In my editing class at Loyola University of Maryland, after three or four weeks on spelling, punctuation, grammar, English usage, and house style, I introduce my students to macro editing. And on that day I tell them the Secrets of Editing.
Because most of you have no opportunity to attend that lecture, I have decided today to Reveal All: The secret to functioning effectively as an editor lies in a willingness to ask questions so obvious that they sound simple-minded.
Here are a few of those questions.
What’s it about? This is the focus question. When you write, you must write about One Main Thing, however many particulars may attach to it. If you cannot say in a single sentence what the text is about, then you do not know what it is about. (It’s entirely possible that the writer hasn’t figured that out either.) But this is the question you will have to answer when it comes time to write the headline or subject line, so you might as well not put it off till the end.
What happened yesterday? This sounds like a journalistic question, but you are typically going to begin with the immediate circumstances. The Iliad does not open with Leda and the swan or the abduction of Helen; as it opens the Greeks are about to be driven into the sea after ten years before the walls of Troy because their great champion Achilles is in a snit over a girl. Like Homer, you will want to begin in medias res, in the middle of things. Later you can explain how you got there and what comes next.
What kind of text is this? This is your form question. What kind of structure is apt for your subject? People love narrative, so if you have a story and can tell it clearly and directly, they will follow it to the end. If it has another structure, you need to be aware of its parts and how they work together, which leads to the next question.
Who did what to whom? This is your organization question. Your reader has to be oriented in place and time at every point. So you are going to present the elements that fall under the One Main Thing in a chronology or a series of subtopics, the actors and events identified in each, with transitions from one stage to the next. I advise my students to make a rough outline on a piece of paper as they edit, so that they can see the components, how they fit together, and how they might fit together more effectively.
How do we know this? This is your sourcing question. Unless you are writing a first-person witness account, you got your information somewhere, and your reader has a right to know where it comes from, so that its reliability can be evaluated.
Does this sound right? Your tone question demands that vocabulary, syntax, allusions, and all the components of voice are apt for your subject, your occasion, your publication or organization, and your audience.
Why do I care? Does your text contain persons or situations with whom or with which your reader can identify? What is the import on your text for the reader? Does it have a consequence in their life? Have you shown that?
Are you sure we want to do this? Mike Waller, a former publisher of The Sun who rose through the ranks as a copy editor, once said that this is the single most important question an editor can raise. This is the question that may protect you from publishing a fabrication, a plagiarism, a libel. This is the question that can save your ass. Have you thought this and its consequences through? Are you sure we want to do this? Are you really sure?