In praise of editing

Main illustration: Nate Treme

At Intercom we’re lucky to work with many, many talented engineers, designers and researchers.

The best editors serve as proxies for readers.

They’re full of strong opinions and many are talented writers. But none of their writing ever sees the light of day without going through our editorial process.

Editing is a skill that’s overlooked and under-appreciated. Whether writing software or prose, editing is what turns the good into something great. We get something down, share it, get feedback, revise, and then do it over again.

Yet most people continue to treat editing as something superficial – a few copy edits here and there with one eye towards the publish button. It’s the lipstick on a pig approach to editing – it might look good to you and the writer, but the reader won’t be fooled.

The content team at Intercom spend most of our week editing blog posts, books and podcasts, and in all of them, editing is a process, not just a production stage.

It’s a partnership

The best writing comes from practitioners – from designers writing about design, or marketers writing about marketing.

But subject matter experts don’t automatically make good writers. It requires someone to help move ideas from the mind of the writer to the mind of a reader – no easy task. That’s where an editor comes in.

The best editors serve as proxies for readers. They understand what those readers need and appreciate, but are able to help writers do what is necessary to reach them. It’s a mutually rewarding relationship where the writer can advise on what needs to be said, and the editor can advise on the best way to say it.

It’s easier to add than to take away

It’s easier to bury your head in correcting punctuation than challenge someone’s opinion.

There’s a reason that editing is often met with fierce resistance – people are very attached to their own words. Once they’re committed to paper, we’re reluctant to take them away. But good editors have the unique ability to view writers and their products from the outside, which authors themselves rarely can.

The first step of our editing process is asking authors to send us the elevator pitch – a short outline of what they’re going to say. Not only does it allow us to help us to ask the tough questions (“Is this a good idea? Will there be an audience for it? Have we or others written about this before? Why would anyone outside Intercom care about this?”) but it also helps the author add structure when they do sit down to write.

Trade words for clarity

There’s a great story about Michelangelo who was asked how he carved statues from stone: “I just chip away everything that’s not the statue.” The same goes for editing – try remove everything in the way of the author getting their idea across.

A simple way to do this is to take three pages of copy and see if you can turn it into one. The point of this kind of exercise is not just to use fewer words, it’s to learn to find clarity. When it comes to respecting your readers’ time and attention, less is often more.

It might appear counter-intuitive, but this is what progress looks like.

There’s more than one type of editing

Editing isn’t a single process – there are a number of different types, all valuable at different stages. So flex your strategic editorial skills early on, and focus on the copy editing once you have a working draft in order.

Here’s the different types of feedback you might receive depending on how complete your prose.

A common mistake is only focusing on one of these and calling it a day. It’s easier to bury your head in correcting punctuation than to challenge someone with a different opinion. But the best copy-edited piece in the world will fall flat if it can’t communicate its idea properly to the reader.

The easy thing for an editor to do is make things safe. You’ll avoid trouble that way, but you’ll avoid success too. The quality of critique really does decide the quality of writing. If you’ve a solid editorial process in place, and writers willing to engage (and push back) against meaningful feedback, you’ll notice an uplift not just in your writing, but in your readers too.

If you like our approach to editing and publishing, why not join us? We’re hiring an Editor in San Francisco.