle. When they can’t, you know that this material probably wasn’t original work.

21. Too Much Knowledge Can Also Be a Problem

My most interesting discovery about being an editor so far is that too much knowledge can also be a problem. We have writers whose knowledge is so advanced and deep that sometimes it can be a problem for them to convey it in a way that’s accessible to less experienced readers.

Luckily, this issue can be fixed relatively easily, I just mark the too complicated parts in the edited version, send it back to the writer, and they rephrase it.

22. Free Associations Can Be Confused with Publishable Posts

Free associations are probably the kind of post that’s the hardest to edit. Free association posts feature decent research but are connected by rambling thoughts. Structure is a problem for more writers than you would think, and in fact, it is a problem for experienced writers as well.

For instance, in this first 30 days I edited a post that was completely accurate, but was incredible hard to follow. Similar to a puzzle, the parts were okay on their own but they weren’t connected in a comprehensible way.

I had to tear the whole post apart, rearrange the sentences, and rename the sections. It was a lot of work I couldn’t have spared, as you can’t really "explain" structure; they either get it or don’t. It can be a good solution to ask writers with structural problems to send in an outline before writing; this way you can skip on the heavyduty restructuring work.

23. Some Think We Won’t Find Out Plagiarism

Many writers submit work to us, assuming we don’t know or recognize what plagiarism is. There are also writers who don’t even spin their stolen content, simply copy-pasting published posts from other sites. I learned that there had been writers who sent in posts that were copied from our own site. Don’t expect replies to your submission if you’re taking that path.

Editor-Writer Relationship

24. You Can Learn a Lot from Your Writers

The best part of being an editor is that you can learn a lot of new things from your writers, as most of them are creative, knowledgeable people with a lot of interests and many fascinating ideas. When you sit at the editor’s desk you are constantly exposed to all this knowledge, creativity, and diversity.

I can say there are few other jobs in which you can learn this much every day.

25. Guidance Can Help Writers Improve

It may surprise you but there are writers who need only a very little guidance, and they can very quickly improve a lot. It could be a suggestion, a tweak in the angle or direction of the post, a new approach to writing the topic, and they’ll be able to give you a perfect final version.

As editor, guidance needs to be balanced as well, you can’t bombard your writers with too much information at the same time.

During my first week or two, I couldn’t always keep this healthy balance, and I probably gave too many suggestions at once. By the end of the first month I’ve begun to better “feel” the amount of information that writers can effectively absorb.

It’s not the same with everyone though, so editors need to get to know each of their writers individually.

26. Always Label the Changes You Ask For

To keep a healthy balance in guidance, it’s always best to stay simple and straightforward. Therefore it’s a good idea to label the changes you ask for, which means to clearly tell writers what you want from them.

If you want them to add an extra piece of information, just use the word “addition” when you speak with them, if you want them to clarify something, use the word “clarification” or “review”, if you found an error ask for “modification”, etc. There will be fewer misunderstandings this way.

27. Try to Keep Communication Short

Keeping communication short is not something I’ve managed to fully achieve, as I’ve been hinted that my emails are way too long. I eventually realized that it mainly happened because I wanted to be polite, and not to frustrate writers with too harsh a criticism.

I’ve found brief communication to be more efficient in professional relationships; it’s not a coincidence that Agile methodology has proven to be so successful.

28. Sometimes Writers Need to Wait a Lot

As you can see, editors have a lot of tasks, which means writers need to sometimes wait for days, or even a week to get a reply. Unfortunately, less patient writers sometimes disappear because of this. Perhaps they consider late replies as a form of rejection.

The truth is editors have many issues to look into for post submissions, then there is the review and editing process which involved a lot of back and forth discussions. Many of these processes overlap, across multiple articles with different writing styles as they come from multiple writers.

When in doubt, it would be good to write in and check up on the latest progress of your post. What is there to lose?

29. It’s Better to Give Options than Orders

I’ve learned this from Singyin, our veteran editor, and it’s a great advice that perfectly works in our daily communication with writers. When a problem occurs it’s always better to ask your writers what they want to do, than just to give orders to them. After all, everyone deserves the opportunity to have a say in their own work.

For instance, if there’s a submission that has a bigger – usually structural or technical – issue to fix, and you know that the modification will require significant extra work, it’s always a good idea to ask the writer whether they want to do that extra work, or to withdraw the post and submit another one.

In many cases, they realize that they chose a topic that didn’t completely fit their knowledge, and therefore will choose the latter. In other cases, they do the rewrite, and we end up with an awesome article.

30. It’s Best to Treat Writers as Partners

Creative jobs, like writing, require a different management style than regular workplaces. To keep writers’ creativity and passion alive, it’s important to treat them as partners during the whole editing process. Whenever it’s possible, let them choose what’s best for them. For example, instead of prescribing them topics, know that as writers, they are usually the best in topics they choose for themselves.

If you have a good idea, and you think one of your writers would be perfect for it, always recommend it, then let them find their own voice, and unfold their talent in the writing.

I think, the best thing an editor can do is to be a catalyst rather than a puppetmaster, not only because it works better, but it also means less stress and more fun on our own part!

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