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Aaron Dalton General EAC

Notes on Notes

Editorial Comments
Editorial Comments
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I had occasion recently to teach someone how to write effective editorial comments. It was an interesting exercise as it forced me to articulate principles I had absorbed over many years, some learned from painful experience. Here’s what came to mind:

  1. Know your place.
    My job is to help the author produce the best quality document they can. I am not there to teach (though hopefully education will occur organically). I am not there to grade. I am not there to scold. I am definitely not there to aggrandize myself or show the author up. I am there to add value, to make the document better. In all my communication with an author, I should embody the principles I’m telling them to adopt: be clear, be respectful.
  1. Pick your battles.
    My first pass is pretty merciless. But as the iterations continue, the number of comments should decrease. My basic rule is that I won’t repeat myself. If I feel strongly about a particular passage, or I just don’t feel the author understood me the first time, then I’ll take another stab at it. But after that, I stop nagging. A professional editor should have complete control over their inner perfectionist. It’s not your document. (See principle #1.)
  1. Make concrete suggestions.
    The author should have no question about what you want them to do. Make it as easy as possible for the author to fix the problem. (Again, see principle #1.)

    If the author’s intent is clear to you, then edit the text and leave a comment explaining the change. For example, a comment like “Wordy — please revise” is absolutely unhelpful. Edit the sentence, and if there’s a chance you’ve changed the author’s meaning, then just flag the change: “Tightened the sentence up. Please confirm I have not changed your intended meaning.”

    If the text is ambiguous, then explain why and provide a number of alternative sentences in the comment — for example, “Ambiguous. If you mean X, I recommend something like ‘A,’ but if you mean Y, then I recommend ‘B.’ ”
  1. Avoid humour, sarcasm, and hyperbole.
    Of all the people in the world, we should know best how difficult it can be to convey tone in writing. That’s why we have jobs. So unless you are very confident in your skills or very comfortable in your relationship with the author, don’t try to be cute in your comments. Just don’t. Save that for banter on the phone. The risks are too great.
  1. Avoid jargon.
    Unless your author is an English major, avoid jargon like “subjunctive,” “direct object pronoun,” and “unidiomatic.” Nowhere should we embody the principles of plain language more than in our comments and cover letters. (Also, see principle #1.)
  1. Edit your comments!
    Before returning the document, take the time to review each of your comments. Check for typos and missing words. Evaluate your tone and call to action. If you think you might be overly emotional, have a colleague review your comments for tone.

What principles would you add? Do you have some examples of more and less effective comments? Tell us below.


Previous post from Aaron Dalton: Checklists: Sharing Knowledge

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16 Comments on “Notes on Notes”

  • If you have found yourself making a lot of corrections, it is kind as well as useful to add some praise. A comment like «beautifully written paragraph» will not only remind the author that you are on their side, but also provide an example of writing that works

    • Excellent point. This is something I can certainly do more of, especially in the document itself. Thank you!

  • Gael Spivak


    This is a lovely post, Aaron. Well done.

  • I was going to suggest the same thing as Susan. Aside from that, this list is perfect — exactly what I’ve learned over the years. Thanks, Aaron!

  • Sylvie Collin


    This publication, as well as Susan’s comment, should be mandatory reading in any editing course. Thanks.

  • Anita Jenkins


    I get excited when I see that the Editors’ Weekly article is by Aaron Dalton. Thanks for your excellent contributions.

    Editors can easily lose sight of the fact that the author owns the document. On the other hand, my slogan was, «If you don’t want me to edit it, don’t give it to me» 🙂

    • Thanks for the kind words. Love the slogan 🙂

  • Lori G Burwash


    Great post, Aaron. All things I’ve had to learn the hard way over the years. To Susan’s point, an author who spoke to us at the Banff Editing Workshop (ages ago, obviously), talked about how her editor would make a specific pass to put a smiley face somewhere on every page — and how much that meant to her. It was a good reminder. When we’re in the business of pointing out what’s wrong, what could be better, it’s as important to celebrate what’s a-okay.

    • What a great idea. Definitely something I’m going to incorporate into my workflow!

  • Alana Chalmers


    Another great post Aaron! The only thing I would add, is that I comment differently for new and experienced writers.

    For new writers I spend more time explaining my style changes and pointing them to the relevant section of the style guide. I want them to feel like they haven’t done anything wrong, it just doesn’t fit our style.

    And I agree that adding in positive comments can’t be overlooked! Writing is hard, especially when you’ve been given incomplete or terrible source material. I like to acknowledge that too.

    • Thanks for this! We, too, need to «know our audience.» Nothing wrong with a little education, if it’s wanted.

      Working in house with established style guidelines, I’ve taken to just silently accepting most purely mechanical style edits (serial commas, list punctuation, etc.) just to minimize the amount of red they see. And if there’s still a lot, I try to address that in my cover letter.

  • Lea


    Good suggestions, but I avoid being too short, as it can come off harsh or jarring. Instead of “Ambiguous. If you mean…” I would indicate that readers might find this confusing or that the sentence can be read a couple of ways (and I indicate the two ways), or that I was confused as to the meaning. And then I suggest some rewrites. I make it a conversation and try to avoid being too blunt.

    • Thanks, Lea! Indeed. Each editor, like each author, has a voice. And different authors will respond better or worse to different «bedside manners» (to use Anita’s metaphor). I would say that as long as your comment is clear and concrete, «do you.»

      Personally, when editing, I am very «business,» but I feel looser in my cover letter. That’s where I get a little more personable and verbose.

      • Lori Burwash


        I modify my approach based on the nature of the relationship and the project. For instance, I’ve worked with book authors on their babies, in-house copywriters on other clients’ advertising projects and freelance social media and PR teams producing copy for the project I’m managing — the level and tone of feedback with each can be quite different.

  • Anita Jenkins


    At the same time, the client has to understand that they are under the surgeon’s knife and not dealing with their kindergarten teacher. Again, my slogan: «If you don’t want me to edit, don’t give it to me.»

  • Anita Jenkins


    Also, we can’t take time to explain/discuss every edit – like the doctor with one foot out the door of the consulting room – or we risk earning $5 an hour ( freelance).

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