Five Lessons I’ve Learned in Five Years as an Editor

“Do you have any tips to share about being an editor? Any books to read or things you wish you knew when you started?”

A friend and fellow writer recently sent me these questions. It’s not the first time I’ve been asked about how someone can develop an editorial eye and make strides in this elusive, but important skill-set. I figure some of you might have similar questions, so here’s my attempt at an answer!

Let me preface by saying two things:

I didn’t study writing or English in college. What you’ll find in this article, then, isn’t lessons from a classroom, but those learned through work-related experience and diving in headfirst. I don’t pretend to have a refined knowledge of all-things-grammar and technical aspects of writing, nor do I have all the answers! These are simply reflections.

I’m writing this also for writers. Good writers are skilled self-editors, and good writers keep their editors in mind as they write. It’s a beautiful gift when a writer submits an article to Unlocking the Bible, and it’s mostly done. Growth in the skill of self-editing will greatly bless the editor who receives your submission!

Without further ado:

Lesson #1: Editing isn’t taught, it’s caught.

I can’t take credit for this brilliant statement. My co-worker and editor extraordinaire, Tim Augustyn, first said it. I was training my first co-editor and asked Tim for advice. He said, “Editing isn’t taught––it’s caught.”

By this, I don’t think Tim meant there’s no possibility of learning the editorial skill-set through books or courses; rather, we learn best by watching, analyzing, and doing. Just as an apprentice would learn by studying his master as he worked, so we learn editing in a similar way:

  • When we’re reading great books, we observe and analyze voicing, word choice, argument-flow, and the rhythm of sentences.  
  • When we’re being edited, we study what our editor is doing and learn from their suggestions and decisions, and even by the way they communicate.
  • When a writer reasonably pushes back on our work, we’re learning how to become better editors.

Lesson #2: Pick your battles wisely.

This one reminds me of parenting, but it’s just as true for editing: Prioritize the non-negotiable standards for what you publish, and hold most firmly to those. If you don’t––if you hold every little nit-picky thing to the same level of importance––you’ll exasperate the writer. Our goal as editors isn’t to discourage and frustrate; it’s to build up and help writers succeed and grow. So pick and choose your battles wisely.

Lesson #3: Steward the writer’s voice.

Imagine you’re going to bake a chocolate cake, and you give the recipe to a friend to make sure it’s good before you start. Your friend scribbles all over the recipe card. Rather than suggest that you cut back on some cocoa, add a pinch of salt, and take less time in the oven, she writes down a recipe for pie.

That’s a completely different recipe!

In submitting their work, a writer is entrusting to you their words, ideas, style, voice, experiences, opinions, and arguments––and you want to keep their trust by handling their writing with care. If we aren’t careful, our editing can cross a fine-line and become rewriting.

You are a keeper and guardian of writers’ voices. Your job is to improve, clarify, and strengthen the writing, not morph it into something else. I’ve made this mistake many times––and praise God there’s grace for that!

Lesson #4: Act as a gatekeeper.

As an editor, you (and perhaps your team) make decisions about what content you’ll accept and what you’ll decline, in accordance with your mission, values, and editorial guidelines. You are a gatekeeper, and you don’t need to apologize for this. You’re not obligated to publish everything you receive!

For some time, I struggled with this, always second-guessing my decisions. But one day, our pastor reminded me of my task as “gatekeeper of content,” and it was incredibly encouraging. So don’t compromise. Call writers to a high standard, and stick to it.

Lesson #5: Invest in your writers.

I don’t know the type of editorial work you’re doing, whether you get hundreds of submissions a day or just a few; so this lesson will apply differently to each editor. But one of my favorite aspects of editorial work was partnering with and investing in writers.

How will writers improve if you don’t push them? How will the next generation be effective in ministry if no one takes the time to help them grow? The most helpful editorial feedback I’ve gotten as a writer––whether in a declined submission or an edited one––was rooted in teaching that builds up. These editors encouraged me by taking the time to unveil weak spots and identify opportunities. One of them even got on the phone with me once to discuss an article. Wow.

At Unlocking the Bible, we’ve offered writing workshops and round-tables, monthly resource emails to promote growth, and online and in-person meet-ups. How might you invest in your writers so they continue to develop?

A Final Exhortation

And finally, a note to all my fellow writers and editors of biblical non-fiction writing: Guard the good deposit entrusted to you, and seek to proclaim the excellencies of Jesus in all you publish. This is a high calling and a wonderful privilege.

Want to submit to Unlocking the Bible? Email the editorial team with your idea: dwetherell@unlockingthebible.org.

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