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Do editors focus on the wrong things?

by Jean Hollis Weber

Too many editors focus on the details and don’t pay enough attention to the bigger picture when reviewing documents.

Is this statement true, or do writers, managers and others only perceive it to be true? If it is true, why does this happen? If it is not true, why do so many people think that is what editors do?

I think the statement is true (notice I said “too many”, not “all” or even “most”), and that it is a problem for editors in general. (See note 1) Because some editors focus — or appear to focus — mainly on details (spelling, punctuation, formal grammar, word choices), other people are left with the impression that all editors are pedantic, nit-picky people who are more interested in correcting mistakes and enforcing rules than in helping writers create the best document for the intended audience.

Am I saying that the details aren’t important? No, certainly not! I am saying that the details are only part — often a rather small part — of what an editor can and should be reviewing. After all, a document can be correctly spelled and punctuated, grammatically correct, and use only approved terminology selected for the target audience, and yet not serve that audience’s needs.

Why does this narrow editorial focus occur, or appear to occur? I can think of several reasons, some to do with editors themselves and others associated with the perceptions and priorities of managers, writers and other clients.

Many editors are in one of these groups:

  • They don’t believe they can contribute substantively (see note 2) because they haven’t been trained in substantive editing or they aren’t sufficiently familiar with the subject matter they are editing.
  • They are more comfortable enforcing rules than making suggestions and then dealing with writers and others who may not appreciate those suggestions.
  • They know they can contribute substantively, but they don’t have time (or aren’t allowed) to do so.
  • They lack the basic skills and knowledge to do a good job of copyediting, so they never get to chance to go beyond that stage, even though they might be very good at substantive editing.

Many managers, writers and other clients believe one or more of the following statements; you can probably think of others.

  • Editors do only the picky things, not more substantive evaluation.
  • It’s not an editor’s job to substantially revise a writer’s work.
  • Substantive editing takes too long and costs too much.
  • Editing is done after the manuscript is written, leaving insufficient time to change anything major that an editor might find.

Can we, as editors, do anything to overcome these beliefs and attitudes? Certainly, if the problem is at our end, we can seek training in both editing skills and negotiating and other skills for dealing with people.

We need to make sure that we know how to add value through substantive editing, if we’re going to put ourselves forward to do it. That often means we need to learn a lot more about technical topics, not just writing and editing issues. Indeed, we may need to know almost as much about the topic as do the writers we edit. The main difference is that we should come from the audience’s point of view more than from the technical side. For example, if we’re editing documents aimed at accountants, we need to know something about accounting, so we can tell whether the writing is pitched at the right level, uses appropriate concepts, is organized into tasks that accountants would do, and so on.

If the problem is with others’ perceptions, we can point out the considerable value we can add by substantive editing as well as copyediting. (Indeed, we can point out the copyediting can and should include more than it often does.)

We need to counteract the impression of an editorial focus on minutia that one gets from reading some of the exchanges on the Technical Writers’ list (TECHWR-L) and the Help Authoring Tools and Techniques list (HATT), among others. The impression may be false, but it’s a common one. Reading the Copyeditors’ list (COPYEDITING-L) gives a better picture of the range of editorial work, but our clients, managers, writers and other co-workers are less likely to read that list.

To help us make our points, we need good examples that are meaningful to the people we’re trying to convince. Our case is always stronger when we are perceived to be presenting facts, not just opinions.


  1. Some people who agree with me on this issue are Don Bush (who writes the “Friendly Editor” column in the STC’s newsletter Intercom and with Charles P. Campbell wrote a book titled How to Edit Technical Documents, 1995, ISBN 0897748700) and Bruce Byfield (see “Tech Writers, Grammar, and the Prescriptive Attitude” on the Techwhirl website, Carolyn Rude (author of Technical Editing, Fourth edition, Longman, 2005, ISBN 032133082X) and Judith A. Tarutz (author of Technical Editing, The Practical Guide for Editors and Writers, Addison-Wesley, 1992, ISBN 0201563568) emphasize both details and the bigger picture. No doubt many other editors say the same.
  2. Substantive editing is also called comprehensive or developmental editing.

Further reading

Links from my About Technical Editing page; in particular:
The role of the editor in the technical writing team
Classifying editorial tasks

Last updated 29 September 2007