a man with binoculars

Photo by Alessandro Vallainc on Unsplash

The Craft of Editing

The Editorial Mindset

How can I describe to you what an editor’s mind is doing while they ply their craft?

S. David Grover

30 March 2022 | 12-minute read

If you’ve ever done any editing or proofreading, you already know that the experience is, cognitively speaking, quite different from just reading. But how exactly is it different? And how can one deliberately cultivate such an "editorial mindset" in order to get better at editing?

That's exactly what this article seeks to do, first by offering various metaphors to describe the mindset and then by laying out a set of tips for getting there yourself.

A Metaphor

To get at the basics of the editorial mindset, let me start by making a metaphor:

Editing is a lot like birdwatching.°

I’m sure you're familiar with the basic idea of birdwatching, but I don't want to make assumptions, so just to be clear: Birdwatching is when you go out in nature and look at birds. You spot them with your eyes or a pair of binoculars, and you try to identify the species you see.

a red-bellied woodpecker

Whoa, you've already found and identified a red-bellied woodpecker?! You're a natural!

Photo by Mark Olsen on Unsplash

Now, let’s tease out this analogy bit by bit and see what it can teach us.

Birdwatching Is Not a Walk in the Park

Birdwatching is different from just walking in the park in that it requires a lot more focus to do well. To take a walk through a park is, for most people, a largely unconscious effort.° Assuming an even, level path, you likely don’t need to pay nearly any attention at all to your feet or even your direction; your body just naturally follows the path you’re on until it reaches a fork or a dead end. It’s not uncommon to suddenly come to your senses and realize you have walked much farther than you intended—your feet just took you there.

With birdwatching, the whole point is to remain conscious of your surroundings and actions at all times, to be as deliberate and perceptive as possible. You actively work against the tendency to just take in the scenery as an undifferentiated whole because you are looking for one tiny, often well-camouflaged part of that whole: a bird.

What Does This Mean for Editing?

Walking in the park is like normal reading: the act itself is often largely unconscious. Once you’re into the story, you don’t pay attention to the page at all but instead allow pictures to fill your mind and consciousness, like you’re inside the story. Only when you encounter a distraction—the end of a chapter, say, or your phone ringing—do the words reappear and does time seem to begin ticking by again.

Editing, on the other hand, is as deliberate as birdwatching. Just as a birdwatcher scans the trees for tiny bursts of movement and color, an editor searches among lines of text for errant commas and dangling modifiers. The point is to remain constantly vigilant, to consider and question each word, phrase, clause, paragraph, page, and punctuation mark in order to correct or improve them.

Birdwatchers Work Within Their Limits

The first time my wife and I ever went birdwatching, we were way out of our depth. Allow me to quote from an essay I wrote on the experience:

I’d watch the bushes, but then wonder if I should be looking at the trees, and if so, how high? Every shadow, every twist of branch, every curling leaf suddenly looked like a potential sighting. There was so much to focus on that I couldn’t really focus at all; every few seconds I would find myself looking through the trees into that vague middle distance.

Then I’d realize I’d been hearing chirps and tweets but had been concentrating so hard on seeing that I’d neglected to hear properly—I honestly couldn’t tell whether the sounds had been made by birds or by bike wheels or by the cooing couples and very fat ducks. The sounds would be hanging there in my memory of the last few seconds, but when I replayed them looking for birds, I couldn’t even be sure I’d heard squeaks at all; it could’ve just been the general static of my cluttered mind. I’d resolve then to listen more actively, to catch any birdsong in the moment instead of after the fact.

But in a minute I’d realize that in listening so closely, I’d forgotten to look around—try as I might, I couldn’t seem to do both at once. I was a baby again, concentrating hard on clapping my hands but succeeding only in wiggling my toes.

As I discovered, maintaining a continuous state of hyperawareness—of the foreground, middle ground, and distant horizon; of the grass, bushes, boughs, and skies; of both movement and stillness; of color, shape, and sound—is quite difficult. In fact, it’s impossible.

What Does This Mean for Editing?

My experience with editing was almost exactly the same. When I scored my first job as an editor, I had no real experience, just a good instinct for clear, correct writing. When I sat in the office with my first manuscript to review—a scholarly article for publication in an academic journal—I tried to do everything at once, all in one read. Grammar, punctuation, fact-checking, source documentation, organization: I tried to fix them all in one go and ended up, predictably, doing a bad job and feeling like an imposter at my job.

With both birdwatching and editing, one has to work within their limits while also working to expand those limits (more on that below).

Wide Focus, Tight Focus

Birders split their attention between the big picture (scanning the entire landscape in search of sound and movement) and the little one (tracking along a branch with one’s binoculars to spot an individual bird). They even go tighter than that, zeroing in to distinguish the colors and patterns of feathers on different parts of a bird’s body in order to make a positive identification. As a birder develops their talents, they learn exactly when to use a wider or narrower focus to maximize their chances of seeing interesting things.

a cardinal

Forget editing—Grover's English is now a birding blog.

Photo by Timothy Dykes on Unsplash

What Does This Mean for Editing?

This strategic shifting of focus is very like an editor’s use of the levels of edit to direct their attention appropriately given the text in front of them. It wouldn’t do to concentrate for an hour on the punctuation in a paragraph that is likely to later be cut from a disorganized essay, for example, so an experienced editor knows that the first step when encountering a new text is usually to get the lay of the land with a quick read of the entire thing. Scanning the horizon, they can then prioritize the work so as to focus first on the most urgent or impactful changes before pulling out the binoculars and considering the commas, as it were.

More Specific Metaphors

The birdwatching metaphor was useful, but I still haven’t nailed down that exact feeling I have when I’m editing, the specific set of neurons that seem to activate when I’m in editing mode. Here are some other metaphors, this time about specific levels of edit, to get us closer.

Substantive editing, when I’m reading the entirety of a piece to figure out if it needs restructuring, feels to me like planning out where all the furniture will go when I’m moving to a new house. The top of my head opens up, and all the future rooms hang in the air above me as I place and replace, one by one, all the furniture I have and all the furniture I might potentially buy. Nothing is ever set in stone; instead, the entire exercise is one of possibilities, a mental chess game of trying out a move and thinking through all of its consequences.

Copyediting, when I'm going line by line to improve clarity and consistency, feels like having lunch with an old friend who is in the middle of telling me a juicy story. I’m super into the story, but I don’t actually know all the people in it or much of the context since our lives have diverged over the years, so I’m constantly interrupting to clarify, like “Wait, is Dan the guy that she dumped or the guy she started dating right after?” and “But I thought you always super liked Taylor Swift—what happened to change your mind and how did that lead to Dan ghosting you on Facebook?”

Proofreading, when I'm looking for the last tiny errors hiding in a document, feels like I'm waiting for my opponent to serve the ball in a game of ping pong when they are one point from winning, that ever-ready mental and physical stance that is ready for anything and determined to react quickly and accurately.

Tips for Developing an Editorial Mindset

When you first start out editing, it can be pretty overwhelming. As I said above, I felt like an imposter at my first editing gig because I tried to do everything at once in a state of hyperfocus that was unsustainable. I thought that's what editors did, and when it proved impossible for me to do, I assumed I just didn't have what it takes to be an editor.

I was lucky to have a boss who mentored me, who showed me that editing isn't a talent that some are born with—it's a skillset that can be developed. Of course a big part of that skillset is learning the rules of punctuation and spelling, but another is developing your editorial mindset, that cognitive gear you switch into when you begin examining a text.

Here are some tips to help you on the way.

Tip #1: Switch Tasks Often

Good editors know their limits and work within them. For example, I know from experience (and from tracking my hours so I could bill clients) that I can only proofread effectively for a limited time before I am unable to maintain that ping pong championship-level of focus—I know I’m done when I find myself daydreaming.

The proper response to reaching the end of your attention span not to get down on yourself for how short it is; it’s to switch tasks to something less energy-intensive.

Back at my first editing job, I would proofread until I couldn’t do it anymore, then switch to an easy task like checking quotes against the originals or confirming sources were accurately cited. When that busy work got boring, I would switch again to a copyediting task that employed the part of my brain concerned with clarity and conciseness, and when that part got tired, I’d move back to proofreading.

And when none of those tasks seemed possible, I didn’t fret. Instead, I clocked out and walked to the university bookstore across campus to pick up some chocolate-covered cinnamon bears for my coworkers. The sunshine and sugar did wonders for restoring my focus.

blue kingfisher

I know we're done with the birdwatching metaphor, but just look at this incredible blue kingfisher.

Photo by Boris Smokrovic on Unsplash

Tip #2: One Thing at a Time

The levels of edit concept is nice and all, but in practice, I find it isn’t enough for me. See, it’s one thing to know I’m going to proofread a document—that tells me where my focus is generally going to be—but there are still so many things to focus on within the umbrella of proofreading. Sure, there’s examining the main text to eliminate errors, but also there might be:

As an early editor, I was tempted to try to do all these discrete tasks at once, catching all the problems while making one proofreading pass through a document. But this proved problematic. I would realize that I’d spent the last ten minutes focusing only on proofreading the main text, having forgotten to notice and consider the call-outs, and now I didn’t know how far back I needed to go to find any call-outs I missed.

The solution? Focus on one thing at a time whenever possible. Instead of one super-pass for proofreading, I make half a dozen or more tiny passes, looking for only one thing each time and thus ensuring I don’t accidentally miss that Table 4.4 comes before Table 4.3.°

Above I said you shouldn't bemoan the limit of your attention span, and that's true for the limit of your focus as well. Don't regret your limits—work strategically within them.

Tip #3: Empty Your Mind, Repeatedly If Necessary

You can imagine me sitting there, proofreading, scanning a document specifically looking for exactly one type of error:

Okay, the style sheet says that "The" should be capitalized when it's part of ”The School of Business." The, the, the, the…looking for the "the."

This single-problem approach works well, but my meditative state can easily be shattered by the appearance of any random thought out of the blue. And since editing is generally a quiet, solitary, meditative experience, it creates a prime environment for random thoughts to appear.

For me, the most common random thoughts are, “Oh, don’t forget to pick up some milk on the way home from work!” or “Don’t forget to call the doctor to make an appointment for a check-up!” or “I wonder what’s going to happen this week on NBC’s hit drama This Is Us?” As soon as one of these thoughts appears, I forget what I was scanning for. Or, if I try to focus again on the issue I'm scanning for, some small percentage of my brain continues to be worried that I’ll forget to remember not to forget to pick up milk later.

It’s the tyranny of anxiety.

My solution? I empty out my brain whenever such stray thoughts occur to me. In other words, I always have a sticky note or something handy, and when I remember that I need to pick up milk, instead of devoting precious mental bandwidth to remembering and more bandwidth to worrying about forgetting to remember, I just write down the thought, effectively exporting it from my mind and erasing the need to worry about forgetting, since now it’s written down.

I do this with errands and daydreams, but I also do it with editing tasks. For example, if I’m checking headings but I suddenly notice that an image’s caption is indented, and now I’m going to need to check all the image captions for consistency, I don’t let that new task distract me from the current one. I write it down to do on a future proofreading pass, and that’s that.

waxwings eating

My favorite birds are waxwings, known for their cooperative nature. Feel free to see this as another metaphor for editing (I just like the way they look).

Photo by Gary Bendig on Unsplash

Tip #4: Trust Your Instincts

To the outsider or the beginner, so much of editing seems to be about enforcing one’s boundless knowledge of the rules of grammar and punctuation. And while that may be true for some types or levels of editing, lots of editing is more intangible and is more about the feeling of words and sentences.

For example, with copyediting, a big concern is improving clarity. It’s not about making the words correct but making the meaning clear, about preventing misreading if possible. So how do you know what to do if it’s not about right versus wrong but is instead about good versus better? How do you read a sentence that is technically not breaking any rules and know whether it needs changing?

My advice here is to trust your gut. If you’re practicing the editorial mindset and remaining acutely aware as you read—watching for birds instead of just walking through the park—you should notice when some part of you resists a sentence you just read. Something will feel off about it, signaling to you to stop and reread, to consider how a reader might encounter the sentence, how it might be misread.

The more you practice listening to the soft tug of your editorial conscience, the easier it will be to feel it and the more you’ll develop your confidence as an editor.°

Tip #5: Don’t Overdo It

Above, I noted the danger of losing focus and dropping from a high-energy activity (editing/birdwatching) into its easier counterpart (reading/walking).

But a danger exists on the other side of the equation as well. Just as it’s easy to lose focus, it’s also easy to be overzealous when editing, to be so vigilant in improving the text that you slip out of editing and into rewriting, usurping the author’s place.

An editor is not a ghostwriter. Not only is it presumptuous to over-edit to the point of rewriting a piece, but it wastes your employer's time and money.


Ultimately, you'll find out for yourself what your brain feels like when you're in that editing mode and how it is different from reading mode. And probably, like me, you'll struggle to find words to describe it to anyone else, and you'll come up with your own analogies to try to make it make sense.

Until then, however, I hope my metaphors and tips help smooth the way just a little bit.


"Owls about we go get started editing?"°

Photo by Richard Lee on Unsplash

Happy editing!

David Grover is the cofounder of Grover's English and a professor of English at Park University. He earned his doctorate in Technical Communication and Rhetoric from Texas Tech University in 2017.

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