Principles for writers and editors

This is what I expect from my writing collaborators, and what they can expect from me. Only philistines violate these principles.

  1. No one starts writing without knowing the purpose and audience of the piece.
  2. No one starts writing without a clear idea of the approximate length of the piece.
  3. No one starts writing until everyone agrees on the deadline.
  4. For pieces of longer than 2,000 words, the writer will create a fat outline so the client knows what to expect. The client should approve or provide feedback on the fat outline.
  5. All edits use electronic markup, like Microsoft Word Track Changes or Google Docs Suggesting Mode. Editing without tracking changes is poor manners. Scrawling on printouts is for dinosaurs.
  6. If you edit something, there should be a reason for each edit you suggest. Even better: add that reason into the document as a comment.
  7. Editors have roles. Some verify content accuracy. Others — developmental editors — improve flow and readability. Others — copy editors — catch grammar errors. Do not expect one kind of editor to do the job of a different kind of editor.
  8. All edits on a draft must be submitted by the same agreed-upon deadline. Even better: if there are multiple editors, have them comment on the same file.
  9. The editor’s job is to identify problems. The writer’s job is to fix the problems. Better editors provide solutions as well, but it is still the writer’s job to decide what to do with those suggestions.
  10. Don’t keep writing a document while others are editing. Don’t keep editing after you’ve turned in your edit.
  11. Always criticize prose, not the people who wrote it. Be hard on prose and nice to writers.
  12. Writers must never ignore a substantive comment from an editor. Either address it or explain why you didn’t.
  13. Never use someone else’s writing or ideas without credit.
  14. Links are best practice in any document intended for online publication. Use them.
  15. Agree ahead of time on the serial comma. It’s better to use it and okay to eschew it, but unacceptable to be inconsistent.
  16. In a large document, don’t make major changes late in the editing and publishing process. That’s how errors slip through.
  17. There are a dozen ways to get graphics created, reviewed, and completed. At the start of any writing process that includes graphics, pick one, agree on it, and stick to it.
  18. Don’t use emojis in formal writing. And keep use of exclamation marks to a minimum.
  19. Use italics, rather than underscores or bold, for emphasis.
  20. When naming files, use names that indicate what they are, who touched them last, and what creation date or version number they represent. Avoid generic names like “Chapter 2” or “Marketing plan.” Imagine that someone stumbles across the file out of context: would they know what it was from the filename?
  21. Four drafts are ideal: fat outline, first draft, finished draft, copy edited draft. Unless you’re writing about something that’s changing as you write it, more drafts than that likely means you and your colleagues didn’t design the review process correctly.

These are the rules. If you follow them, we can work together; welcome to the fellowship of the writing community. If you don’t follow them, I want nothing to do with you, and I will tell others to avoid you, too.

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    1. I’d agree, but those are rules for good writing. I wouldn’t quit a project over overuse of emdashes. I would over failure to cite other people’s work properly or continuing to write a chapter while I was editing an earlier draft (if that type of behavior became chronic).

  1. This is really good Josh, thanks a lot.
    Very much agree with #20 –I strongly agree to action titles.
    Not sure about #19 as I quite like to be bold –and use bold. Maybe because I am getting bauld.
    On #7, trouble is that you can’t always have that many editors but I really believe in a proofreader which should be distinct from the editor.