An Editor’s Skill Set, Part I: Research, Observation, and Brevity

Unless you have a young child who is learning to read, you probably don’t give much thought to your ability to read . . . but that skill took years of training and practice to develop. Writing requires another set of skills that took years to perfect—first printing, then learning cursive, and finally for most of us, learning to type.

I also find that many skill sets I use in my work as an editor are skills I have honed over many years of writing and working not just publishing, but in every career I’ve had. I’d like to talk about three of those skills in relation to the editing I do for authors, and I think you’ll agree they are basic skills for every writer, too.


editor's skills
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /

Confession time: I still miss library card catalogs. (I know you’re laughing at me, but I really do!) There was something so satisfying about flipping through those cards, finding just the right connection to the information you were looking for, and zeroing in on the book or encyclopedia or microfiche that promised to hold the secret treasure.

But research has come a long way, baby, and the Internet (a concept that would have made a great sci-fi novel not that many years ago) has opened a world of research opportunities for readers and writers. Today, my computer, not a card catalog, is one of my best research tools. Whether I’m editing fiction or nonfiction, I find myself researching something for almost every project—and I feel like a detective as I search for clues and answers to things that affect the professionalism and quality of my client’s manuscript. The research skills I learned in grade school and sharpened in college have been invaluable to my writing as well as to my work as an editor and writing coach.

Before I begin any writing or editing project, I open several pages on my computer in preparation: Chicago Manual of Style, Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary, and Google are the first three. I also have a number of reference books on my desk at all times: the print version of Chicago Manual of Style, Garner’s Modern American Usage, and numerous copyediting manuals to which I can refer for specific questions that always pop up.

Research should probably be every writer’s middle name. Those basic researching skills you learned in grade school and perfected in high school, college, and the workplace are so important when writing. Knowing how to find information relevant to the subject you’re writing about and how to properly cite your sources are required skills if you’re a nonfiction author. Even for fiction writers, the availability of information at your fingertips through search engines alone is almost limitless if you know how to conduct online research: for example, how much fun would it be to create a language for your imaginary society that is based on the structure of Esperanto?


Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono /
Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono /

So much of what a writer puts on paper begins with his or her observation of the world. As a writing coach and editor, I come into the picture after those observations have been committed to memory or to paper.

I’ve been lucky enough to meet several times with one of my clients to brainstorm ideas and discuss concepts when she’s unsure if she’s heading in the right direction, and I cue off her body language and questions as we discuss her options. But how does observation work when I’m all alone with a manuscript?

You might be surprised to know how much of yourself you reveal in your writing. I often know next to nothing about a client when I begin editing a manuscript, but there are always telltale signs in those words—and I don’t mean just in memoirs. Even fiction contains clues if you know how to recognize them, and I enjoy getting to know my clients through their writing as much as I do through phone conversations and emails. Of course there is nothing like a face-to-face meeting to speed up that process of discovery, but I continue to learn so much through observing what is between the lines of the words I edit.


Judging by the length of these answers, you’re probably assuming this is a word lacking in my vocabulary, right? I’m a lover of words, and I’ve always been fascinated with the ways we string words together to communicate, choosing just the right ones and placing them in just the right order to clearly express ideas. Words are my bread and butter, so I delight in every opportunity to learn something about them or from them.

A holdover from college writing that I often see in new writers’ work is the idea that more description is better; I suspect it’s a throwback to writing to a word count. When I’m editing, I embrace the concept of brevity. I love reading clear, concise text that uses just the right words to convey the writer’s meaning, so I work hard to help writers achieve that in their own writing. Less often is more, and the idea of using only enough (and the correct) words is something I watch for as I edit. When I have the pleasure of editing a second or third manuscript for the same author, I’m always gratified when I see fewer extraneous words and phrases than I did in the first manuscript.

When I share ideas with clients about their writing, I need to clearly explain my thoughts without burdening them with pages of explanation, so I’ve developed a type of communication shorthand, and I always include a description of that in my editorial letter when I finish editing a manuscript. I’m still perfecting my technique, but I do try to follow my own advice: never use ten words to say something when five will do.

In Parts II and III of this series, I’ll discuss three more skills I use as an editor: Accuracy, Honesty, and Resilience.

Happy Writing,



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Candace Johnson is a professional freelance editor, proofreader, writer, ghostwriter, and writing coach who has worked with traditional publishers, self-published authors, and independent book packagers on nonfiction subjects ranging from memoirs to alternative medical treatments to self-help, and on fiction ranging from romance to paranormal. As an editorial specialist, Candace is passionate about offering her clients the opportunity to take their work to the next level. She believes in maintaining an author’s unique voice while helping him or her create and polish every sentence to make it the best it can be. Learn more here.

For more great writing and publishing information, check out Change It Up Editing and Writing Services on Facebook, where I share interesting articles and links about writing and publishing.

10 thoughts on “An Editor’s Skill Set, Part I: Research, Observation, and Brevity”

  1. I’m going to enjoy this series, Candace. Thanks for sharing what skillset goes into your job. I find it interesting that research is something you do. Is your research fact checking, or is it more involved?

    1. It’s both, Gwen. When proofreading, most of my research is on grammar details and verifying spelling, but the research can be more extensive in copyediting. For example, if the author mentions another author’s book and uses a quote, I check spellings of the title, subtitle, and author’s name——and you’d be surprise how often I find at least one of those is misspelled in the manuscript. I verify the quote is correctly transcribed whenever possible. Citations are important, too, and incorrect citations styles and references can take some time to verify and correct.

      I tend to dig a little deeper, too, whenever something doesn’t sound quite right; I edited a self-help book in which the author quoted Benjamin Franklin on the first page, and I recognized the quote was actually from someone else; how embarrassed would the author have been if that error had gone to print?

      Book proposals require a great deal of research time; I learn all I can about the author and the subject matter as well as the target audience, competitive titles, and relevant statistics. Research is even necessary while editing fiction: authors use brand names as well as the names of actual buildings, streets, corporations, and a plethora of other things that must be verified. It’s important work, but also great fun, and I learn enough trivia to at least hold my own in Scattergories and Trivial Pursuit!

  2. As a writer, I admit to despising research. I hate being embarrassed more, though. Part of my horribly inefficient methodology is to write first and then research the first draft is complete to make sure I didn’t screw anything up. I’m sure I still screw things up, though, which is why the world needs editors.

    Editing is less gratifying, especially when I have to stop and fact-check every other line. But it is cathartic to chop extraneous words, no?

    1. Research often has a negative connotation, but for me it encompasses so much more than verifying facts, and I do enjoy the puzzle-solving aspect of it. I don’t think there’s a bad way (or time) to research and fact-check, but you have to the method that works for you. I actually think your method makes a lot of sense, Eric——get the creative juices flowing first and check the facts later.

      As for editing, I agree that stopping to look something up every line or two can feel like slogging through the Everglades . . . but oh yes——chopping those redundancies and extraneous words is cathartic! 😉

  3. Well said. Like another author on this list, research is my least favorite part of the job.

    However, my favorite part of this article was the mention of brevity. I feel like college trains many a writer to think more words is better writing, and it almost always is not the case. I learned in my technical writing job these same ideas, and I find myself using them when I edit my work. Nothing better than going back and cutting out words to make a sentence flow better.

    Looking forward to part two!

  4. Candace, fantastic post! Like you, I miss card catalogs, except our church library still has one. I love going there to look for a book and find myself needing to check what section a book is shelved in. While serving on the Library Committee, we discussed placing our card catalog on the computer system. We all voted “no” because we are a very diverse congregation with some members aged 100 and over. Many don’t have computers and we’d still have to maintain the card catalog.

    I love research! In fact, if I’m not careful, I can get stuck in research mode and forget I’m supposed to be writing. Looking forward to Part II.

    1. I am so jealous—I thought card catalogues were gone forever, and here you get to play with one any time you want! Sounds like the committee used their heads for this one.

      Like you, I can get mired in researching because it is so much fun to learn all that new stuff . . . and it’s also a great procrastination tool when you need one, isn’t it? :-0

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