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Beyond copy-editing: the editor-writer relationship

by Marsha Durham, Lecturer, Department of Language & Interaction Studies, University of Western Sydney, Nepean (Australia), and Jean Hollis Weber, Freelance technical editor

First published in Seminar 91: Working Smarter Not Harder (Proceedings of the Technical Communication Seminar, October 1991), NSW Society for Technical Communication, pp.47-50.


Editing is often narrowly defined as making corrections after a document is written. This approach typically relegates the editor to a low-status role within the organisation. However, a skilled and experienced editor takes on far more responsibility than simply ‘making marks on paper’, with benefits to the organisation as well as to the individual:

  • The organisation saves time and money, gains an improved product and greater customer satisfaction, and maintains a professional image.
  • The editor gains greater job satisfaction and possibly better pay.

The full range of issues in editing cannot be covered in one paper, so we have focused on how the editorial role is affected by the organisation itself and the editor’s relationship with writers and other members of a documentation team. We also present strategies that editors use within this relationship.

What is editing?

Editing is the process of reviewing information to improve its:

  • organisation
  • content
  • accuracy
  • completeness
  • coherence
  • methods of presentation
  • literary and pictorial quality
  • consistency
  • retrievability
  • ease of use

Editing may also include:

  • designing and planning a document
  • copy-marking to indicate typography and layout
  • discussing the edited information with the author
  • teaching classes

Editing responsibilities

The following list is not intended to suggest that these are the only possible major areas of editorial responsibility.

An editor:

  • helps writers communicate information effectively (accurately, clearly, concisely, usably and consistently)
  • acts as a consultant to information planners and writers
  • influences writers’ thinking toward readers (applies a fresh point of view)
  • acts as a quality controller
  • coordinates the information package
  • links writers and production staff (graphic artists, photographers, printers)

Editorial authority

The editor’s degree of authority is influenced by the culture of the organisation itself. An organisation can be studied in the same way that anthropologists study the customs of a village or tribe to discover what is valued and what is not acceptable. The collection of rules and expectations about writing is called the organisation’s ‘discourse etiquette’. Employees who are successful writers in one organisation have learned what’s acceptable, and when they move to a new organisation, they must learn its discourse etiquette to fit in. Acceptable editing relies on the editor having a similar knowledge.

The organisational culture also decides the status of the editor. Even though the editorial activities may be similar, editors may be given either high or low authority within their organisations. If editing is valued by the organisation, the editor is given significant authority, for example, to participate in projects, oversee writers, make changes and even create an organisational style. Status goes with this authority.

Editors can change their status in their organisation, as ‘editorial status is not fixed; it is earned’ (Speck 1991). Editors can gain authority in two ways:

  • by increasing their editorial skills
  • by changing the culture so that editing work is valued

Changing the editorial role

The key to changing the culture lies in educating others about the editor’s role. Too often the editor’s role is:

  • defined differently in different organisations
  • poorly defined
  • not always explained to the people the editor will be working with
  • not seen as needing management support
  • not seen as requiring authority appropriate to the responsibility

The individual editor needs to be involved in negotiating an appropriate role within a given organisation. At a minimum, this negotiation needs to cover:

  • management issues – responsibility and authority
  • ensuring writers know what the editor’s role is
  • determining the timing and type of editorial involvement
  • setting priorities on the editor’s time
  • setting editorial policy

A related problem is that if writers and researchers out-rank the editor in terms of pay and status, the editor may be seen as low-status.

The editor-writer relationship

Editors may have trouble assessing and developing their own status in the organisation because they do not know how writers perceive or value what is involved in editing. The following study indicates what writers like and dislike about editors (Rude 1991).

Writers like an editor who…

  • restructures information so that the train of thought is smooth and logical
  • points out unclear ideas and explanations
  • catches misspellings
  • improves the document’s general readability
  • returns the document quickly
  • communicates with the writer about changes
  • edits fairly and without malice
  • shows patience

Writers dislike an editor who…

  • doesn’t say what’s wrong or give direction
  • makes changes according to personal style
  • is overly conservative about the material (excessive qualifiers and disclaimers)
  • makes comments or changes that are inconsistent or unacceptable within the organisation
  • requires too many rewrites

Successful editing depends on a good relationship with the writer. To reach the goal of a readable, successful document, both the editor and the writer need to work as a team, unified in reaching this goal. This goal is jeopardised if writers view the editor as a ‘problem’. To prevent this, the editor needs effective communication to deal with individuals and groups working on a writing project.

Four key communication skills are:

1. Active listening
This means concentrating on what the speaker means and checking information through paraphrasing and asking probing questions, such as ‘What do you mean by…’.
2. Confidence
Editors need to demonstrate that they are confident in their abilities without becoming aggressive with writers.
3. Consideration
Editors may become so intent with changes that they forget the writer’s sense of professionalism is involved. Writers themselves may find it difficult to separate criticisms about the writing from criticisms about the person.
4. Nonverbal strategies
Editors can underline their authority by using effective nonverbal strategies, such as environment (e.g. the setting of an editing conference), dress, and facial, voice and other body cues.

Strategies for editing

A review of the literature on editing suggests the following strategies to assist the editor in developing as a high-authority person:

  1. Define the editor’s role.
  2. Get involved early in a project. *
  3. Collaborate rather than confront. *
  4. Help define the audience.
  5. Appeal to authority and standards.
  6. Be a source of writing information and tools.
  7. Teach and assist authors and managers. *
  8. Edit the draft documents at various stages in their development.

* These strategies are discussed in more detail below.

Get involved early

  • Help define the audience.
  • Help design the information package.
  • Suggest usability and readability aids.
  • Edit the information plan and the table of contents.
  • Set rules on what’s required and what’s negotiable (i.e. set your editorial policy).

Collaborate rather than confront

  • Different perspectives improve the product.
  • Put the emphasis on improvements, not corrections.
  • Use negotiation, and define what’s negotiable and what isn’t.
  • Talk about what helps readers understand or retain a message.
  • Tell the author why you do what you do.
  • Listen actively.

Teach and assist authors and managers

  • Establish editorial authority (teach managers).
  • Help new writers or people new to the company to minimise need for corrections.
  • Demonstrate how editors can help and when they should be involved in a project.
  • Keep up with latest on writing, usability, etc.
  • Help people from other disciplines who need to write technical or business reports.
  • Help anyone who is weak in some areas (e.g. indexing).


Putting marks on paper is the most basic task that an editor does. More complex is the range of interpersonal and technical skills that an effective editor uses to help writers and documentation teams manage a project and reach their goal. The editor’s ability to demonstrate these skills and have them valued by others determines the editor’s role and level of authority. In these ways, the editorial status is determined within the organisation.

References and further reading

Clements, W. & Waite, R. G. 1983, Guide for Beginning Technical Editors. Society for Technical Communication.

Grove. L. K. 1990, ‘The editor as ally’, Technical Communication, vol. 37, no. 3, pp. 235-238.

Rude, C. 1991, Technical Editing, Wadsworth.

Speck, B. W. 1991, ‘Editorial authority in the author-editor relationship’, Technical Communication, vol. 38, no.3, pp.300-315. (This review lists 138 further references.)

Weber, J. H. ‘The role of the editor in the technical writing team’, Seminar 90: Bringing Technology Closer (Proceedings of the Technical Communication Seminar, October 1990), NSW Society for Technical Communication, pp.67-69.

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Last updated 29 April 1999