Minimalist Editing: What It Isn’t

Yesterday, I talked about what minimalist editing is.

Today, I want to talk about what it isn’t.

Minimalist editing isn’t change for change’s sake. If I make an adjustment, a revision, or a suggestion, there has to be a reason—and a compelling one at that. Text should never be changed simply because I don’t agree with an opinion or would personally state something differently. And it certainly should never be changed because I believe I know better (or more) than the author.

This approach isn’t lazy, and it isn’t indifferent. On the contrary, I work hard for and care deeply about the projects I edit. By asking myself if a change is necessary, I’m forced to remember the two most important aspects of the edit: the author and the reader. What is the author trying to accomplish, and how can I (as an editor) help the reader understand that message?

George R. R. Martin wrote:

Yes, there are a lot of ways for editors to go wrong. Fortunately, a surprising number of them go right. It never ceases to amaze me. What is a good editor like? A good editor offers you decent advances, and goes to bat with his publisher to make sure your book gets promoted, and returns your phone calls, and answers your letters. A good editor does work with his writers on their books. But only if the books need work. A good editor tries to figure out what the writer was trying to do, and helps him or her do it better, rather than trying to change the book into something else entirely. A good editor doesn’t insist, or make changes without permission. Ultimately a writer lives or dies by his words, and he must always have the last word if his work is to retain its integrity.


Let us all hope to be “good editors,” minimalist or not.

Minimalist Editing: What It Is

As I wrote in yesterday’s post, I’ve adopted a minimalist approach to editing. But what does that actually look like?

Assuming an author asks for a standard edit, these are the corrections I will make per the rules set forth in both Merriam-Webster and the Chicago Manual of Style:

  1. misspellings
  2. commonly confused words
  3. punctuation (including quotation marks, dashes, ellipses, brackets, etc.)
  4. tenses
  5. titles (i.e., “Foreword,” “Contents,” etc.)
  6. fonts (for consistency)
  7. footnotes, endnotes, and in-text citations (but only for consistency)


For everything else, when I have questions, I query:

  1. awkward transitions (if this is manuscript-wide, I’ll query once for the entire text)
  2. redundancies
  3. inconsistencies (including point of view)
  4. quotes (I always research to make sure the quote is correct; if it isn’t, I query)
  5. source names and titles (if I can find the source, I always check it against the text)
  6. potential libel, defamation, and slander
  7. potential copyright infringement
  8. potential racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.
  9. anything that seems out of place (for example, if an idea sounds familiar but isn’t cited, I’ll research, then query if citation is needed)


Again, these are for a standard edit. Critiques, developmental edits, and the like differ depending upon what the client asks for.

No matter what, all editing follows the rule of “First, do no harm.”

Minimalism in Editing.

I’ve been working on embracing minimalism just a bit for the past few years—a kind of sideways hug you might give a gregarious relative who wants to pull you into their orbit even though you aren’t really sure you belong there.

Then, when 2016 turned into 2017, I started bear hugging minimalism, going room by room, closet by closet, shirt by shirt, boxing up every single thing I knew we didn’t need and finding new homes for it all. It has been an amazing experience—freeing, restorative—and the gratitude I feel sometimes overwhelms me: not for the things I have but for the people I’m surrounded by and for how my life is falling together.

In the past months, and in the same vein, I’ve become very interested in what Carol Fisher Saller has to say about editing, namely to leave well enough the heck alone. In the past, especially as a new editor, I wanted to show people how intelligent I was. I was desperate to prove I deserved the title of editor, and because of that, I was heavy-handed at times, changing text because I knew better.


Today, I really know better, and I know that editing isn’t about change. It’s about helping.


The job of an editor is to help writers present ideas in the most clear, concise, and reader-friendly ways possible.


You read that right: In its purest form, editing is about the reader. Will the reader understand? Appreciate? Enjoy? And of course, keep reading? These are what matter most.

So yes, editors use a dictionary as a standard for the correct spelling of words. We also use a style guide as a standard for trickier things like citation format, placement of commas, and correct punctuation.

Standards are important in this context because they help keep the details the same across the board, bringing clarity and comprehension.

But the truth is that sometimes there are no rules for a situation. Sometimes, editors have to make their own decisions. And when that happens, it’s critically important to remember the reader.

Good editors research. We comment. We query. Constructive criticism goes a long way to not only getting our message across but also keeping authors in the driver’s seat—where they belong.

What editors don’t do is highlight whole sentences, hit “delete,” then reword. We don’t play God …

Which brings us back to minimalism. It isn’t just a hip new way of getting rid of the clutter in your house; it’s also a way to approach your life. And yes, it can even be used in editing.

Repeat after me: “First, do no harm.”

Going Analog.

This weekend I was inspired to continue with the idea of less by three things: this article, this website, and a conversation with my boss, who doesn’t own a smartphone and yet somehow manages to still, well, manage.

After spending the weekend boxing up even more things I don’t need, last night I finally deactivated my Twitter account (I haven’t been on Facebook for years). This morning, I ordered hard copies of Merriam-Webster’s dictionary and thesaurus: the two most important tools of my trade (after CMS).

The goal is simple: to stay offline as much as humanly possible.

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