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How to hire a good editor and avoid the psychopaths in the business

Good for you. You want to keep the quality of your communications and marketing materials high by bringing an editor on. Times are tough. Many editors don’t have work. It should be easy to get a few folks in to interview.

But how do you find a good candidate? You want somebody who quickly learns your business, works well with your people, and makes your materials better, day after day. Is that too much to ask?

Sometimes it would appear so. Many editors will take a bit of time to find out what you’re about, won’t get along well with your other employees, and will make changes in your documents without improving the quality or consistency.

The editing role can bring out the worst in certain people. Some years ago, I worked with an editor who, starting with day two on the job, instructed writers to take certain approaches in their drafts and, at the next draft stage, demanded changes to be made just so. As writers immediately noticed, this editor didn’t really get what the technologies and supporting marketing pieces were meant to help people accomplish and understand. The editor’s approach was abrupt, evidencing a complete lack of social skills. Writers soon found a way to work around this person. Mercifully, after a few weeks managers made a change to restore editorial sanity and returned a previous contractor who knew the technologies well and had friendly relationships with writers.

Your editor candidates don’t need to be saints. But they should be able to demonstrate competence and collegiality.

Elsewhere, I’ve watched editors have highly emotional exchanges regarding their arbitrary preferences for capitalizing or hyphenating certain words. Editors have told me they make changes in my copy because of “pet peeves” or because they have an “aversion” to a certain expression. Maybe tempted by what they think of as power in their positions, some editors seem thrilled when they have a chance to lay down the law. Even James Kilpatrick, who enjoyed huge audiences as an ultra-conservative columnist and one-time racist, felt it was necessary to playfully assemble an imaginary law court to decide the language issues he also wrote about.

You don’t want any of this. Hiring editorial psychopaths can disrupt your marketing team, ruin the quality of your communications, and cost a lot of money. You want your editor to make copy changes because they improve the quality of the language—nothing else.

Do this. When you are serious about a potential editor, ask this person to spend a little time in your office to edit a page or two of draft content (and consider paying them for their time and trouble). Next, have the candidate take a few minutes to talk you through the revisions. If you hear about likes and dislikes or other personal choices, or if the editor gets testy, thank the candidate and move on. Your new editor needs to be able to justify every single change and explain how it improves the copy by strengthening its voice, making it easier to read, aligning it with your style guide, making it grammatically correct, and getting the target audience to enjoy it. What’s more, if you can receive these comments in a professional, even-handed manner, it’s likely that your candidate will also be able to communicate and work well with your writers and subject matter experts.

Of course, you will also do your due diligence and verify that your new editor is familiar with style sheets and contemporary tools of the trade. Do not take this for granted. A surprising number of hopeful editors avoid new editing software tools and will prefer to work as they always have. Reference checks will help in this area, although they won’t turn anything up if a candidate you consider has acted imperially or manifested other editorial pathologies in an earlier position. That’s why you need to have the test first and the talk afterwards.

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