Why Does Anyone Need an Editor Anymore?

Why use a professional editor when there are electronic editing tools that highlight spelling and grammar errors? Besides the obvious answer that electronic editing tools do not catch all the errors in any document, an editor brings precision to content.

For example, on a recent editorial project, the writer was talking about children, and he kept using the adjective “small” children. After reading through all the content, I discerned that he was actually talking about the age not the stature of the children, so I changed the modifier to “young” rather than “small.” This minor changed added precision to the word choice. To which some of you might ask, “Who cares?”

The changes that an editor makes to good content might seem insignificant; however, the difference between good content and great content is in the details. Spell check or grammar check will never tell you that there is a better word to use to express meaning. Nor will these tools help you use a colon or semi-colon correctly. Why care about such precision?

Precise language communicates meaning. An editor can take your thoughts and good content and make them great so that the meaning you want to convey comes through to the reader. An editor will take your very, very, very long sentence that is technically correct but confusing to the reader and massage it into a form that allows the reader to understand your meaning. An editor will challenge your word choice to strengthen the meaning you want to convey. An editor will clean up your punctuation so your ideas and thoughts flow smoothly.

I could go on and on, but I am an editor, so my goal is to convey this idea in less than 300 words.

Still Learning

I love learning new words and increasing the precision with which I use familiar words. Perhaps that is why I am a word game addict – it goes with the editorial territory. I’ll never forget playing the dictionary game with my father, who was a well-read engineer, because he would always come up with wonderful and crazy definitions for words. My understanding of the actual definition of triptych, along with some humorous variations, comes from playing the dictionary game, not any art history classes. And as my children have grown into adults, I am happy that they are literate and have great vocabularies, but I do get a little annoyed when they beat me in Scrabble.

One of the books on my editorial bookshelf is Who’s Whose: A No-Nonsense Guide to Easily Confused Words (Philip Gooden). If you have ever been nervous about using the words “affect” or “effect” in a sentence, or if you are uncertain whether you want to assure or ensure someone’s safety, then this is the book for you. Along with clear examples and definitions, he rates the “embarrassment factor” of incorrect usage. It’s the kind of book that those of us who are word people can get lost in. I might pick up the book to reassure myself about correct usage, then get distracted as I move from assure/ensure/insure to the difference between auger and augur.

While learning new words and playing word games are both fun activities (for me), the underlying reason to keep learning words is to increase precision in communication. I don’t use obscure words to impress, but often a  carefully selected word can make the difference between good prose and great prose. And when I am editing someone else’s writing, I will often comment about word choice and suggest they choose more interesting words if their writing sounds flat and predictable.

Learn a new word this week – or look up a word you are unsure of and hone your communication skills. How about biannual and biennial?

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